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What is the greatest line in all of sitcom history? Here’s one I’d like to see in the top ten. It’s the Twelve Angry Men episode of Hancock’s Half Hour in which our hapless hero attempts spin out a legal case by a moving speech when locked in a room with a jury:
“Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you?” Hancock cries. “Did she die in vain?”Galton & Simpson, Hancock’s Half Hour, 16 October 1959
For the joke to work, you need to know that Magna Carta is a document, not a person. Hancock, unperturbed by his own ignorance, goes on to explains who ‘she’ is: “A brave Hungarian peasant girl who forced King John to sign the pledge at Runnymede and close the boozers at half past ten!”
I realise there are few things less funny than someone explaining a joke, but that’s often my job. I’m a BBC Sitcom writer and script editor. I’ve also been spending a lot of time on joke mechanics and how they go wrong, especially in the realm of religion in a new book called The Sacred Art of Joking.
Alongside writing that book, I’ve been reading history books researching my new play about another famous but only half-remembered significant event in history: the murder of Thomas Becket. Some might hazily remember the King shouting ‘Who will rid me of this Turbulent Priest?’ (also cried by Brian Blessed in the first series of Blackadder (right)) You might recall this utterance leads to four nearby knights deciding to do the decent thing and murder Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral by cutting off the top of his head. But what does this event mean? Who is Thomas Becket? Did he die in vain?
As one learns more details of the story it becomes every more fascinating, not least because it’s one instalment of the great story of Church versus State. They often say history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. In fact, history repeats itself again and again. In a few hundred years, another King Henry would want to exercise supreme control over the Church and again a Thomas refuses. That time, it was King Henry VIII removing Thomas More’s head who, in turn, was canonised by the Church, albeit it in 1935. King Henry VIII then turned to erase the memory of Thomas Becket who had been canonised almost immediately. St Thomas of Canterbury was the epitome of the Church standing up to the King, and taking orders from Rome.
In Canterbury Cathedral, Becket was the prime attraction. He was Patron Saint of England in all but name. Pilgrims walked hundred of miles to pay their respects and their money for Indulgences (a reduction in their time in Purgatory). One of the most famous books in the English language, The Canterbury Tales, is about a bunch of pilgrims on their way to do just that. St Thomas was box office. Henry VIII had to scratch him out of history.
But he didn’t. He couldn’t. He did his best though. We don’t really know what Thomas looked like. Few images survive. The desecration of the tomb and the destruction of the cult is still sorely felt. Listen to the audio guide if you ever visit the cathedral. They are not over it. It’s understandable.
Now, the Reformed Protestant in me wants to agree that the veneration of saints is profoundly unbiblical. Isn’t it good that people were prevented from worshipping stone statues and the bones of dead men, rather than offering their prayers to Jesus Christ? Did Christ himself not upset tables and chase away money changers from the house of God?
The Appeal of Thomas Becket
I suspect I’m not alone among English Evangelicals in thinking like this. We tend to start our church history in the 1520s with Cranmer and Tyndale. Anything that predates the break with Rome, or the placing of English Bibles in Churches, is viewed with intense suspicion. So what value can there be in studying the life of a 12thCentury Archbishop of Canterbury who had to be made a priest the day before he was consecrated as Archbishop? Can we learn anything from a man clearly parachuted into the job?
Granted, Becket was no theologian, although he learnt fast on the job. But he was no great mind like Anselm. He was also pretty hopeless at Latin. When he had to give a speech to the Pope at the Council of Tours proposing the beatification of Anselm, he had to do so in Latin and it was a little bit embarrassing, by all accounts.
Becket’s legacy is not theological. It is personal. It is incarnational. Perhaps that’s why he became such a popular figure. Back then, as now, no-one can be bothered to read even the few thousand words that comprise Magna Carta. We don’t want to grapple with the concepts of kingship and governance. But we can get our heads around an act of heroism.
Acts Speak Louder Than Words
All Christians should know that actions speak louder than words, books and doctrinal statements. And that faith without deeds is dead. When the end came for Becket, he didn’t run and hide. He refused to close the Cathedrals doors to keep out the armed knights. He went to Vespers and stood his ground. And he paid the price.
Was he naïve? Did he deserve his fate? Could he not just admit that he was wrong? Did he have a Messianic complex? Did he just want to go down in history? All excellent questions. And you can only find out the answers if you engage with the story. I hope that my new show, A Turbulent Priest, a comedy (with songs by James Sherwood) helps you do to that.
A Turbulent Priest is on at The Mayfield Fringe on May 9, The Brighton Fringe on May 10/11th and touring the UK in Sept-Nov 2019. It is also available to be booked for your church. Contact James Cary here.
One of my favourite movies of all time is Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Perhaps it’s because it was 1989 and I was 14. I’ve always loved Harrison Ford’s lone hero persona. Everything is up to him. If he doesn’t get it done, it won’t get done. This is encapsulated at the start of TheLast Crusadewhen the young Indy is separated from his troupe of scouts. He is all alone and concludes “Everybody’s lost but me.”
When Indy grows up, he has enemies: Nazis. When he sees them for them for the first time in The Last Crusade busying themselves pushing counters around maps with long poles, like they do in movies, Indy mutters to himself, “Nazis. I hate these guys.”
Nazis are the action movie’s greatest friend. They have fantastic, distinctive uniforms, some of which even have a skull and crossbones on them. (See the brilliant Mitchell and Webb sketch on this) They are fanatically devoted to their cause, and their Fuhrer. And they have really good, well-engineered kit. The most important thing is this: Your hero can kill as many of them as you like and still be a goodie. You would have to go a long way to invent better baddies than Nazis.
That Belongs In A Museum
Of course, at the time, Indiana Jones could not have known what the Nazis would be capable of. The first three films are set before the Second World War and so his actions against German soldiers are not entirely justified. The worst thing about the Nazis to Indy is that they were terrible archaeologists, plundering relics that ‘belong in a museum’ in a vain attempt to co-opt the power of God, in whom Indy scarcely believes in. But we take what we know now and superimpose it on the Nazis of the 1930s and cinematically, all is well.
That is significant. We don’t watch films rationally. We watch them emotionally. This is why common sense, assuming humanity possess such a thing, and cool-headedness are thrown out of the window when we get YouTube videos like the one made by Count Dankula. So what did he do?
A Dog Called Buddha
Count Dankula, the avatar of Mark Meechan from Lanarkshire in Scotland, decided to annoy his girlfriend by making a video about his girlfriend’s sweet little pug dog called Buddha. What’s the most offensive, least cute thing a pug dog called Buddha can do? A Nazi salute whenever someone says ‘Seig Heil’. So that’s what he did. He trained her dog to do that. He made a three-minute video of the fruits of his labour and put it on YouTube in 2016.
Now, we have to be very careful here and use speech precisely lest we merely respond emotionally. That will not suffice in a court of law, since that is where Meechan ended up. He was arrested for the video in 2017, appeared at Airdrie Sheriff Court to defend himself against the charge of perpetrating a hate crime under the Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003. We’re not going to discuss here whether that is or is not at a good law. Adam Wagner makes a case here that it is dangerously vague and unnecessary law.
But what had Meechan/Dankula done? One could argue that he had only done what Steven Spielberg and hundreds of other movie directors have done. He co-opted Nazism for its extremity of wickedness in order to make a piece of entertainment. Spielberg grabbed the Nazis to make a movie about an archaeological hero. Dankula grabbed the Nazis to make a sick joke at the expense of the girlfriend and her dog, Buddha.
Indy Meets The Fuhrer
One could argue – and I’m not sure I would – that Spielberg is being a little disingenuous. In The Last Crusade, Indiana Jones finds himself a Nazi rally in which books are being burned. He himself is disguised a German soldier and is holding a book which will reveal the key secrets about the Holy Grail. There is a surge from the crowd and Jones is buffeted along until he ends up being face to face with Adolf Hitler himself. They both look at book in Indiana’s hand. Everything stops. Hitler holds out a hand and a flunky hands him a pencil. Hitler signs his autograph in the book and moves on.
If one was being obtuse, one could argue that this is making light of the most evil man of the 20thcentury. It’s not in the same category of the long-forgotten short-lived sitcom Heil Honey, I’m Home, commissioned by BSB in 1990 (before it merged with Sky) in which Adolph Hitler and his wife Eva live next door to the Goldensteins, who are obviously a Jewish couple. Again, the joke there was not really about Nazism. There was a caption card at the beginning explaining that Heil Honey I’m Home!was a long-lost US sitcom recently re-discovered in some archives in Burbank, California. The joke is that in the 1950s and 60s, the Americans were used to turning any domestic situation into a sitcom. Again, Hitler was used to create the worst possible domestic sitcom imaginable. The show was cancelled after one episode. Artistically this might have been a mercy since the ideas sounds more like a three minute sketch than six half-hour episodes when the joke might run a little thin.
The makers of Heil Honey I’m Homemight have been mystified that they were cut so short given the lengthy career of Mel Brooks, who portrayed Hitler himself many times and wrote numerous sketches about him, such as Hitler on Ice, from the movie History of the World Part 1. His biggest hit, however, must surely be The Producers, originally a film from 1967 starring Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder. It was remade as stage musical in 2001, starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, winning 12 Tony Awards. This musical was in turn shot as a new movie in 2005.
But what is the premise of the story? Thanks to a timid accountant, a dishonest, washed-up Broadway producer realises he can make more money with flop than that closes on the first night than he can with a hit. Therefore, he needs a show that will have to close immediately. They trawl though script after script before they find the perfect show called Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp with Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgaden. The producer says that it’s virtually “a love letter to Hitler”. The play is written by deranged ex-Nazi Franz Liebkind. The play is given to the campest and worst director on Broadway, Roger De Bris, and it is rehearsed and presented to an audience who are initially opened mouthed. A few storm out saying it’s in bad taste. This is, of course, true. It is. But the remaining audience see the outlandish portrayal of Hitler and mistake it for a satire, finding it hilariously funny. The show is smash hit – and financial catastrophe for the producers who go to jail for fraud.
In short, the movies and musical of The Producers, Mel Brooks shows a character using Nazism as a convenient shorthand for something offensive that is guaranteed to produce a negative reaction. In his video, Count Dankula did essentially the same thing, except he was arrested, tried and prosecuted for a hate crime. Brooks won 12 Tony Awards. In one awards speech he publicly thanked Hitler. Even Dankula could not expect to get away with that. Why is that?
Who is Who
The joke is only part of the story. There is a wider context here which includes the identity of the joker. One cannot help but notice that Mel Brooks is at least two things that Dankula is not. Firstly, Brooks is a highly respected comedian with a long career and proven track record in comedy. Not only is The Producerson his CV, but also The Young Frankenstein, Space Balls, History of the World Part 1and Blazing Saddles (but let’s not get into that last one right now). Before that he was a writer for numerous hit TV shows.
Mel Brooks is a comedy institution. Dankula is not in that class and does not claim to be. On his Twitter profile, he describes himself as a “Professional Shitposter.” This seems a fair description. He’s some kind of internet contrarian who pushes the limits of free speech and says anti-social things purely because he can.
With Friends Like These
Moreover, some people who rushed to his defence did are not held in high regard in polite company. High profile comedians like Ricky Gervais and David Baddiel were vocal in their criticism of the court’s decision, but it there more visual support from Tommy Robinson, formerly of the controversial English Defence League. He was always going to create certain associations in the minds of those looking at Dankula’s case. Regardless of the law and his credible supporters, Dankula was never going to look good in the media or in court.
The second pertinent different between Dankula and Brooks is that the latter is Jewish. Should that matter? Maybe it shouldn’t, but it does. It matters because when Brooks portrays camp goose-stepping Nazis and comic versions of Hitler, it is not credible to say that he is secretly in sympathy with the Jew-murdering fascists. Some may find Brooks’ comedy to be in poor taste, as some friends of mine did when they went to see the Producers, partly on my recommendation. But they did not come away feeling they had been to a covert Nazi rally or recruitment drive.
An Odiuous Criminal Act
The prosecutors of Dankula, who is not Jewish, were able to suggest that perhaps Dankula’s video was “an odious criminal act that was dressed up to look like a joke.” His motives were mixed, they argued, or could credibly be construed as such. Therefore, he must be found guilty. The judge agreed. I do not.
The joke was misjudged, and abhorrent. If you watch the video, you see that Dankula is continually referring to what Nazis did to Jews in death camps. That’s really dark. Technically, it works as a joke, given the incongruity with the pug dog called Buddha. But it’s not a joke I would do. But that doesn’t mean that he should not have done it. I do think less of him for having done so.
I would have no problem with YouTube, as the host of the video, taking it down since they are a private company (although they are often unclear on their rules and apply them inconsistently). I do think the Communication Act of 2003 is a bad law that will already be having a chilling effect on free speech. I can testify to that as I’m wording this article extremely carefully. Many have applauded the prosecution of this nasty contrarian, but may yet live to see this law enacted against people they like and respect. That is a discussion for another time.
But the comedy writer in me would argue that in essence, all Dankula has done is the well-worn comedy trick of grabbing the Nazi trope that many have done before him and will continue to do in the future. Should that be a crime?
A longer version of this article will appear in my forthcoming book about how comedy goes wrong, especially in the realm of religion. To be kept informed about that, please sign up for my mailing list below. While we’re thinking about inappropriate comedy, consider buying A Monk’s Tale, an hilarious take on the Martin Luther and his Ninety Five These. You can also listen to me actual voice on my regular podcast with Barry Cooper on Cooper and Cary Have Words.