Every now and then, somebody in the public eye will genuinely surprise me. I think Frankie Boyle is excellent at writing jokes, but I generally find the jokes he writes to be mean-spirited and empty, relying on an “omg did he go there?” reaction from the audience for much of their effect. The recent controversy about his jokes about people with Down’s Syndrome is a case in point. I don’t know what he said, but what the hell kind of target is that? As fellow Scottish comedian Craig Ferguson once said “Comedy should be about attacking the powerful… it shouldn’t be about attacking the vulnerable.” Craig Ferguson was right.
But two years ago Boyle told a couple of jokes about Palestine on a BBC Radio 4 satire show. Jokes which the BBC have just apologised for. And below is Frankie Boyle’s response. I just read it and I think it’s the best thing he’s ever written (yes, even better than his “the Queen’s pussy is haunted” joke!).
Obviously, it feels strange to be on the moral high ground but I feel a response is required to the BBC Trust’s cowardly rebuke of my jokes about Palestine.
As always, I heard nothing from the BBC but read in a newspaper that editorial procedures would be tightened further to stop jokes with anything at all to say getting past the censors.
In case you missed it, the jokes in question are: ‘I’ve been studying Israeli Army Martial Arts. I now know 16 ways to kick a Palestinian woman in the back. People think that the Middle East is very complex but I have an analogy that sums it up quite well. If you imagine that Palestine is a big cake, well…that cake is being punched to pieces by a very angry Jew.’
I think the problem here is that the show’s producers will have thought that Israel, an aggressive, terrorist state with a nuclear arsenal was an appropriate target for satire. The Trust’s ruling is essentially a note from their line managers. It says that if you imagine that a state busily going about the destruction of an entire people is fair game, you are mistaken. Israel is out of bounds.
The BBC refused to broadcast a humanitarian appeal in 2009 to help residents of Gaza rebuild their homes. It’s tragic for such a great institution but it is now cravenly afraid of giving offence and vulnerable to any kind of well drilled lobbying.
I told the jokes on a Radio 4 show called Political Animal. That title seems to promise provocative comedy with a point of view. In practice the BBC wish to deliver the flavour of political comedy with none of the content. The most recent offering I saw was BBC Two’s The Bubble. It looked exactly like a show where funny people sat around and did jokes about the news. Except the thrust of the format was that nobody had read the papers. I can only imagine how the head of the BBC Trust must have looked watching that, grinning like Gordon Brown having his prostrate examined.
The situation in Palestine seems to be, in essence, apartheid. I grew up with the anti apartheid thing being a huge focus of debate. It really seemed to matter to everybody that other human beings were being treated in that way. We didn’t just talk about it, we did things, I remember boycotts and marches and demos all being held because we couldn’t bear that people were being treated like that.
A few years ago I watched a documentary about life in Palestine. There’s a section where a UN dignitary of some kind comes to do a photo opportunity outside a new hospital. The staff know that it communicates nothing of the real desperation of their position, so they trick her into a side ward on her way out. She ends up in a room with a child who the doctors explain is in a critical condition because they don’t have the supplies to keep treating him. She flounders, awkwardly caught in the bleak reality of the room, mouthing platitudes over a dying boy.
The filmmaker asks one of the doctors what they think the stunt will have achieved. He is suddenly angry, perhaps having just felt at first hand something he knew in the abstract. The indifference of the world. ‘She will do nothing,’ he says to the filmmaker. Then he looks into the camera and says, ‘Neither will you’.
I cried at that and promised myself that I would do something. Other than write a few stupid jokes I have not done anything. Neither have you.
So now I really admire the ballsy bugger. I still don’t want to hear any more paedo/downs/people are ugly stuff from him, but give him a satire show where he’s allowed to go after the real bastards of this world, a show that doesn’t trade solely on “John Prescott is fat/David Cameron is a bit posh innee?” jokes, and we could maybe have our own Daily Show and that would be a grand thing.