The Censor’s Test

This weekend Sydney-siders had the chance to attend World’s Funniest Island, a two-day, Big Day Out-style festival of comedy on Cockatoo Island. Amongst the acts were Alexei Sayle, The Goodies, Jane Bussman, Merrick & Rosso, the Scared Weird Little Guys and a host of others. The Goodies’ show, featuring Tim Brooke-Taylor and Graeme Garden with Bill Oddie on video (he’s currently ill, so couldn’t make it) in conversation with The Chaser‘s Andrew Hanson, is of particular interest as it featured censored footage from The Goodies which was recently discovered in Australia but no longer exists within the BBC Archives. With recent talk about how “political correctness” and media OUTRAGE is, or may be, resulting in the censorship of comedy, it’s interesting to examine what was actually censored from comedy almost 40 years ago.

From the beginning of television in Australia until some point in the 1970’s (or 1980’s?) the Film Censorship Board (now the Office of Film and Literature Classification) rated and censored (if they saw fit) all television programmes bought in from overseas. A number of episodes from programmes such as Doctor Who and The Goodies were victims of the Censorship Board, and went to air on the ABC in an edited form (or in the case of some episodes of Doctor Who, were banned entirely). The Goodies, which tended to air in later timeslots in Britain, had some adult content which was deemed unsuitable for the early evening timeslot the ABC gave it, although Doctor Who aired at a similar time in both countries. This latter fact and the nature of some of the cuts made to The Goodies (which are listed on the website The Goodies – CENSORED!, compiled by comedy historian Matthew K. Sharp) suggest that standards were very different in the two countries.

Amongst the sequences removed from The Goodies at the request Censorship Board were images and footage of naked, semi-naked and scantily-dressed women, references to sex, nudity and homosexuality, words such as “bloody”, The Goodies threatening to kill themselves if they were locked up in a cell with Rolf Harris, a sequence in which The Goodies refuse to release singer Cilla Black from a prison cell because she sings annoyingly high notes, and a scene in which society is shown to have degenerated to the point where a bishop is handing out the pill, members of the Salvation Army are stripping (accompanied by their brass band playing The Strip), scouts are pushing old ladies out into traffic and ice-cream vendors are rounding-up children and taking them to meat pie factories to become pie ingredients – and that’s just Series 1 and 2.

While nudity, sexual references and swearing (though possibly not such mild words as “bloody”) are still banned in early evening timeslots, what exactly the Film Censorship Board thought would happen to children if they were exposed to anti-Cilla Black or Rolf Harris sentiments will forever remain a mystery. The list of censored footage also suggests the Board’s members were just as interested in instilling a good moral code in children as they were in presenting them with a world which was unrealistically free of sex and swearing.

Information about edits made to episodes of Doctor Who is detailed on many websites and within this interview with Australian Doctor Who fan and researcher Damian Shanahan. Shanahan is legendary within Doctor Who fandom as the man who discovered that the footage censored by the Film Censorship Board still existed within the National Archives of Australia. While this footage was largely short extracts, some of it was all that remained of episodes of Doctor Who which were wiped by the BBC.

In the 1960’s and 1970’s, when video tape was a new and expensive technology, an accountant at the BBC instigated a money-saving scheme in which shows were wiped and the tapes reused. At the time new tapes cost around £50 each, and no doubt this policy resulted in a significant savings, but as history has shown this saving ultimately resulted in a loss of not only important footage but of money, as when home video and DVD emerged, and entire TV channels became devoted to repeats, the BBC had less in their back catalogue to sell.

But while episodes from series such as Doctor Who, Dad’s Army, Not Only… But Also, The Goodies and many more were thought to have been lost forever, some of them started to turn up in countries such as Australia, where local broadcasters had bought and screened the shows but, for whatever reason, had held on to the tapes. In the case of The Goodies, several episodes were recovered from Australia, although these were in black and white rather the original colour (as while British television networks began to switch to colour in 1968, Australia did not get colour television until 1975), and had been edited at the request of the Censorship Board. One such episode was Commonwealth Games, in which The Goodies are asked to train the British team. Approximately 9 minutes into the episode is a sequence known as The Sex Test, which was so heavily and obviously edited at the request of the Censorship Board that it barely made sense.

After Damian Shanahan’s detective work was made public, Goodies fans assumed that censored footage like the Sex Test could also be found within the National Archives. The problem was, however, that accessing the Archives is notoriously difficult (as detailed in the interview with Shanahan) and while a few fans made attempts, nothing came of it. It is only thanks to an as yet unnamed researcher (who, according to an interview with Garden and Brooke-Taylor on Triple J’s Robbie, Marieke and The Doctor, contacted Andrew Hanson with news of their discovery) that the footage was found and ultimately screened at the Goodies’ show. Unfortunately, fans who saw the World’s Funniest Island gigs, along with The Goodies themselves, have been pretty coy so far about what was actually discovered and screened, although this is supposed to have included The Sex Test, and Matthew K. Sharp’s The Goodies – CENSORED! website presumably lists most of the other found material.

But what was in the Sex Test which was deemed unfit for broadcast? Research conducted in 2000 at the BBC’s Written Archives Centre by British television historian Andrew Pixley solved the mystery. Below is the Sex Test’s blatant filth in all it’s glory (combined from Pixley’s research, which was originally published in the e-newsletter of The Goodies Rule – OK! fan club in January 2000, and the information on Sharp’s website) and you can compare this with the edited version of Commonwealth Games, which can be seen on You Tube in three parts – Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 (see the start of Part 2 for the Sex Test scene).

THE GOODIES ARE SURVEYING THE RADDLED OLD BUNCH OF BOWLER-HATTED MEMBERS OF PARLIAMENT (MPs) THE MINISTER OF SPORT (PLAYED BY REGINALD MARSH) HAS ANNOUNCED ARE BRITAIN’S COMMONWEALTH GAMES TEAM.

GRAEME: This is the whole team, is it?

MINISTER: Yes, it is indeed, yes. They’ll represent us at the Games, provided, of course, that they pass one little final technicality.

DURING THIS LINE THE MINISTER HAS BEEN WANDERING AROUND THE OFFICE, OPENING AND CLOSING THE DOORS.

GRAEME: What’s that?

MINISTER: The Sex Test.

{START CUT SEQUENCE #1}

THE MINISTER OPENS THE DOOR TO REVEAL – ON COLOUR SEPERATION OVERLAY – A BEDROOM.

MINISTER: Ah yes, this will do. (INDICATES DOOR) Gentlemen, will you file in there one at a time please?

THE OLD MPs GET UP AND MOVE TOWARDS THE ROOM. THE MINISTER CROSSES BACK TO THE FRONT DOOR AND OPENS IT.

MINISTER: Miss Foster?

MISS FOSTER COMES IN WEARING A REVEALING SHORTIE NIGHTIE, FOLLOWED BY TWO WORKMEN. SHE GOES TO THE BEDROOM DOOR.

MISS FOSTER: First one please.

FADE TO BLACK – MUSIC LINK – FADE UP WITH CAPTION: “A LITTLE WHILE LATER” – THE TWO WORKMEN EMERGE FROM THE BEDROOM CARRYING ONE OF THE MPs BETWEEN THEM. THEY ADD HIM TO THE HEAP OF OTHER MPs IN THE CORNER. THEY ARE FOLLOWED BY MISS FOSTER, STRAIGHTENING HER HAIR. SHE MOVES OVER TO THE WAITING MINISTER AND HANDS HIM A REPORT.

MINISTER: Thank you Miss Foster.

{END CUT SEQUENCE #1}

MINISTER (READING REPORT): Failed?

MISS FOSTER: Yes, sir – all of them.

{START CUT SEQUENCE #2}

MINISTER: But, I mean didn’t any of them try to…I mean…didn’t they even…I mean…none of them?

MISS FOSTER WHISPERS TO HIM.

MINISTER: No, no, that doesn’t count.

MISS FOSTER: Then I’m afraid none of them….

{END CUT SEQUENCE #2}

MISS FOSTER: …have passed, sir.

THE SCENE PROCEEDS UNCUT WITH THE MINISTER PERSUADING THE GOODIES TO BE THE NEW TEAM UP TO THE POINT WHERE MISS FOSTER WHISPERS TO THE MINISTER ABOUT THE GOODIES AND THE SEX TEST. WE SEE SHOTS OF GRAEME AND BILL, AND THEN TIM, REACTING.

{START CUT SEQUENCE #3}

MINISTER: What, all three of them?

MISS FOSTER: Yes, sir.

MINISTER: You didn’t, did you? This morning? Well – I didn’t even get a cup of tea. All right, gentlemen…

{END CUT SEQUENCE #3}

MINISTER: …that’s settled then.

Hardly Pier Palo Pasolini’s Salo, is it? But was it really too adult for children? There’s no swearing and nothing which could be described as “sex”, it’s more innuendo – the sort of thing many children saw regularly in many comedies of the era and probably didn’t quite get. The nature of the censorship also lacks consistency – the Miss Foster character is wearing her revealing shortie nightie throughout the scene and the phrase “sex test” survived the edit – perhaps to retain enough material to ensure that the episode made some kind of sense. But full analysis of the type of material edited from The Goodies for broadcast in Australia suggests that anything other than applying a high standard of prudishness in an inconsistent manner was fairly low down the Censorship Board’s list of priorities, and any instances in which scenes or episodes made sense after such censorship were mainly accidental.

One such example comes from the fourth episode of series three where a reference to a book on witchcraft having the sub-title “A Bum in the Coven” is removed, meaning the lines which follow it – and relate to it – cease to make any sense. Yet two episodes earlier, the word “bum” had been retained, but the laughter which followed it was edited out. As Matthew K. Sharp points out “Presumably you can say ‘bum’, but you can’t draw attention to it by having the audience laughing. Silly.”

Such crude and obvious editing, and a basic lack of respect for a show which had been written and edited in a certain way for a reason, suggests that the ABC cared more about putting The Goodies out at the time of day they thought it should air, rather than the time of day it was designed to air (admittedly, this isn’t a bad thing as an entire generation of Australians grew up on the show, but I doubt we’d have been harmed much if we’d been able to see The Sex Test). As for the Censorship Board, its replacement with broadcaster self-regulation is clearly a good thing as it enables us to see programmes without innocuous words and references being removed at the request of wowser bureaucrats.

The nature of the censorship of the past also suggests that complaints about how comedy is being censored in this day and age aren’t quite such a concern. While the Murdoch press have taken a break from moaning about how “political correctness” has gone so mad that you can’t do blackface, in order to start moaning about John Safran sniffing some underwear and masterbating over pictures of Barack Obama in his new series Race Relations, and in so doing prompting a few unappointed moral guardians (who probably haven’t seen the show) to declare that it’s “filth”, we need to remember that the sequences in question will go to air no matter who complains. It’s only when any references to sexual practices or underwear, or studio audience laughter following words like “bum”, are removed from TV comedy that we’ll know that really stupid censorship is actually taking place.

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4 Comments

  • 13 schoolyards says:

    Sadly, this kind of editing for the timeslot has not gone away – as anyone who’s tried to watch an episode of Friends shown on Ten recently (whether it be 7pm, 6pm or even 3.30pm) knows. The 6pm Simpsons are also cut at times, and Frazier was cut sometimes for 7pm on Nine.

    If nothing else, the increasing incoherance of these shows serves as a nice reminder of exactly how commercial television views their programming: as something to space out the ads.

  • Bean Is A Carrot says:

    That’s more about cutting down shows to fit a timeslot, than removing references to sex though. And that happened to The Goodies in 1990 when Channel 10 screened the show. Although the Channel 10 screenings did allow Australian Goodies fans to see some of the stuff the ABC had removed for the first time. Channel 10 only cared about the show fitting the timeslot – which resulted in several very bizarre cuts. In one they tried to remove an entire sub-plot!

  • 13 schoolyards says:

    Unfortunately, the cuts to Friends et al were as much about censorship as they were for time – Friends in any pre-7.30pm timeslot would often stagger into incoherance as anything slightly smutty was removed (what’s that you say – Chandler and Monica are trying to have a baby? Not anymore they’re not), while some sequences from The Simpsons weren’t shown on free-to-air TV here for years (ie, Flander’s fantasy of gunning-down sniper-style a bunch of Homer’s in that s4 or 5 episode where Homer suddenly becomes his smothering BFF).

    No doubt cuts for time did (and do) take place – cue sour recollections of the butchery Ten committed on The Larry Sanders Show – but there’s still a strong tradition in Australia of taking overseas shows meant for a 7.30pm or later timeslot and running them earlier after heavy-handed cuts to make them fit the content guidelines.

  • Bean Is A Carrot says:

    Interesting stuff, schoolyards. I don’t follow US comedy quite so much, so hadn’t spotted that one. I guess this means that while Gen X grew up on censored Goodies, Gen Y have grown up on censored Friends. Does this mean the Friends team will reunite to tour Australia in 30 years time?