My Comments on It Ain't Half Racist Mum

On some of the excerpts discussed

The programme referred to in the title of the piece is It Ain't Half Hot, Mum!, a kind of 'heritage sitcom', set at the end of World War 2 (so in the same genre as Dad's Army, or 'Allo, 'Allo). The action is set in India, or possibly Burma, in the war against the Japanese Army. An Army concert party is travelling the area, putting on concerts for the troops. The concerts are appallingly amateur, the party is all-male. The leading 'theatrical' in charge is very camp, and goes under the nickname of 'Gloria'. The rest of the performers seem  much more conventionally male, even ruggedly so. The unit is led by a tough and very straight career sergeant-major in his last years, and by two hopelessly dithering and very 'English' upper-class foll sof officers. There are also some 'native' camp-followers -- Asian actors play the parts of the punkah-wallah and the char-wallah ( bloke who pulls the fan to keep the officers cool, and tea-boy respectively). In the first series, there was also an 'Indian' bearer, with some Army experience, played by an English actor. Repeats of the programmes can still be seen on channels such as UKGold

I have always seen it as about respectable working class aesthetics. Although it is racist as well, and the sergeant in particular spends a lot of time yelling at the Indian servants and mocking them, he mocks and savagely mimics just about everyone else, especially the effete and incompetent officers who seem to do little more than swan around exuding charm and confidence. I found this byplay with the officers a genuinely subversive element -- they are exposed continually as hopeless cases.  The 'other ranks' are also mocked -- the diminutive 'Lofty', the public-school conscript 'Mr Lah-di-dah Gunner Graham', and the 'poofs' dragged up in the chorus ( although they are hopeless as drag artistes). The sergeant, who happens to be strongly Welsh, spends his time trying to hold together these irreconcilables and maintain proper military discipline: he is usually thwarted and reduced to yelling a desperate and derisive 'Shut up!' at the other ranks, and barely containing his contempt for the officers. The other ranks, who are also conscripts, cope in a Willis-type way, with humour and subversion -- their aim is to see out the hostilities in a safe location (the same goes, I think, for the officers too -- only the sergeant wants to fight the Japanese).The humour of the situation is partly generational, in my view, giving we non-conscripts a chance to mock our parental worlds and our parental values.

As for the racialised parts, the wallahs have small light-comedy parts, playing simple village-folk, although sometimes getting the better of the white people in the time honoured tradition. The Indian bearer used to have a more central part, and his comic effect arose from the fact that he clearly considered himself to be above his comrades, and closer to the English and their traditions. He would speak of 'We English', and side with the sergeant major in attempting to uphold military tradition and standards -- however, he was always very shabbily dressed, he often hawked and spat loudly after speaking, he made silly mistakes in English. An odd controversy about this character also resurfaced in my  mind -- I remember some black activists complaining that a key part was played by an English actor pretending to be an Indian bearer (fair enough, so you got a classic white person's stereotyped view of the Indians), but then arguing that this should be rectified by having an Indian actor play the part -- still with the same racist scripts and imagery? Maybe the Indian actor would have been able to quietly subvert the stereotypes as one of the Asian actors sometimes did (the punkah-wallah but not the char-wallah), and, of course, as the camp concert party did all the time (including some lovely performances by 'Gloria' camping up the parades)?

As Hall himself says, the point is to ask wwhether the Asian people in this sitcom are being laughed at, or whether the sergeant is, exactly as is the dilemma with 'Alf Garnett'. Another issue for me is whether the racism of the piece is the main point anyway, whether it does so dominates the other elements, including mockery of the upper classes, the respectable working class, those of different sexual persuasions, that it should form the 'centre' of the readings of the programme. At best, the other elements are worth discussing surely, in any suitably 'complex' reading? On another tack, my readings of the programme are clearly different from those of Hall -- so which one of us is right? Are we both right? How could we tell? Doesn't this sort of variation make the point about 'polysemy' and 'aberrant decodings' that the gramscians had identified elsewhere, or is this programme uniquely monosemic and capable only of dominant decodings?

There was a short clip from a sitcom called The Rag Trade, which focuses mostly upon the lives of women in a dressmaking or tailoring sweatshop. Mostly , the comic theme turns on the contests between the boss and the female shop steward for control of the work -- usually the shop steward wins. There are also some comic characters -- the shop steward herself, a hard-bitten working class female with a sarcastic manner, some older and dottier ladies and chirpy blonde Cockneys, and, in the episode selected by Hall, a young black woman, who amuses us (!) by describing herself, in a 'funny 'accent as 'we English' (again). Again, I do not recall this character ever being central though. If there are any ethnic stereotypes anywhere near the centre of the action, it could be that both boss and shop steward could be Jewish -- although this is not foregrounded, as far as I recall.

Another programme cited is another sitcom called Mind Your Language, focussing on the life and times of a young, idealistic and naive teacher at a language school for adults. Here, I think Hall is on stronger ground -- the main generator of the comic situations is the 'funny'  speech and behaviour of adult immigrants or foreigners. As they make their 'hilarious' mistakes and pursue their 'comic' misunderstandings, they also display a number of stereotyped behaviours. The clips chosen for Hall's programme include Asian men talking about running several illegal jobs while claiming unemployment benefit, or living all together in small houses. It is quite hard to see any 'redemptive' possibilities in this sort of thing,although I seem to recall the programme did try to show now and then the 'common humanity' that joined us all, despite our differences (still pretty appalling, in my view).

Turning to the current affairs examples, the main one concerned the BBC programme The GreatDebate on immigration. I vaguely recall seeing this programme on broadcast. It was classic for the BBC of the time. One of Enoch Powell's speeches had become news, in which he had forecast serious social problems arising from 'uncontrolled immigration' ( which everyone understood meant large numbers of black immigrants). The speech was unpleasantly racist, with its images of  'rivers foaming with blood' ( actaully, a classical allusion to a Roman seer prophesying the River Tiber foaming with blood), and its insistence that immigrant were irreconcilably alien and hostile to 'the British way of life'. The speech had been received with some support in some quarters -- it had produced a demonstration of EastEnd dockers in favour of tighter immigration controls -- but hte poltical establishment had rejected it, and had virtually declared Powell a pariah. This programme set out on a classic BBC current affairs mission -- to explain the issues to the audience, so they could 'make up their own minds'. 

A classic format was pursued to do this -- a clip of the Powell speech was introduced by an anchorman in the studio, who organised a discussion with invited 'experts', from 'both sides', of course, with occasinal contributions from the invited audience. The anchorman ( none other than Sir Robin Day) managed the debate, gave equal time to each party, and introduced the experts. One additional expert gave some 'factual' official statistics about the numbers and locations of immigrants -- and this is a section especially illuminated in  Halls' programme. 

I think Hall is right to say the debate was indeed structured around the 'numbers' issue, and that this does inevitably lead to seeing black immigrants as a 'problem'. But there are two defences for this focus:

Many racists greatly overestimated the numbers of black people in Britain. When I have taught this topic myself, I have invited students to guess at the size of the 'black population' of Britain, and I have found it common to overestimate this by some 300%--400%. In my own teaching, I usually move to methodolgical issues like how you define a 'black person' and, of course, why somepeople think it  relevant to measure the size of the 'black population'. I also like to provide official statistics that are not often heard -- like the numbers of white immigrants,or the numbers of emigrants. My point is that official statistics can be used to counter 'common-sense racism' as well. I agree the BBC programme did not do enough of this, although I wonder if many viewers were shocked to see 'how few' black people there were in Britain compared to their own guesses.

I do this because I know, or suspect, that 'the numbers game' is an important element in the thinking of my (predominantly white) students. As a good pedagogue, I am aware of the dangers of simply ignoring these views -- the students tend to think I am merely 'preaching' at them, in my soggy 'progressive' way, and they can effectively devalue what I am saying. I think it is important to let their views emerge -- perhaps especially so in my 'white highland' area of the UK. However, as with all opinions, I can then insist they be debated and tested against any available evidence, including official statistics. Sometimes they try and dismiss these statistics as merely 'positivist' ones, using arguments they have acquired in Sociology courses to 'inoculate' themselves against contradiction. I have learned to agree, and then to demand the basis for their preferred numbers and statistics -- which are invariably hopelessly inadequate, of course. If they challenge my motivations for introducing these statistics, I discuss them, then challenge them for theirs in return. I don't push my points, but I don't let inoculation work either. At the end of the session, we might have started at least towards a more self-critical understanding.

My complaint against the BBC programme is therefore a pedagogical one. The BBC used the old techniques of having 'experts' offer a short monologue about something. These experts often had little idea of what their audience were thinking, I suspect, having seldom met any 'common sense racists' outside of their own class, and the programme did not permit any interaction with them (apart from stilted and limited single questions or 'vox pop' pieces). As a result, their efforts to explain flapped in the air.

On the format of the programme

I have commented on the strange fascination of TV pedagogues for a 'realist' style elsewhere. To follow the point about BBC pedagogy first, in the absence of real knowledge about common-sense racism, and if there is a reluctance to let common-sense racists actually speak and argue for themselves ( as is often the case in any 'moderate' approach), there has to be a 'ventriloquist' approach: the presenters and pedagogues have to play all the parts for themselves. They have to outline the common-sense racist approach, or assume it in what they are going to say in response. This is how 'balance' works in the absence of spokespersons for the different views: the presenter/pedagogue lays out all the approved options, supports them with chosen evidence, and then proceds to manage them, sequence them, rank-order them, and often choose one as 'the truth' ( or smuggle in at the last minute some other persepctive which offers the truth about all the others). Hall et al know this. They have described it as a typical structure of 'ideology' in other writings on the media (although MacCabe does it better! -- see file).

What an irony then, that the same structure is innocently deployed in the very programme designed to expose this 'realist' ideological mechanism -- Hall et al's very own access programme on racism in the media. It is exactly the same structure too. Hall and his co-presenter appear as 'experts' -- low-key experts, with not too many trappings of fancy titles, qualifications or impressively bookish background furniture -- but still as experts. They address us as kindly pedagogues do -- telling us  what we are to look out for, or what we have actually seen. They are not as crusty and formal as BBC experts and there are no tiresoms graphs or figures -- they are more like rather trendy young teachers -- but they are still out to teach (or preach). The excerpts they choose illustrate precisely (suspiciously precisely) what they have said, just as in the mind-numbingly literal visuals of most 'ordinary' TV -- it all fits nicely into a logical and persuasive structure. 

En route, they argue gently with what they take to be our objections to their views - that it is 'only comedy', for example, that no-one has really been hurt, or that 'surely we can have a laugh'. There are long-term harmful effects we are assured, that only experts like them know about. At the end, we are supposed to have discovered the 'truth' ( or the underlying 'reality') about the media and racism. In practice, I suspect, we end feeling we have been exposed to a bit of 'strategic communication' -- persuasion or propaganda. I imagine anyone feeling slightly rattled or guilty ( I doubt if many at all felt enlightened) would be able to inoculate themselves pretty effectively - some of my own students have said that the programme was 'special pleading' by anti-racist do-gooders and enthusiasts, the evidence was clearly 'biased', it was all part of a growing moral panic [sic] about 'political correctness'.