Thursday, April 11, 2013

Fun, Fun, Fun (?)

I watched my recording of Anne Widdecombe’s documentary about Christianity and comedy, shown in the week leading up to Easter.

She warned us at the start that “some Christians may find this film difficult”. Well it does have Anne Widdecombe in it. Still I stuck with it, as she suggested. Her aim was “to find out what is happening, and why is it so funny to say Christians are stupid.” A laudable aim, slightly diminished by the fact that she didn’t actually show any clips in which people said that Christians are stupid. (There were some which pointed some out some absurdities and difficulties in the stories in the Old Testament, admittedly. Oh, and there was a clip of Frankie Boyle saying that it “was absurd to say that Jesus was married, when everyone knows he rose from the dead and flew up to heaven” but he didn’t say anything about the intelligence of believers. )  

Other questions asked at start “Is Christianity more subject to ridicule than other faiths?” “Is what I regard as most sacred now merely fodder for a cheap gag?” (Answers on a postcard?). I think we can see from the outset what direction the argument is likely to go.

Still, you don’t necessarily expect Anne Widdecombe to be able to look at an argument objectively and take on other people’s points of view. This is after all the woman who, when presenting a programme in the history of Christianity series about the writing of the Bible, said that she didn’t care what all the scholars said, she was going to stick to what she wanted to believe, and a few facts weren’t going to get in her way in that regard. We needed to take this into account continually in what followed.

Anyway, on to the content of this programme. “Jokes about Christianity are everywhere you look.” I think she is looking in different places to me. I always didn’t quite follow her leap of logic from Christianity being an allowable subject for comedy but taboo in politics, to the assertion that “it is OK to talk about Christianity so long as you don’t take it too seriously.” Still, maybe the steps between these assertions can be filled in. We’ll allow that as acceptable hyperbole.

But before we got on to jokes about Christianity, we had a clip of her in panto. I suppose jokes about ugly sisters are de rigeur and not strictly offensive, but I do think that her action of making gratuitous, offensive and hurtful (and unfunny) “jokes” about the Liberal Democrats might be more carefully considered if she’s going to claim she’s offended by other people’s jokes about something important to her. Maybe it’s a matter of perspective.

Marcus Brigstocke explained calmly why comedy made a point and how it gave him an outlet to express his views on a religion which he found “horrible”, when it condemned friends of his and prevented women from “achieving their position in society”. He also explained coherently why he might mock prayer, when Anne asked. He would also potentially mock Jesus; Marcus is a political writer, and Jesus was a political figure. Anne listened carefully to him and gave him no reply.  She explained in voice-over that Jesus was not a political figure, but was “special” – “too big to be mocked”.

Then there was a clip in which she watched, and we saw a bit of, an excerpt from “Goodness Gracious Me”, season 3, which, apparently due to protests from Christians, has earned a lifetime ban – she had to get special permission to watch it. She was “wounded” by this clip. The writer, Anil Gupta, explained carefully and patiently to her that the sequence was not a joke about Christianity, but about British Asians not understanding English ways and English religious practices, specifically communion. (The whole series was always about Asians trying to be more English and failing miserably, and covered a host of other topics. The Church of England, being quintessentially English, naturally was covered in this idea.) And the clip, if you watched it, did show exactly that. There was no comedy aimed at the sacred act, it was all about character. The satirist Marcus Brigstocke discussed it with her and he was gracious enough to consider her woundedness and reflect when she explained she was “bereaved”, although he did ask how long the bereavement lasted. (I thought Jesus was alive, but that’s just me, I suppose.)

If only Anne could show the same respect to Anil Gupta as Marcus did to her.

I am outraged. This programme which I didn’t see at the time had been forbidden to me – by whom? I may say that to me it was not offensive, was funny, and was in keeping with the series tone. In fact it was very clever.

I’ll skip quickly through the rest. Anne watched Life of Brian, which was considered by many to be outrageous at the time. She found it silly, childish and pointless. I agree with the first two, mostly. She wasn’t offended. She didn’t seem to consider that if something widely condemned and banned at the time can now be seen widely as being funny and making pertinent comments (George Carey said he found it very funny) and quite acceptable, then maybe Christians in the past have over-reacted – and that maybe some still do? There’s a reference about beams in eyes that comes to mind. Steve Punt made the incisive comment when he said that to understand eg the cheesemaker joke you needed to know the actual content of the Sermon on the Mount. Thus it is a joke for Christians, not about them.

Steve Punt also made the comment, on discussing the content of the Bible, that if Christianity and comedy are sometimes opposed, then in his opinion it was a fair fight due to the profile of “aggressive American creationists”. Some clips of Americans seemed to support his view. Punt also explained why he wrote comedy about Christianity and not Islam. His words were “I’m not entitled to, I don’t know enough about Islam”. This did seem to contradict Anne’s view that wider society has lost its Christian base knowledge.

Anne did find some religious comedy by Anil Gupta funny, notably the sequence about praying, from Citizen Khan. It seemed to me she was on very thin ice but I suppose it was being funny about Muslims so it was all right. I thought praying to Mecca was a sacred act, mind. Perhaps I’m wrong there. Maybe it was about character; some Muslims being stupid?

She was also amused by a 13th century beautifully illuminated copy of the Book of Psalms, which contained at the bottom of some of pages, cartoons added by the monks that were frankly filthy and disgusting. If there was any humour that offended me, it was this addition by Christians to copies of holy works. I guess you had to be there.

Anne found one or two Christians to agree with her position on comedy, and only George Carey to disagree. Many people had turned down her invitation to appear. Well it would mean meeting Anne, to be fair.

Interestingly she did not summarise the problem with any conclusions. It finished with Marcus sharing his favourite religious joke with her. She seemed to find it amusing.