Testing the Polanski waters
Natalie Haynes: Testing the Polanski waters
02 Jun 10

Most of us don’t really know what it means to be censored. When it happens, it’s usually small-scale and irritating: an excised joke about Roman Polanski in an article I wrote for the Times is my most recent vexation. Hardly on a par with being beaten by secret police in the middle of the night, I think we can all agree. And besides, I replaced him with Voldemort (in the joke, not socially), so who’s the real victor here? Not Roman Polanski, that’s for sure. His propensity for litigation didn’t make The Ghost a better film, after all. It merely makes him slightly harder to joke about than most evil wizard the world has ever known. One who, nonetheless, has the grace not to sue when you mention his sexual proclivities in the pages of Vanity Fair, which makes Roman Polanski objectively worse than Voldemort on the issue of free speech. Although Voldemort is a little worse than Polanski on the issue of death curses and scarring children with his wand. Thank you. I’m here all week.

But my point is, I never really mind when a joke or a reference has to be cut at the lawyers’ behest. They have a job to do, and their job is (at least in part) to protect me from getting sued. There are people I’m related to who do less to take care of my interests than lawyers I’ve never met. So well done them.

And the best thing about them asking if I could change a line to keep myself out of court is it proves that I tried. By far the most common story on the subject of comedians and bad-taste jokes is that someone (Jimmy Carr, Frankie Boyle) said something terrible, and everyone should grovel apologies and crawl over broken glass until honour is satisfied. And so the narrative about humour in the UK today is that it over-steps boundaries, takes advantage of the weak and vulnerable, bitch-slaps those who least deserve it.

But actually, the narrative of modern comedy should be almost the opposite of that. Far too often, comedians don’t make a joke — during a radio or TV recording — which they think will be funny. They self-censor, in other words. They do this not to avoid the opprobrium of the Daily Mail, but rather because they assume the joke will never be broadcast.

Last week, Radio 4 broadcast an episode of Heresy, which Marcus Brigstocke, Rev Richard Coles and I had recorded a couple of weeks before. During the recording, Marcus did the most articulate, furious rant about the Old Testament’s God you could hope to hear. Rev Coles responded with an equally articulate and passionate response about the redemptive nature of Jesus Christ. To me (a non-believer with an interest in religion), it was electrifying stuff. In case you’re wondering what I was up to during all this, let me tell you: I was thinking about the construct of gods in religious texts to explain the cruel vagaries of nature — earthquakes, volcanos, famine and the like. To the untrained ear, I concede it sounds a lot like I am sitting listening to my fellow panellists instead of earning my keep. Ah, the untrained ear.

But the whole subject wrapped up that night with an assumption that Marcus’ rant and Rev Coles’ response would never be broadcast. 6.30pm on Radio 4? The very thought that anyone would be allowed to make jokes about God seemed insane. And yet, the producer of the programme and (I guess) the controller of the station broadcast it anyway. A funny, thoughtful, balanced debate about God went out in the comedy slot, because it was good. And that wouldn’t have happened if Marcus weren’t the kind of comic that says what he’s thinking rather than worrying about what might get cut.

So this is why I’m glad that I tested the Polanski waters, even when I had to then re-write the joke: not trying is the thing we should fear. Failing is fine.