Graceless

Sometimes our pop culture past is better off left there.
July 16, 2015
Young Mr. Grace inspects a line of people dressed as Santa.

"The Father Christmas Affair"

© BBC; fair use for commentary purposes

We've aired the British comedy series Are You Being Served? many, many times (40 is my estimate) since its July, 1989 debut on WILL-TV. But there are two episodes we haven't broadcast in over two decades, and you won't be seeing them on Channel 12 any time soon.

Back in the early '90s, when AYBS? was red-hot in terms of both viewership and member donations, we were excited to add new episodes to the oft-repeated rotation. In December, 1991 we premiered four Christmas specials that originally aired in England between 1975 and 1981, and naturally, we didn't hesitate to drop them into the pledge drive schedule, sight unseen.

Whoops.

The main plot of 1976's "The Father Christmas Affair" was a contest to determine which staff member of Grace Bros. would serve as the department store's Santa. As the salespeople of the ladies' and mens' wear departments prepared their costumes, senior sales assistant Mr. Grainger fretted over his own performance in the annual variety show at the old folks' home. It was suggested that he lip synch...as Al Jolson. Oh, but the blackface makeup wouldn't come off, and then he had to dress as Saint Nick, and then they recruited the first child they could find to choose the ideal Santa, and the boy was black, so Mr. Grainger won! Comedy, folks.

And while I'm not sure that we received many complaints about the blackface the first time out--after all, I see that we repeated the episode once the next Christmas--the following week brought us the 1981 special, "Roots?" (The question mark was intentional.)

In that one, the staff prepared a birthday musical tribute to store owner Old Mr. Grace. The theme was the Grace family history, and wouldn't you know it, they traced his ancestry back to Africa. It all tied up with a rousing, minstrel show rendition of the song "Waiting for the Robert E. Lee"...and this time, six of the cast uproariously entered sporting dark greasepaint and exaggerated white lips. 

"Roots?" aired only aired once.

A few years back, we hosted actor Nicholas Smith, who had played Mr. Rumbold on AYBS? I conducted an interview with him in front of a gathering of Britcom fans, and someone brought up the two "lost" episodes. I explained to Smith why we no longer ran them, and he seemed flummoxed that anyone would have found them objectionable. (Britain's hugely popular "light entertainment" series The Black and White Minstrel Show ran until 1978, well after blackface was no longer acceptable in the U.S.)

To my recollection, this has been the only example of programming we've pulled over content concerns. To this day, I can't find any justification for them that would overcome their inarguably racist iconography.

Sure, there's an argument to be made for them as historical documents, and I've made similar rationalizations in the past. They could be acceptable if used in a larger educational context. But as part of a regular comedy time slot, with a minstrel chorus line appearing out of nowhere as a cheap end-of-episode gag? No. Simply, no.

Both episodes can be purchased on DVD, and are available (illegally) on the Internet. You can see them if you really want to. Just not here.

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