Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Spike Milligan’s TV series “Q” was sexist, racist, sizeist – you name it – but also (in parts) very, very funny

You won’t find repeats of the stream-of-consciousness comedy “sketch” show Q, of which there were six series on BBC2 between 1969 and 1982, on the BBC or any of the commercial channels to which it leases its old stuff. Partly that’s because the tapes of some episodes have been wiped, but mainly I suspect it’s because so much of the content would now be adjudged unacceptable: the liberal use of the word “wog”, the characterisation of the Irish as stupid, references to cash registers as “Jewish pianos”, jokes about Arab terrorists, and the regular appearance of a scantily-clad actresswith enormous breasts wouldn’t go down well these days.

Fortunately (or worryingly, depending on your point of view) pretty much the whole of Q is available on YouTube – and I’ve spent far too much time recently catching up with it. Oddly, it’s far funnier (and, of course, far more offensive) now than it seemed at the time. Q pretty much passed under the radar of national consciousness in the ‘70s, perhaps because we were all watching Monty Python. This annoyed Milligan, because the first series of Q (Q5) aired a full six months before the first episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. To be fair, the Python team have always admitted their debt to Q. For instance, here’s what John Cleese had to say about it in his autobiography:
"We both happened to watch Spike Milligan's Q5, and one or the other of us phoned up and said kind of jokingly but also rather anxiously, 'I thought that's what we were supposed to be doing?' And the other one said, 'That's what I thought too.' We felt that Spike had got to where we were trying to get to, but if you'd asked us the previous day, we couldn't have described very well what that was. However, when we saw it on the screen we recognised it, and in a way the fact that Spike had gone there probably enabled us to go a little bit further than we would otherwise have gone."

Watching Q can be an uncomfortable experience: there is nothing the least bit cuddly about it; much of the humour is downright cruel; the anarchy isn’t simulated (as it was with the Pythons) – it’s real; there’s an awful lot of anger bubbling beneath the surface; it does not leave one feeling better about the world – usually the opposite; large slabs of it are seriously unfunny; there is no brilliant, stand-out comic performer involved; and it’s no surprise that its creator suffered many crippling bouts of mental illness. But some of it’s brilliant, it's occasionally very original, and (most important of all) it makes me laugh - especially the following three segments:

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