Chewin' the Fat: What are BBC bampots in London doing to our favourite comedy? – Aidan Smith

I’ve always liked the fact that BBC Scotland has a Comedy Unit.

Greg Hemphill and Ford Kiernan are having some of their more risque sketches edited out of repeats for contemporary audiences
Greg Hemphill and Ford Kiernan are having some of their more risque sketches edited out of repeats for contemporary audiences

From the nation it’s a declaration and a bold one. It’s saying: “See us? We’re funny. Sometimes we’re absolutely bloody hilarious. And at other times, when we need sending up, the unit will do this, too.”

I also like that it’s labelled a unit as the name suggests a crack detachment of funsters, specially trained and on permanent alert, like fighter pilots in an old war movie. When Scottish life urgently requires gentle mocking or wild ridicule, then it’s battle stations.

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Chewin’ the Fatwas great for that. It ran for four series from 1999 to 2002. Maybe some poncey academic will have composed a paper about how the show perfectly encapsulated our existential millennial collywobbles, to which creators Ford Kiernan and Greg Hempill might have responded: “What the flip are you on aboot, pal? It’s just a bunch of sketches slung together.” But very funny sketches all the same.

Recently I’ve wondered: was Burnistoun funnier? What a tart I can be. But I always come back to Ronald Villiers, Rab McGlinchey and the rest and my kids are at the age when hearing the words breenge, bampots, humped, gantin’, diddies, polis and a***hole on state-funded telly is both a giggly thrill and an important validation, so repeats are always welcome in our house.

But maybe we have to watch on YouTube now because the TV airings are being hacked about by the censors. Sketches are being cut for fear they’ll offend today’s viewers. This wokery is no jokery.

The edits are taking place not in Glasgow but London. Chewin’ the Fatstar Karen Dunbar made the discovery while filming a documentary on cancel culture. She visited the Beeb’s internal department responsible for “reversion and editorial compliance”, where staff were checking the next edition due for re-run.

“They asked me what I thought would be kept and what would be cancelled,” Dunbar told the Cultural Coven podcast. Every programme that’s repeated is subject to this revisionism. “The result was that Chewin’ the Fat went out on the next Saturday but with bits removed from the original broadcast 20 years ago.”

I hate when this happens. Other networks will repeat old shows with a cautionary message: this was made a long time ago, society was different, some of the attitudes were a bit bonkers, and so as long as you remember that and don’t try and watch through the prism of right now, sit back and allow yourself a smirk at how enlightened and sophisticated we’ve become since. Not the Beeb, though.

Why? What are they trying to say with these edits? That they’re right-on now and were back then as well, even as Benny Hill over on ITV was chasing women wearing just 18-hour girdles through the woods? That they could see the wrong in television that was sexist, racist and most other kinds of -ist long before the crackdown and, actually folks, if you look again our programmes were spotless from the start?

The BBC are desperate not to cause offence, even retrospectively. They don’t want to give Boris Johnson any more reason to kick them. They are turning into the British Bowdlerising Corporation.

Surely offensive is completely subjective. How can the occupants of a darkened viewing suite in London, scissors at the ready, possibly anticipate what might cause me, in the absence of Mary Whitehouse, to mobilise protest into a storming of Broadcasting House? This news just in: nothing in Chewin’ the Fat offended me.

The very first sketch in the very first edition featured the bold McGlinchey, played by Kiernan, who in a shellsuit and swigging from a bottle of Sunny Delight interpreted the news bulletins for his fellow neds. Was that nedist or – our poncey academic again – giving a voice to the disadvantaged sink estate underclass? Maybe it was just funny.

Dunbar will reveal which sketches have been deemed not right for 2022 in her documentary, The Comedy of Offence, but we can probably guess that some of her recurring characters – and among Chewin’ the Fat’s most outrageous – will be among them.

She played Auld Betty, the pensioner who refused to go gently into that good night with a mug of Ovaltine and instead would reminisce fruitily and with bloomers exposed about wild times in her younger days, such as her “entertaining” of Second World War American GIs when they were overpaid, oversexed and over here. That she was always shocking the TV crew interviewing her for a memories programme was apposite, given the scrutiny Chewin’ the Fat is under at the moment.

The 36 instalments are historical artefacts and should be treated as such. Stick a warning tag on them, but they tell us something of who we were at the time they were conceived and what made us laugh. All of that – even the very rude bits – should remain intact.

Remember the time: Scotland had just got its Parliament. The nation had a spring in its step. It strode right past the chip shops in Edinburgh’s Royal Mile selling deep-fried Mars bars, right past the tartan tat outlets, and even if you didn’t believe in devolution you still wanted to inspect the building.

And what was Chewin’ the Fat’s most famous sketch if not another expression of our new-found confidence? I’m talking of course about the two scamps who demanded of Dunbar’s mobile ice cream vendor: “Gie’s a swatch o’ yer fanny.” The skit will probably end up on the cutting-room floor. In which case I hope the Comedy Unit are about to scramble for a daring raid on London to save it for the nation.

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