OH NO they didn't! Oh yes they did! We went to a panto the other
day. It was Dick Whittington at the Sheffield Lyceum, and
rather a fine romp it was, too. The show - with its easy romance,
dexterous dancing, corny humour, and all-round splendid silliness -
was everything you could hope for in a Christmas pantomime. But one
thing raised an eyebrow.
It was not the joke about the local MP, Nick Clegg, about whom
they could have been far more acerbic. Nor was it the jibes at
rival towns nearby in South Yorkshire: "I saw a horrible accident
just off the M1 - it was Rotherham." When the audience were asked
at the end what punishment should be meted out to King Rat, one
bloodthirsty youngster shouted, "Kill him." The official answer
was: "No, let's just make him do panto at Donny," as the locals
call Doncaster, which is just up the road.
No, what struck a slightly quizzical note was the Muslim prayer
prostrations Whittington and Co. indulged in, when they were washed
up on the coast of Morocco. They were saved by a gag. When the
Sultan informed them that this was not the traditional greeting in
his country, the japers stopped crying, "salaam, salaam," and
shouted instead, "False salaam". Everybody laughed. But I looked
round and noted that the audience was noticeably low on brown
Modern society is big on taking rapid offence. So how do we
decide when something goes too far? The contemporary calculus of
outrage can be hard to comprehend - as the UKIP candidate Kerry
Smith found out last week, when he had to resign for calling gays
in his party "poofters", and joking about going on a "peasant hunt"
in Chigwell. He probably thought that such views were a desideratum
rather than a disqualification, in the party of populist
He was wrong, as was the Labour MP Emily Thornberry when she
made what she assumed was the innocuous assertion that UKIP had won
the by-election in Rochester on the votes of the C2 "skilled manual
workers" - a sociological category known colloquially as White Van
Yet no one seemed to take offence at another Christmas
theatrical production, the musical Little Shop of Horrors,
now running in a high-octane version at the Royal Exchange in
Manchester. Its Mad-magazine humour relies heavily on
stereotypes about Jews. Perhaps it's too much of a cartoon for
anyone to seriously call it anti-Semitic. Or it could have
something to do with the fact that its creators, Howard Ashman and
Alan Menken, are both Jewish.
Perhaps you're only allowed to exploit stereotypes about your
own group, but not other people's. That was certainly the
experience of Baroness Jenkin, who recently undid a year's good
work on foodbanks with four careless words. Lamenting the decline
of cooking skills in the British population, she remarked that the
problem was that "the poor can't cook." Plebgate II followed.
The real scandal, of course, is that this Christmas there are
now four million people in the UK who are hungry enough to need to
visit foodbanks. Sadly, we now seem to prefer easy outrage to
addressing serious scandal.
Paul Vallely is visiting professor in public ethics at the
University of Chester.