ENTERTAINMENT
11/06/2020 12:55 BST

Harry Enfield Condemned For Defending Past Blackface Performances

The comedian said he didn't "regret” using blackface during an appearance on Radio 4's Today programme.

Harry Enfield has been criticised after giving an interview on Radio 4 in which he defended having performed in blackface.

In the last few weeks, shows like Little Britain, The League Of Gentlemen and Summer Heights High, which have all featured blackface, have been removed from BBC iPlayer and Netflix.

“I’ve done it, several times in the past, I’ve played Nelson Mandela in one thing for laughs,” he said on Thursday’s edition of the Today programme. “And I did it because this thing had sort of come round from the BBC that we couldn’t do it anymore.

“And so I thought, ‘well, who is my hero?’ – Nelson Mandela, who I had the pleasure of meeting once – and ‘what’s the stereotype of Black people?’. Well, at the time there was a lot of things in the papers about drugs and stuff, so I made him a drug dealer or a pedaller of alcopops to children and things like that, which I thought was so wrong that it was alright.”

He added: “You know, I wouldn’t do it now, but I don’t think I regret it... but I definitely think there should still be a conversation about it, really.”

Ken McKay/ITV/Shutterstock
Harry Enfield interviewed on Lorraine in 2015

The actor and comedian went on to use a racial slur when discussing the historical use of blackface.

“Let me tell you, obviously, Al Johnson or G H Elliot, who played the Chocolate Coloured C**n in the 30s — they perpetuated the myth of the 'happy negro' who was just very happy to sing under the crack of the whip, the American whip or the British imperial bayonet, and obviously that’s deeply offensive and always will be,” he said.

At that point, presenter Nick Robinson interjected, stating: “Just to be clear, Harry, because there will be people offended by that term you just used. You’re using it in inverted commas. Let’s not repeat it, but it’s a term that was used at the time.”

“Well that was his name on stage,” Harry responded.

The Kevin And Perry star then stated that having played four former prime ministers in the past, he “would find it difficult” that he “would not be allowed to play [Rishi Sunak] “because of the colour of his skin”, should he go on to become PM.

Comedian and writer Ava Vidal, who was also appearing on the segment, suggested: “I’m sure you can take the mickey out of the prime minister without blacking up, if there was a Black prime minister.”

Ava also questioned why Harry didn’t choose to “subvert” stereotypes rather than play up to them, saying: “If you’re going to do comedy, why wouldn’t you subvert the stereotype, why wouldn’t you challenge it, why would you reinforce it? ’Did he play Margaret Thatcher as a hooker? Why did he denigrate the Black one?”

She also spoke about blackface in general, telling listeners at the beginning of the show: “You have to look at the origins of blackface. It was distorting Black people’s features, it was done for the entertainment of white people and it was done promoting negative stereotypes, and it normalises dehumanisation.”

“Comedy is about being funny, and punching down and picking on oppressed people is not funny,” she later added.

The interview was immediately met with a backlash on social media, not just for Harry’s comments, but also from those pointing out that Ava was given less time to talk than the comedian, and that her name was repeatedly mispronounced.

Many also questioned why there was even a debate asking why blackface was bad in the first place.

Ava has also since tweeted on the matter, commenting: “C**n. Before 9 in the morning. I haven’t even eaten yet. I can’t stop laughing. WTAF? I’m in shock.” 

She also told Metro: “It proves how deeply ingrained these attitudes are that he could utter that word without so much as a by your leave. This is why Black and POC have to lead the conversation on racism because many White people don’t even notice it.

“I would have liked more time cause I had more points to make and I feel I wasn’t given the chance to do so.”

After the show, Nick Robinson apologised for Harry’s use of the slur during the programme, tweeting: “I’m really sorry a racial slur was used on air. I pointed out that it was offensive and asked Harry not to repeat it. As I have said in the past – in a totally different context – ‘Normal service from the BBC means you will hear people you disagree with say things you don’t like’ but you should not hear racially offensive language and I’m sorry you did.”

The BBC had no further comment when contacted by HuffPost UK.

Earlier this week, it was revealed that the BBC and BritBox had followed Netflix’s lead and removed Little Britain and Come Fly With Me – which frequently saw comedians Matt Lucas and David Walliams performing in blackface – from their platforms.

Since then, Netflix has also removed a number of other comedy shows worldwide, including The League Of Gentlemen and much of Chris Lilley’s back catalogue.

However, Chris’ shows are still on iPlayer at the time of writing, with a BBC rep tellingMetro: “The change only affects Little Britain. There’s a lot of historical programming available on BBC iPlayer, which we regularly review.”