31 December 1971
Throughout their respective runs, the Goodies and Monty Python maintained a friendly rivalry. Both programmes had their origins in the student revues of Cambridge University. Individual Goodies and Pythons had worked together on earlier projects, and it seems as if no small amount of chance—or serendipity—went into shaking out each grouping in the configurations that now feel inevitable. As the two great comedies hit their straps, it was with mutual respect and appreciation…
…and from the Goodies’ side, maybe a touch of envy? The Goodies were the younger sibling by a year, and for a long while were treated as such. Where Monty Python performed surreal sketches tethered together by Terry Gilliam’s animations, the Goodies conceived longer but equally surreal arcs peppered with mini-sketches and plastered over with cartoon-like musical sequences. Though going about their business in different ways, the Goodies and the Pythons shared an irreverent, sophisticated, entirely non-formulaic approach to comedy.
Yet, where one show became the cult favourite of university students—shared property of the intellectual crowd—the other was often pigeonholed, quite unfairly, as a show aimed at children. On the one hand this worked in the Goodies’ favour. Kids did love them, and those same kids grew to become devoted adult fans. But to dismiss the Goodies as only being for younger viewers… well, this was to overlook several layers of cleverness and quite a lot of not-so-thinly-disguised post-watershed content. Little wonder that the lads found it galling!
At which point Mary Whitehouse, the highly outspoken moral campaigner and self-appointed guardian of broadcast standards, wrote to the BBC not to complain but rather in praise of the Goodies. She called them wholesome and family friendly.
The Goodies were outraged!
And so, the lore has it, they set out quite deliberately to offend her. ‘Gender Education’ presents a bitingly funny parody of Mary Whitehouse and everything she stood for (or perhaps more accurately, against). This directed baiting is the be-all and end-all of the episode. As ever, there is a shift at the halfway mark. Bill turns to filming violent content for the BBC and goes ‘Berserk’ (a somewhat manic, discordant number), his rampage culminating in the blowing up of BBC Television Centre. But Bill’s antics are more or less beside the point. Everything hinges upon Desiree Carthorse (Beryl Reid) and her ludicrously extreme views vis-à-vis Keeping Filth off Television.
Mary Whitehouse was often said to have given little consideration to context when decrying and declaiming the sex, violence and profanity she took such strong objection to. It seems fitting, then, that the Goodies use mis-contextualisation as a running gag throughout the episode. For example, Mrs. Carthorse spies on them through a submarine periscope and takes photos from behind the cover of a hand-held bush—perfectly acceptable practices in a different setting, but not so subtle within the confines of the Goodies’ office! Likewise, when the lads impersonate Sir Reginald Wheel-Barrow, it is by hiding behind an enormous false moustache… which would no doubt make for the beginnings of a halfway decent disguise if used by only one person!
The most uproarious use of mis-contextualisation is, of course, the Goodies’ heavily censored gender education film, ‘How to Make Babies by Doing Dirty Things’, a masterpiece in its own right!
Never is the type of prudish, knee-jerk censorship, for which Mary Whitehouse advocated, more brilliantly sent up than here… except maybe when the entire production, in all its bumbling inoffensiveness, is then canned and banned by Desiree Carthorse for using the word ‘gender’ in the titles—a known synonym for s-e-🙅♀️!
This is the Goodies at their scathing best, their scorn punctuated by sublime bits of comic business:
But did the lads succeed in their mission? Did they poke the bear and end up on Mary Whitehouse’s black list? Apparently not. Either the scourge of prime-time television had a sense of humour after all, or she judged the Goodies on name alone (good ‘uns, obviously) and left them to go about their decent, moral, unimpeachable business.
“You’re going to condemn that film without even seeing it?” Bill objects, incredulous at Desiree Carthorse’s reaction to their efforts. She responds imperiously: “Why should I change the habit of a lifetime?”
One can imagine that this summed up the Goodies’ frustrations—dismissed a priori as being Monty Python’s younger, more innocent sibling; fun for the kids, unworthy of being objected to even by serial faultfinder Mary Whitehouse!
That being said, could the oversight have been genuine? ‘Gender Education’ went out at 10:35 on New Year’s Eve. Viewing figures were notably lower for this episode. Might Mary Whitehouse have had her television off for once and been swept up instead in that most natural and passionate of late-night activities?
Oh, those naughty, naughty minds!
Jacob Edwards, 31 December 2021
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