Online Doctor Who was wracked with discord last week, when the TV Museum posted a 1981 corporate video for an Italian white goods retailer. In it, Jon Pertwee — in the Third Doctor’s customary frilly shirt and cloak — beams down from the ‘Planet Zanussi’ with vital information for its dealers on the company’s latest promotion. So far, so turgid.
Pertwee is joined by David Tate (Eddie the computer in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) and Diana Weston (best known for ITV’s insufferably middle class, The Upper Hand). Tate does little but stand around looking a bit how viewers then might have remembered Nicholas Courtney to have looked, while Weston affects a breathless parody of a ‘Doctor Who girl’. ‘The Doctor’ also has a cute robot assistant™ . It looks like a Japanese toy shot in forced perspective, but in build quality it’s still a step or two up from K9.
But what is it that’s so objectionable (to some) about the video? Is it that Pertwee took the Zanussi shilling to flog washing machines? Is it that the Doctor has seemingly acquired wizard powers to make objects appear and disappear? (Odd, that an engineering company couldn’t knock off a sonic spanner, at least). No, it’s Pertwee’s last line. It’s a bit… ‘old school’ – enough that the video comes with a warning. I won’t repeat it here because we both know you’re going to click the link.
It’s kitchen appliances, so I was braced for a bit of period sexism: the sort of On the Buses, Are You Being Served? cheekiness that many can still laugh at when it’s locked safely in the past but that generally misfires in (post) modernity (as the failed 2016 reopening of Grace Brothers’ richly illustrated). Pertwee himself perpetrated enough of that in his early career: The Navy Lark, four Carry Ons, and so forth. I enjoy that era of comedy for all its faults. I love the early to mid-era Carry On films, I’ll chortle along with Frankie Howerd as he starts (but never finishes) his prologue in Up Pompeii!, and I’ll happily listen to Julian and Sandy embroider a web of gay innuendo on Round the Horne. None of that offends me, duckie — even with all the gender, race, and sexuality stereotypes they present — because while it’s reactionary and ignorant at times, I sense no real malice.
But this video really did take me aback, even with the warning. Not because the line at the end is intrinsically shocking but because it’s so unexpected and lands like a boulder in a puddle. There is no double about the entendre. In a clumsy attempt at cheeky humour, Pertwee delivers a line that could easily have been said by Robert Webb’s hapless doctor in my favourite Mitchell & Webb sketch, the 1970s Bawdy Hospital.
So, my objection is not political but aesthetic. The line is a flailing, ungainly, ugly attempt to find a punchline for a tedious four-minute corporate with which Pertwee himself looks utterly bored (he gives the flat, joyless delivery of man imprisoned by a contractual duty). The classic comedies I list above operated in an arena of greater censorship. They made a virtue of the necessity of using innuendo and allusion and delighted in wordplay that was (to varying degrees) clever and inventive. Pertwee’s last line has all the wit and invention of a brickie hectoring women from his scaffolding. The line fails not least because the rest of the piece fails. It’s obviously intended as a send-up, but it doesn’t actually have any jokes. In fact, aside from Pertwee, the only thing that really tells you it’s a spoof is Weston’s simpering, girlish ‘but what is it, Doctor?’ performance. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the writer wasn’t attempting to channel Kenny Everett’s Captain Kremmen and his pertly beknockered sidekick, Carla, but at least that had jokes.
Is the Zanussi film deeply offensive? Not to me. If it’s the most offensive thing you see today, you’re not paying attention to the world. Do I find it distasteful? Certainly. Surprising and disappointing, too. Of course, there are those who claim to be enraged by it, just as there are those who are offended that people are offended. I won’t join up in the culture wars here, except to note that those who cry ‘Snowflake’ seem generally to be white heterosexual men who bemoan political correctness from the position of not having spent decades being the butt of every joke on TV (and they’re not now, however much they squeal).
I dislike this Zanussi video not because it’s a reactionary relic but because I find it crass and ham-fisted. I won’t resort to the cliché of saying that ‘it’s worse than sexist, it’s not funny’ because self-evidently it is funny to many. But to me, it’s not only bad by our standards now; it’s bad by our standards then. Frankie Howerd wouldn’t have read such rubbish; Kenneth Williams would have turned his nose up at it. I think even Reg Varney would have told the writer where to get off. And I suspect that if he’d ever thought it would be seen by the wider public, Jon Pertwee would have rejected it, too.