Rowan Atkinson to face enquiry for Comic Relief sketch

The Guardian has reported Rowan Atkinson’s Comic Relief sketch, which prompted more than 2,200 complaints to the BBC, is to be investigated by media regulator Ofcom. 

A quarter of the complaints lodged against the sketch were understood to be about religious offence prompting the BBC to apologise and remove it from iPlayerOfcom is understood to be investigating the programme on grounds of offensive language and generally accepted standards.

Frankly, the language hardly feels offensive. Far worse language is used in plenty of other pre-watershed programming where there are no complaints to be found. As for meeting ‘generally accepted standards’, one struggles to grasp of which standards the sketch fell foul. All in all, it was a fairly tame performance.

The key areas of consternation appear to be the statement that prayer “doesn’t work”, a supposed comparison of One Direction to the Disciples and a faux attempt to deal with a particularly crass interpretation of “Love your neighbour”.

Let’s be clear, this was a parody of a ‘trendy vicar’ type who had become Archbishop of Canterbury. One only needs to look at the Anglican Church to see that such persons exist and, with the departure of Rowan Williams, it was perfectly legitimate to imagine that one such person could take his place. 

As for the statements that seemed to offend, there are plenty of communicants and clergy in the Anglican Church who do believe that prayer “doesn’t work”. Whilst there may be many who disagree, perhaps even a majority, this doesn’t take away the fact that such views do exist. To get upset that a fictional Archbishop articulated a genuine belief of many Anglican clergy seems somewhat foolish. More to the point, the joke only works because this is something that most people think an Archbishop wouldn’t say (though might possibly believe). That seems like a perfectly legitimate observation to me.

The supposed comparison of One Direction to the Disciples is really no comparison at all. The joke is the parody, sadly all too often the case in reality (not only in Anglican Churches at that), of the vicar/minister desperately trying to appear ‘relevant’, ‘in touch’ and ‘up to date’ when they themselves are no such thing. The joke is that this fictional Archbishop is not up to date and therefore tries to shoehorn pop culture references into theological statements that simply do not stand. More to the point, the comment neither suggested that One Direction were in any way like the Disciples nor was it actually drawing a comparison. The “Archbishop” was making a reference to appear ‘in touch’ which simply did not follow and thus he was the butt of the joke. 

Similarly, the “love your neighbour” comment was a legitimate parody of the balancing act between usurping some language in a bid to appear ‘trendy’ whilst shunning other language as too vulgar. Again, it is an observable phenomenon in churches and therefore a perfectly legitimate target of observational humour.

In reality, Christians aren’t doing themselves any favours in complaining about this sort of thing and it is always worth asking what exactly we are hoping to achieve. Of course, if you were genuinely offended then, as a license fee payer, you are entitled to voice that opinion to the BBC. However, aside from the apparent lack of anything which could be reasonably considered offensive, surely there are more important battles to be fought than bleating about an innocuous parody of a frankly all too observable type of clergyman?


  1. Fair comment – there is perhaps a pre/post watershed discussion to be had and this is not specifically a Christian thing. My comment was aimed more at the offence taken by Christians in particular.

    As for inherent offensiveness, it was fairly tame in the grand scheme of things. There are much worse things out there that don't draw Christian ire. Though, as I say, there is perhaps a pre/post watershed discussion to be had.

  2. I agree with most of this – but think the comment he made in the sketch about “shagging your neighbours” was pretty inappropriate for a show specifically aimed for family viewing and that it was reasonable for people to complain about it (though I didn't!). That's not a Christian thing I don't think – plenty of my secular friends weren't very happy about the language either.

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