Acceptable in the 50s

The sigh which Stephen Fry gave live on radio on Friday 3 June as he was interviewed by Simon Mayo was clearly audible. Mayo read out a question about the Dambusters remake, sent in by a listener: ‘Is the dog still with us and does it have a different name?’
Fry made the perfectly justifiable point that things have changed since the original film came out, and that the name was to be changed to ‘Digger’. He went on:

It’s no good saying that it is the Latin word for black or that it didn’t have the meaning that it does now – you just can’t go back, which is unfortunate.
You can go to RAF Scampton and see the dog’s grave and there he is with his name, and it’s an important part of the film.
The name of the dog was a code word to show that the dam had been successfully breached.
In the film, you’re constantly hearing ‘N-word, N-word, N-word, hurray’ and Barnes Wallis is punching the air. But obviously that’s not going to happen now.
So Digger seems OK, I reckon.

You would think that in these days of instant reaction, this comment would have been round the world by teatime. But, strangely, most of the interwebnet was silent on the subject. (Although not this blog. Thanks to a tipoff by a reader, I was able to download the podcast and wrote a piece last Saturday.)
A full week later on Friday 10 June, the BBC Lincolnshire webpage picked up the comments and later in the day so did, inevitably, the Daily Mail.
Cue furore. Every discussion board and forum has gone nuts over the story. As usual when a Dambusters story hits the headlines, there has been a huge spike in hits on this blog. And, as usual, there are a number of comments in my pending file as readers express their views.
That’s where they’ll stay. I’m not going to publish them on this website because, frankly, this is a tedious debate that has happened many times over.
Back in 2009, writer Steven Baxter put the point well in his Enemies of Reason blog: ‘I think there was a time when it was acceptable to use words like Paki or nigger or sambo, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t offensive, or hurtful, or wrong.’
I agree. The world has moved on, folks. The word is offensive and it simply can’t be used in the remake of the film, however historically accurate it might be. You can justify using a racist word in other places on the interwebnet, but you can’t on this blog. If you send me a comment about it, I won’t publish it. My blog, my rules.

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11 thoughts on “Acceptable in the 50s

  1. richard hickmott June 12, 2011 / 11:06 pm

    Absolutely right. As a script writer myself, historical accuracy often inhibits ones expectations. There’s no ‘Golden Rule’ saying you can’t deviate, and it’s down to screenwriters to use that particular licence in order to fall in line with what’s acceptable.

    Personally I’ve no qualms about this slight re-jigging of the dog’s name… nor should anyone else.

  2. tony maltby June 16, 2011 / 8:01 am

    I totally agree and fully suport your views on this. The focus of the film whenever finally completed, should be on the genius of Barnes Wallis and the skill and bravery of the young men who flew that mission. I also trust the Fry script will not be jingoistic.
    Tony Maltby

    • richard hickmott June 16, 2011 / 10:05 am

      Dear Tony

      Firstly, it’s an honour to reply to a relation of David. As a Wallis historian, who’s met Elizabeth [Wallis] and have knowledge in different facets of Wallis’s persona, and you, sir, as a relation, what are you hoping or expecting from the re-make?

      • Tony Maltby June 16, 2011 / 11:18 am

        Dear Richard
        Thanks for this. I should point out that I am a fairly distant relation. David would be my great uncle’s grandson, yet I am very proud to have this blood tie to him. I think Charles F has a much better right to apply the term ‘relation’.
        Anyhow, what do I expect from the film? As I said, a film which can more accurately displays the personalities of 617 Squadron; how fearful the crews were of each mission and the resulting tension even though most had flown many missions; what a tyrant and flawed character Gibson was; but equally how this made him a leader of men. Yet also being able to display the genius and tenacity of Wallis and the bravery and skills of the crews (i.e. aircrew and ground-crew). Finally, putting the record straight about David’s crew breaking the Dam! (you have to give a Maltby that!).
        (Re Gibson, my next door neighbour a member of Pathfinder Squadron knew of his temperment and insecurities. )
        Thanks again,
        regards
        Tony Maltby PhD

  3. richard hickmott June 16, 2011 / 10:11 pm

    Tony, my one wish is for the re-make not to be a glitzy, Hollywood affair. Agreed, it should focus on the hopes and fears of the crews and Wallis’s distress of the losses.

    One of the problems with the original is it portrays Gibson as a kind of ‘Boys Own’ character. This has been the problem with most ‘Brickhill’ inspired films or adaptions. Reach for the Sky saw Bader as a whiter than white, jocular chracter. The truth was so different.

    Just hope Jackson gets it right.

    Cheers, Richard.

  4. Stuart Peacock March 2, 2012 / 7:41 pm

    Any casting ideas for Guy Gibson yet that look feasable?

  5. Chris Boland July 24, 2012 / 10:20 pm

    Quite right. To see some of the things I’ve read about this tedious argument anyone would think the whole damn film was about the dog. My own view is that it would have been a novel spin on the story to do what Mark Halliley did in his excellent 1993 BBC documentary and look at the story from the point of view of the attack on the Sorpe Dam and tell the story of the Canadians on that raid, particularly Ken Brown. Brown recounted in later life that Gibson disliked the Canadians intensely. The story of Brown and John Burpee would have given the story a fresh perspective and made it less about Gibson – whose story has already been told many times.

    • Stuart Peacock July 25, 2012 / 1:14 pm

      The original Fifties film is still shown regularly on television and the DVD is still widely avaliable.
      We are talking about historical fact,not fiction and I think a clear distinction should be made.Most of us are more aware of “sensitivities”,however we cannot change history.

      • tmackw April 14, 2013 / 9:29 pm

        Bravo. Stick with the truth, not the “re-writers” of history. Which leads me to ask: Why re-make this film? Richard Todd was great as Guy Gibson. The Lancs were real, if old, but real. Frankly, as a pilot, WWII military historian, I’ll never go to see the film, or buy the DVD.

  6. 75nzsquadron December 17, 2012 / 9:30 am

    Just thought I would drop you a line to congratulate you on a great site and a wonderful collection of research. Just recently set up a blog about my father’s time with 75(NZ) Squadron RAF, so I’ll be watching yours with interest.

    all the best and keep up the good work

    Simon

    • Stuart Peacock December 17, 2012 / 12:42 pm

      Words fail me.A so called “Respected Journalist” asks banal questions like that!

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