Rowan Atkinson's letter
to The Times of London
Published Wednesday, October 17, 2001
AS A FIT SUBJECT FOR COMEDY
From Mr. Rowan Atkinson
Sir, I hope that I am not
the only person in the creative arts who feels great disquiet about the
proposals outlined by the Home Secretary in the Commons today, to introduce
legislation to outlaw what has been described as 'incitement to religious
hatred' (reports, October 16). Having spent a substantial part of my career
parodying religious figures from my own Christian background, I am aghast at the
notion that it could, in effect, be made illegal to imply ridicule of a religion
or to lampoon religious figures.
Supporters of the
proposed legislation would presumably say that neither I, nor any of my
colleagues in the comedy world, are its intended targets, but laws governing
highly subjective or moral issues tend to drag a very fine net, and some of the
most basic freedoms of speech and expression can get caught up in it.
I have always believed
that there should be no subject about which one cannot make jokes, religion
included. Clearly, one is always constricted by contemporary mores and trends
because, after all, what one seeks above all is an appreciative audience.
However, would a film like 'Monty Python's Life of Brian,' criticized at the
time of its release for being anti-Christian, be judged under the proposed law?
Or that excellent joke in 'Not the Nine O'Clock news' all those years ago,
showing worshippers in a mosque simultaneously bowing to the ground with the
voiceover: 'And the search goes on for the Ayatollah Khomeini's contact lens'?
Not respectful, but comedy takes no prisoners. However, in period and in context
it was extremely funny and I believe that it is the reaction of the audience
that should decide the appropriateness of a joke, not the law of the land.
For telling a good and
incisive religious joke, you should be praised. For telling a bad one, you
should be ridiculed and reviled. The idea that you could be prosecuted for the
telling of either is quite fantastic.