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The British Sense of Humour by Mark Duguid
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Image of Kenny Everett as 'Cupid Stunt'

Kenny Everett as 'Cupid Stunt'

Few things amuse the British more than sex. Foreigners have long been astonished at our 'schoolboy' tendency to snigger at rude words and dangly bits. Our laughter goes hand in hand with an anxiety about sex which dates from the Puritans of the sixteenth century and reached its height in the Victorian age.

These historical attitudes explain Britain's censorship rules governing matters of sex, which have generally been much stricter than in the rest of Europe. No doubt the British have always swapped dirty jokes in private or among friends in the local pub. But censorship meant that sexual humour on stage or screen, if it appeared at all, was indirect or disguised, taking the form of innuendo or double entendre.

In the 1960s, censorship, and public attitudes to sex, began to relax. It was the decade of Carry On. The series began in 1958, but its massive popularity was at its peak in the 1960s and early 70s. The films' situations and plots may have changed (a bit), but the jokes didn't, and the actors played much the same roles from one film to the next - Kenneth Williams was camp and repressed, Sid James a wily seducer with a filthy laugh, Barbara Windsor a dumb, sexy saucepot.

On TV, The Benny Hill Show was a huge hit. For two decades, audiences never seemed to tire of the unlikely sight of this podgy middle-aged man forever chased by a bevy of half-naked beauties.

Both Carry On and Benny Hill were considered an embarrassment by many, but not as much as the series of sex comedies beginning with Confessions of a Window Cleaner (1975), which charted the exploits of a gormless young hero pursued by a series of sexually voracious women. The films' ideal audiences were randy teenage boys who, because of the frequent nudity, weren't legally allowed to see them.

Times change, and these films and programmes now seem to belong to a very different Britain. But that doesn't mean we've stopped finding sex funny. In the 1980s and 90s, comedians like Julian Clary and Graham Norton pushed the barriers of acceptable subjects for TV. Smack the Pony pokes fun at sex and modern relationships from a woman's perspective, and programmes like Coupling are much filthier than would have been allowed even a decade ago.

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