The BBC is censoring Fairytale of New York again. What’s going on?

Radio 1 won’t play The Pogues’ original to protect its ‘particularly sensitive’ listeners

Happy Christmas your arse: Kirsty MacColl and Shane MacGowan. Photograph: Tim Roney/Getty

Happy Christmas your arse: Kirsty MacColl and Shane MacGowan. Photograph: Tim Roney/Getty

 

A Christmas chestnut is raising its head again: the BBC has announced that its Radio 1 will not play the original, 1987 version of Fairytale of New York, by The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl, this season because its listeners may be offended by some of the lyrics. The latest iteration of the row is almost consoling: in a world ravaged by a pandemic, some hardy annuals remain.

But the gas thing about the BBC censoring the lyrics is that it distinguishes between various listeners’ sensitivities, saying Radio 1’s younger audience – the station is aimed at people between 15 and 29 years old – is unfamiliar with the track and “would find some of the words stark and not in line with what they would expect to hear on air”. It says young listeners “were particularly sensitive to derogatory terms for gender and sexuality”.

In the sanitised version MacColl’s character sings ‘You’re cheap and you’re haggard’ in place of what’s seen as a homophobic slur in the original, ‘You cheap lousy faggot’

But over at BBC Radio 2 it sounds as if they’re banking on listeners’ hard-boiled maturity managing to cope with more than the corporation’s idea of Christmas snowflakes can stomach. Radio 2, whose listeners are mostly over 35, says it has considered the issue carefully this year, and will continue to monitor listeners’ views, but has decided to continue to play the original. BBC Radio 6 Music, meanwhile, says both versions can be played, at individual presenters’ discretion. (Its listeners have an average age of 36.)

The achingly sad ballad of Christmastime – the UK’s most-played Christmas song of the 21st century – written by Jem Finer and Shane MacGowan, evokes a mud-slinging row between two characters, an alcoholic and a heroin addict (performed by MacGowan and the late MacColl), whose love has descended into vitriol amid remnants of sentiment.

BBC Radio 1 has played the song in its original form in recent years; some criticise the sung insults as offensive; others defend artists’ right to create characters without sanitising them.

The edited version that the BBC has decreed as suitable for Radio 1 ears alters two lines. In the sanitised version MacColl’s character sings “You’re cheap and you’re haggard” in place of what’s seen as a homophobic slur in the original, “You cheap lousy faggot”. The BBC is coy about the other edit, describing the censorship as “a word removed entirely” in the section “sung by Shane MacGowan in the second verse”. (For mature audiences, it’s when his character says to MacColl’s “You’re an old slut on junk.”)

The BBC regularly gets in a pickle on this: in 2007, Radio 1 dubbed out “faggot” and “slut”, later making a U-turn; but its controller at the time, Andy Parfitt, called the decision wrong: “Radio 1 does not play homophobic lyrics or condone bullying of any kind. It is not always easy to get this right.”

In the past, Irish stations have played the original version of the song. As the BBC’s decision hit the headlines today, when asked about its policy, RTÉ didn’t have any comment on the matter.

In 2018 MacGowan said: ‘Not all characters in songs and stories are angels or even decent and respectable. Sometimes they have to be evil or nasty in order to tell the story effectively’

Last year’s seasonal Fairytale row included a DJ on Radio Solent, one of the BBC’s regional stations, banning it as “nasty”; the DJ, Alex Dyke, called it “an offensive pile of downmarket chav bilge”. It also featured in the Gavin & Stacey Christmas special, when Uncle Bryn, played by Rob Brydon, sang the faggot version in a pub. The BBC defended it, saying “Fairytale of New York is a very popular, much-loved Christmas song played widely throughout the festive season, and the lyrics are well established with the audience.”

In a 2018 statement MacGowan said: “The word was used by the character because it fitted with the way she would speak and with her character. She is not supposed to be a nice person, or even a wholesome person. She is a woman of a certain generation at a certain time in history, and she is down on her luck and desperate. Her dialogue is as accurate as I could make it, but she is not intended to offend. She is just supposed to be an authentic character, and not all characters in songs and stories are angels or even decent and respectable. Sometimes characters in songs and stories have to be evil or nasty in order to tell the story effectively.”

Back in 1987 the BBC had MacColl sing “ass” instead of “arse” on Top of the Pops; the current sanitised version seems to retain the original greeting, which is entirely in tone with the song: “Happy Christmas your arse / I pray God it’s our last.” Be thankful for small mercies.