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The Heights of bad taste? I don’t think so

Posted in Attitudes to disability, Media by Matt at WelcometoIllinois on August 1, 2008

Gareth McLean in The Guardian is right, Summer Heights High is one of the best comedies to have been shown on British TV for a while and it stands in contrast to a lot of very safe comedies made in the UK right now.

The mockumentary program is set in an Australian high school and is of interest to this blog thanks to the fact that the supporting cast includes a number of students with disabilities (including the character of Toby, who has Down’s syndrome) who “are employed as, if not the butts of jokes, then certainly as catalysts for them” as McLean puts it.

The program has not been without controversy thanks to its confrontation of attitudes towards disability and it certainly sails closed to the wind. Watching the first episode certainly made me think about what I consider to be acceptable given my recent exposure to issues related to Down’s syndrome.

But then challenging preconceived ideas about acceptability and political correctness is what shows like this are all about. Perhaps my sensitivities will change once or baby is born but for now I agree with Willie Lupin that “at no time have I felt that I was being asked to laugh at Toby or any other of the other special needs kids. I was laughing at a clever and complex portrayal of the muddle we get into when dealing with any kind of difference.”

He adds: “Being ‘politically incorrect’ for the sake of it and to get an easy laugh is Ricky Gervais’ department. Chris Lilley is doing something that is superficially far more shocking but is actually groundbreaking, admirable and thought-provoking.”

The character of Mr G certainly has some offensive opinions when it comes to disability but as in the best comedies the perpetrator is the butt of the joke. Also, as Willie Lupin explains “The way that Mr G talks about them is often offensive… Yet in another respect he is more egalitarian than the school establishment. He refuses to make any concessions to their disabilities, pooh-poohing the idea that they should be treated any differently and being brutally honest about their shortcomings in performing.

That is what makes the treatment of Down’s syndrome close to the bone, but for me it is also what makes it refreshing. Here’s a taster so you can make up your own minds.

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3 Responses

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  1. Tim Jeffries said, on August 2, 2008 at 8:58 am

    I’m from Australia and watched this program. I thought it handled it wonderfully. We are often so quick to be precious and protective and sometimes don’t see what is really being said. Good post.

  2. welcometoillinois said, on August 5, 2008 at 5:39 pm

    Thanks Tim

  3. […] rather than people with disabilities or African Americans (although it lacks the subtlety of Summer Heights High to be […]


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