According to the BBC, Jack Straw has personally intervened to order the cancellation of comedy classes at Whitemoor prison. Apparently they are "totally unacceptable".
He says, correctly, "Prisons should be places of punishment and reform, and providing educational, training and constructive pursuits is an essential part of this."
And then he goes on: "But the types of courses available, and the manner in which they are delivered must be appropriate in every prison.... There is a crucial test: can the recreational, social and educational classes paid for out of taxpayers' money (or otherwise) be justified to the community?"
Prison officials will be reminded, we're told, of the need for the courses taken by prisoners to pass the test of public acceptability. Now, maybe there is an issue about public understanding, as exemplified by the Daily Mail's (comic) attempt to capitalise on the issue: "Jail forced to scrap comedy course for Al Qaeda terrorist" - yes, one of the beneficiaries would have been Zia Ul Haq who plotted bomb attacks on London. What would we rather have him doing, I wonder, sulking in his cell thinking of more ways to blow strangers up, or suddenly discovering he has a talent for making jokes, and another way to make people take notice of him. The organisers' justification for the classes is that they boost teamwork and communication skills, and again Zia Ul Haq's intended targets might just benefit from him discovering that working *with* people is a lot more fun than working against them. You never know, he might even discover a truer Islam. Though that of course would be of no concern to the Daily Mail. Or, by extension, to Jack Straw, whose decision is surely not based on any criterion other than keeping not too far left of the Mail. In that he is destined to fail, as the Mail will foam with outrage if a prisoner gets so much as a pencil to write his name with.
If comedy is not a fit subject for prisoners to study, then nothing is. Comedy is not just about pratfalls and belly laughs. It's about timing and teamwork and it's about understanding the times we live in. Comedians who don't mine a seam of the society they live in don't get very far. Comedy twins with tragedy in its observation of the human race in all its glories and its perversities, and it can at its best get deep into the human soul. Which is by common consent the best episode of Blackadder? It's Goodbyeee..., the one where they die. And that is no isolated episode. It stands in a long tradition of acute observation by gentle piss taking. There was a cartoonist of the First World War, Bruce Bairnsfather, whose work was mistrusted by the powers that be at first but his popularity with the troops saw to it that he kept going. His best known cartoon is "If you knows of a better 'ole, go to it", but my favourite is one I can't find a reproduction of. A British soldier sits at a table in the open air. Behind him is the ruin of a farmhouse, around him are blasted trees, a shattered well, a smashed wagon and dead animals. Smoke rises from broken walls. He is writing a letter. "Dear Mum, We are staying at a farm...".
Comedy pierces the balloon, shatters the illusions of the egomaniac and the violent. What better way is there for Zia Ul Haq to learn an alternative to the nihilism that's been injected into his soul? But, if we were to allow that, we'd have to acknowledge that people can change, and in Daily Mail territory that is the ultimate sin.
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