“Is it any wonder that they are shutting the channel down if this is their idea of comedy,” splutters Ralph Friggington, TV critic of the Daily Excess, denouncing digital channel BBC Three’s latest comedy pilot. “Really, it is an insult not only to victims of the holocaust, but also to the intelligence of viewers – what kind of morons do they think watch this ‘youth channel’?” The programme in question, a half hour sitcom pilot entitled Heil-de-Heil has drawn a large volume of complaints from both critics and viewers, appalled at its attempts to wring humour from Nazi concentration camps. A parody of classic BBC sitcom Hi-Di-Hi, which was set in a 1950s holiday camp, Heil-de-Heil transfers the action to a 1940s concentration camp and features roly-poly camp host Ted Hitler organising events to distract the inmates from their grisly fates, including games of ‘sardines’ to see how many of them can fit into a small room – really a gas chamber. “Look, it is clearly a satire, critiquing and deconstructing the traditional British sitcom, whilst simultaneously seeking to confront a ‘taboo’ subject through black comedy,” writer and creator Dan Rantic claimed in defence of his creation in the Sunday Bystander. “Everybody knows that the traditional sitcom format is completely clapped out, it ran out of new situations to wring comedy out of decades ago – middle class suburbia, workplaces, the armed services, the police, they’ve all been done to death. It’s the same with the ‘issues’ they explore: homosexuality, religion, feminism: all old hat. We’ve no choice but to utilise these ‘forbidden’ situations and confront issues like genocide if the genre is to survive.”

Despite widespread condemnation, Rantic and his pilot have found some support in the media. “It’s no worse than some of BBC Three’s other comedy output and is definitely better than the average episode of, say, Coming of Age,” Brian Firkster, comedy critic of The Sentinel told his readers. “The fact is that the majority of people condemning this programme are middle class, middle aged professionals whose idea of comedy is still stuck in the 1980s. They want to see humour which reinforces their prejudices, not challenge them. They are completely missing the fact that BBC Three is aimed at young rebellious viewers who simply don’t see a comedy about the holocaust as being in bad taste. They recognise it as being daring and cutting edge.” Moreover, as the critic points out, there is nothing new in sitcoms exploring controversial subject matter. “It’s not as if Heil-de-Heil is even the first holocaust related sitcom,” he wrote. “Back in the late eighties Israeli alternative comedian Uri Cohen’s My Mother’s a Lampshade ran for an entire season of six episodes on Israeli TV. It took its inspiration from cult US sitcom My Mother the Car, featuring Cohen as a middle-aged Tel Aviv resident who buys an old lamp from an antique shop, only to find that the shade is made from his concentration camp victim mother’s skin. He consequently finds himself harassed by her spirit at the most inopportune moments.”

According to Firkster, Nazi Germany has proven to be a fertile ground for bad taste black comedy over the years, from German TV’s version of Alf Garnett, (Willi Whakker, an added and unintentional gag for the British viewer), who looked and acted like Hitler in his own home, ranting at his family about the evils of Turkish immigrants, to an early 1970s BBC Comedy Playhouse pilot featuring a retired Adolf Hitler living incognito in London’s East End and uniting with his nice Jewish neighbours in railing against an influx of Bangladeshi immigrants to the area. However, Hitler isn’t the only dictator to get the sitcom treatment, the critic revealed in his column. “A personal favourite of mine was the wonderful Idi and Me, which aired on Channel Four for a couple of series – that was really high concept,” Firkster declared. “Basically, deposed Ugandan dictator Idi Amin finds asylum in South London but is forced to share a council flat with a Ugandan Asian refugee. It had it all – cutting social comment, wicked satire of both British asylum policies and racial prejudice from a non-white perspective, a fat black man with a funny voice, grandiose ideas and a uniform fetish, plus cannibalism gags into the bargain!”

Other sitcoms which failed to find favour, either not making it past the pilot stage or being axed after a handful of episodes, cited by Firkster include the US sitcom Sparks, about three death row inmates who continually come up with new and hilarious schemes to delay their executions, Pigs, a comedy about police corruption and  a Last of the Summer Wine-style comedy about three paraplegics and their side-splitting wheelchair escapades as they wheel themselves around the Cotswolds. “Perhaps the best of these was Vinegar Strokes, a tragi-comedy worthy of Steptoe and Son,” he mused in the newspaper. “A twist on popular sitcom Brush Strokes, it concerned a cocky painter and decorator who, every episode, brags to his mates in the pub about having bedded the attractive women he works for. In reality, as the audience learns, all he actually does is to secretly masturbate over their pictures whilst at work.”

But bad taste hasn’t always been confined to ‘alternative’ or ‘edgy’ comedies, the critic revealed in his column, some of the worst offenders were traditional sitcoms, usually seen as ‘safe’ and ‘cosy’ and beloved by critics and viewers of a certain age. “Let’s not forget that notorious 1977 episode of the Terry Scott and June Whitfield sitcom Happy Ever After, where Terry and June get a new Asian neighbour – with hilarious (in 1977) consequences,” Firkster wrote. “ Terry fears he might be perceived as a racist, after his daughters Susan and Debbie criticise his penchant for Pakistani jokes, Aunt Lucy has a funny turn and mistakes Mr Patel as the domestic. Even the mynah bird keeps dropping Terry in it by repeated racial slurs. Things come to a head as Terry dresses up as Ghandi and talks with an Indian accent to learn what it is to be Asian with supposedly hysterical results. When everything ends with the whole mess sorted out, Terry’s new boss visits – who they have no idea will turn out to be black, and so it ends with the cycle beginning again.” Never repeated – and believed to have been destroyed by the BBC – this episode is blamed by many for the decline of the series and its relaunch in 1979 as Terry and June. For Firkster, it typifies the hypocrisy which lies behind the criticism levelled at Heil-de-Heil by his fellow critics. “They are trying to judge it by the standards of some rosy memory they have of theses so-called ‘classic’ sitcoms,” he asserts in his column. “Yet these were themselves riddled with racist and class stereotypes which make them offensive viewing today. At least the likes of Heil-de-Heil are attempting to satirise the thinking behind such unacceptable ideas on race and society.”