John Cleese axes university appearance after historian banned for Hitler parody

Student group walks back blacklisting of Andrew Graham-Dixon after Monty Python comedian says he’s blacklisting himself in solidarity

John Cleese performs during his show 'Last Time to See Me Before I Die' (Tobias Nokolai/Polfoto via AP)
John Cleese performs during his show 'Last Time to See Me Before I Die' (Tobias Nokolai/Polfoto via AP)

An impression of Adolf Hitler at Cambridge University has touched off a fight over the limits of free speech and has drawn Monty Python comedian John Cleese into the fray.

The impersonation was delivered at a debate last week on whether there’s such a thing as “good taste.” Andrew Graham-Dixon, an art historian, impersonated Hitler — in the course of a strident attack on the Nazi leader — as an example of bad taste, in order to argue that good and bad taste do exist.

At the time, Keir Bradwell, the president of the Cambridge Union, a debating society, jokingly thanked Graham-Dixon for the impersonation.

The incident came as British universities have faced criticism, including from the government, for not acting tough enough on expressions of antisemitism.

Subsequently, Bradwell reversed course and published an apology for not cutting Graham-Dixon off, and said the Union would place Graham-Dixon on a blacklist. Days later, Bradwell said he had misspoken and that the blacklist idea had been dropped.

The initial threat of a blacklist led Cleese, a champion of free speech, to cancel his attendance at an upcoming event at the Cambridge Union. He said he made the decision in protest of the university’s treatment of Graham-Dixon.

“I was looking forward to talking to students at the Cambridge Union this Friday, but I hear that someone there has been blacklisted for doing an impersonation of Hitler,” Cleese wrote on Twitter Wednesday. “I regret that I did the same on a Monty Python show, so I am blacklisting myself before someone else does.”

John Cleese as Basil Fawlty in a scene from ‘The Germans’ episode of the TV comedy series Fawlty Towers (Screen Capture: YouTube)

Cleese was scheduled to appear in Cambridge as a guest of the debating society as part of his new documentary series, “Cancel Me,” in which Cleese interviews people who are perceived to have been penalized or silenced for making offensive statements.

The editor of the Jewish Chronicle, Stephen Pollard, also asked to be blacklisted in solidarity with Graham-Dixon, writing to the Cambridge Union on Twitter: “Your attack on Andrew Graham-Dixon is ludicrous and makes you a laughing stock. If you are going to blacklist those who [are] opposed to fascism, please blacklist me.”

In the debate, Graham-Dixon spoke as Hitler, putting on a German accent.

“Culture struggle through taste, my struggle, my struggle, Adolf Hitler’s struggle, I was a watercolor painter, I was rejected, my German art, my purity, it was rejected,” Graham-Dixon said before about 400 listeners, as shown in footage of the debate obtained by the Varsity news site. “The romantic tradition of German art was rejected by this modern art, this modern, horrible art that was promoted by the Jews.”

The audience of 400 people voted in favor of Graham-Dixon in the debate. At the event, Bradwell commended Graham-Dixon for “perhaps the longest Hitler impression this chamber has ever received, a remarkable accomplishment for tonight.”

But days later, Bradwell apologized for not interrupting Graham-Dixon.

“I would like to offer my unreserved apology for the comments made by a speaker in our debate on Thursday night,” he wrote in a statement Saturday posted to Twitter. “Neither I nor the society condones the thoughtless and grotesque language used by the individual in question, and I am sorry for my failure to intervene at the time.”

He added that “my failure to intervene was solely a question of lacking the courage to stop someone in front of a room of 400. The speaker came as a respected art critic, and there was no indication that he would make the remarks that he made. I only wish we could have foreseen the remarks that he made and chosen someone else.”

On Friday though, the Bradwell walked back his previous assertion that Graham-Dixon would be banned from future appearances, asserting he “misspoke.”

Future guests “may say what they wish in our chamber,” Bradwell said, according to the BBC.

Nonetheless, Bradwell said he would recommend to his successor that Graham-Dixon not be invited back.

Graham-Dixon said his intention in the speech had been to “underline the utterly evil nature of Hitler,” but apologized if anyone found it distressing, the BBC reported.

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