Christa Ackroyd: Liam Neeson’s ‘race row’ is no box office blockbuster

Liam Neeson has been heavily criticised for remarks he made during an interview but has said he is 'not a racist.'  (Photo: PA).
Liam Neeson has been heavily criticised for remarks he made during an interview but has said he is 'not a racist.' (Photo: PA).
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Liam Neeson doesn’t strike me as a foolish man but I struggle to understand why he would stupidly choose to tell a story which at best has been described as bizarre, at worst racist, to publicise a film.

Then again I am not sure he knows why either. Even his subsequent ‘explanation’ didn’t make it clearer for me, especially his solution of power walking to ease his anger.

Either way I wouldn’t be surprised if his comments don’t go down in history as an error of judgment of blockbuster proportions. And that is putting it kindly.

Before I continue I have never bought into the revenge, vigilante, ‘anti-hero’ hero kind of films Liam Neeson has been associated with in recent years.

They leave me cold with all their macho posturing. But why, oh why, did he think telling a real life story of revenge he once plotted against a black man, any black man, after a loved one was raped was the right thing to do in what was little more than an interview plugging his latest movie?

No wonder his co-star was shocked. Why did he ask his loved one the colour of her assailant and then stalk the streets for a week armed with a cosh hoping someone of that racial profile – I won’t repeat the exact words he used – “would come out of a pub and have a go at me ... so that I could kill him”? Well one thing is clear, an Oscar-nominated actor who has the opportunity to speak on a world stage now knows the impact words can have on others and maybe even on his career.

Liam Neeson’s comments left me and many others feeling deeply uncomfortable. I am glad they made him feel the same way. They must have done, as he stopped mid-sentence to question why he was even telling a journalist something he was so obviously deeply ashamed of.

“It was horrible,” he said. “Horrible when I think back that I did that.” Yes, Liam, it was and deeply disturbing. And why would you even voice it unless to clumsily make the point that times have, quite rightly, changed for the better? I hope that was the motive.

Oddly enough this week I had come across a school notebook of mine. In it was a simple description of my father written in my childish handwriting of the early 60s. I would have been about six. It was a description of a man I obviously adored. It was the last line that brought me up sharp. “His favourite TV programme is The Black and White Minstrels,” it read.

How wrong that now sounds more than half a century after it was written. So am I equally as foolish as some Hollywood actor to share that story?

No, because I totally and unequivocally say for the avoidance of doubt that years later my father and I would together come to the conclusion that the BBC’s decision to pull a popular TV programme was 100 per cent right, that the whole premise of white men blacking up to play black men was just plain wrong and all in the name of entertainment.

And yes, that now includes Sir Laurence Olivier playing Othello. I maintain we have thankfully moved on from an era when describing black people in the most derogatory terms was once deemed acceptable in programmes such as Till Death Us Do Part, On the Buses and Love Thy Neighbour, no matter how often it is claimed writers were using satire to cast a spotlight on racism.

The use of derogatory racist words, which I won’t repeat here, have no place in society. They never did. Even more shocking is that these words were once used for comedy.

Of course not everything from the past is inherently racist no matter how hard we try to make it so. I am not a fully paid up member of what a friend describes as the hashtag offended brigade.

I don’t believe, as was the theory expounded last week, the scene in the original Mary Poppins when our favourite nanny had soot on her face had racism at its heart. She was in a scene with chimney sweeps, end of story.

But it is right that we continue to question old attitudes, some from the not too distant past. Only recently Matt Lucas said he would not play a black person if he were to make Little Britain again 10 years down the line because society had moved on and his own views had “evolved”.

I hope that was the point Liam Neeson was making. It’s just a pity he made it so badly.