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(Image: Unsplash/ Bogomil Mihaylov)

“The king is dead,” The West Australian obituary to the recently departed comedian Louis Beers (better known as King Billy Cokebottle) sighs.

Look, we don’t wish to speak ill of the dead, but describing the unadorned facts of the King Billy Cokebottle character sort of has that effect. The Dutch-born, WA-based comic spent 30 years doing blackface and bawdy jokes in a fake Indigenous accent. Per the West:

It’s easy to condemn Beers but it is perhaps more useful to examine why his gags made so many people laugh … While the complicated legacy of King Billy Cokebottle has all but ensured Beers will be forgotten by history, the reasons underpinning the character’s prominent role in our own history might bear remembering.

This is true of a bizarre amount of coverage of Beers’ act. When a 2002 Melbourne performance was cancelled in response to widespread protest, The Age report felt the need to mention that many protesters hadn’t seen the show (now, don’t make up your mind about the blackface Indigenous character without giving it a chance…). We note neither report included a picture of Beers on stage: blackface, unkempt beard and a white ochre stripe across his nose and cheeks.

King Billy Cokebottle in blackface.
King Billy Cokebottle in blackface.

But Beers’ legacy isn’t just another illustration of the contortions journalists will perform to avoid calling something racist. He also illustrates that, far from a Soviet-style clamp on free speech, section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act is actually extremely hard to breach. In 2003, a case was brought against Beers — but he was protected under the “artistic provisions” of 18D.

Not only is Beers forgotten by our “PC” times, he was forgotten by the free speech brigade, who could never quite identify what it was they were being prevented from saying.

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Peter Fray

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