Religion is a laughing matter

The Infidel shows how comedy can fight prejudice.

Heard the one about the funny Muslim and Jew? Thought not; the concepts of religion and comedy rarely sit well together, let alone comedy that involves two cultures. But although Islam and Judaism seem unlikely comic bedfellows, there is a small but vibrant interfaith comedy scene on the circuit. I'm a performing member and trustee of MUJU, the Muslim-Jewish collective housed at the Tricycle theatre, where we devise and perform comedy and drama that not only satirises both cultures, but also the "mainstream" perception of them.

As MUJU embarks on its first tour, the comedy has extended beyond gags about Muslim and Jewish dating to satirising the governments "preventing violent extremism" strategy. Against a backdrop that includes radio campaigns warning us "if you suspect it, report it", to school teachers being trained to identify "extremist children", MUJU's sketches include the reformed extremist desperate to educate the Muslim community on how not to be a fundamentalist, to the doctor reviewing a pregnant Muslim's ultrasound scan for signs of a radicalised baby.

MUJU recently acted as community partners to David Baddiel's new film The Infidel, a comedy starring Omid Djalili. The film centres on Mahmud, an east end British Asian Muslim taxi driver who discovers he was adopted and was actually born a Jew. Cue cultural gags, including lessons on the correct way to say "oy", in what is ultimately a body-swap movie. MUJU advised on cultural aspects of the script and provided support in casting. While a Muslim-Jewish comedy sounds controversial, none of this was reflected on set; for many of the Muslim extras it was a chance to be part of something that attempted to portray an "everyday" Muslim family, albeit one that comes across extremists when Mahmud's son falls for the daughter of a fundamentalist.

The need to be perceived as "normal" remains key for many British Muslims. Referring to a scene in the film in which a burqa-clad woman is reading celebrity gossip, depressingly one journalist asked the co-chair of MUJU whether British Muslim's "Really do read Heat magazine?"

Baddiel claims that The Infidel is not designed to promote interfaith dialogue but is a buddy movie that comes from a place of affection. He does believe that political correctness has made people afraid to make comedies that deal with race and religion, and claims that the BBC dropped out of the project over concerns about a backlash.

For MUJU, writing and performing is an obvious way to give voice to members' opinions; an opportunity for some of the so-called silent majority to shout as loud as the roofs of fringe theatres and comedy clubs will allow. But the gulf between fringe arts and mainstream film and television is as vast as the one between fundamentalists and moderate Muslims, and it is one that can only be narrowed by those brave enough to commission projects that don't shy away from culture and faith.

"The Infidel" is in cinemas from today
www.muju.org.uk

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The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era