In the Critics this Week

A Spring Books special with William Cash on Graham Greene, an interview with Richard Mabey and poetr

In the Critics section of this week's New Statesman, William Cash reflects on the entanglement of art and reality in Graham Greene's The End of the Affair, 20 years on from the author's death. Cash draws connections between Greene's real-life romance with an "American beauty" and the critically-acclaimed story.

John Gray reviews Richard Mabey's The Perfumier and the Stinkhorn, which maps the complex relationship between science and Romanticism. "He shows in this short, wise and consistently delightful book, a 'Romantic' conception of human beings' place in the world may be one that even science supports". Gray concludes that "the human animal needs something beyond itself if it is not to go mad."

Andrew Adonis examines The Coalition and the Constitution, an "excellent study" by Vernon Bogdanor of the "implications of the coalition government", with a focus on electoral reform and the Fixed-Term Parliaments Bill. Lucasta Miller lends her opinion to championing the "unruly" essay -- a form which she believes is "entering a phase of renewed development". David Gilmour's The Pursuit of Italy is "erudite and eloquent", writes Tobias Jones. Gilmour offers up a plethora of "intriguing facts" from the country's rich history and argues that the Apennines were responsible for "slicing Italy in two and hindering any sense of social cohesion".

The Final Testament of the Holy Bible is an "oddly exhilarating new novel," remarks Julie Myerson of James Frey's latest controversial offering, in which the messiah-like protagonist "drinks beer and smokes weed" and "goes around having sex with everyone, male or female". "The book overflows with biblical parallels and you detect a joyous relish in Frey as he unloads them," Myerson argues.

Bernie Ecclestone is a "gambler" who "discovered his talent in the postwar climate of austerity, with its spivs and hustlers" remarks Bryan Appelyard of Tom Bower's biography No Angel: the secret life of Bernie Ecclestone. "His rise to power in F1 is bewildering, but the story is told skilfully by Bower."

Clive James' poem "Procedure for Disposal" maps a mind in decline. "But now when I compose a single page/ Of double-spaced it takes me half a day". Will Self reflects on the changing face of university cuisine after he takes his daughter on a tour of the UK's higher education establishments. The presence of "at least six" Browns' restaurants "strategically located close to the Russell Group universities" is a sign, Self notes, of "an elite education in this country".

Further reviews and comment from: Dan Jones on Ian Botham: the Power and the Glory by Simon Wilde, Leo Robson on A Man of Parts: a Novel by David Lodge, Ryan Gilbey on How I Ended This Summer (15), directed by Alexei Popogrebsky, Alexandra Coghlan on OperaShots at the Royal Opera House, Tom Ravenscroft on "perfect songs to soundtrack a jog" and Rachel Cooke on Ben Fogle's BBC2 The Secret of Scott's Hut.

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Why hasn’t British Asian entertainment built on the Goodness Gracious Me golden age?

It is 20 years since the original radio series of Goodness Gracious Me aired. Over two decades, the UK media portrayal of Asians hasn’t used its success to evolve.

Save for a handful of special one-off episodes, Goodness Gracious Me hasn’t occupied a primetime TV slot for nearly two decades. Yet still it remains the measuring stick for British Asian comedy.

The sketch show, which transitioned seamlessly from radio to screen (it started as a BBC Radio 4 series in 1996), has stood the test of time and is as much a staple of modern British Asian culture as Tupperware or turning up an hour late.

What Goodness Gracious Me did so expertly was to take a set of serious issues facing first, second and now, I suppose, third generation migrants, and turn them on their heads. 

In making light of the pressures of academic expectation or family drama, Goodness Gracious Me wasn’t playing down the poignancy of such concerns; it was raising awareness and combatting their uglier side with humour.

It offered resonance and reassurance in equal measure; it was ok to have an embarrassing uncle who insisted he could get you anything much cheaper, including a new kidney, because other people like you did too.

That Goodness Gracious Me was broadcast on a mainstream channel was also a victory for minorities; it made us feel integrated and, perhaps more importantly, accepted. Against the backdrop of Brexit, what wouldn’t we give for that treatment now?

Really, though, the jewel in Goodness Gracious Me’s crown was its willingness to recognise diversity within diversity. It is a relic of a departed era when discourse on TV around Asians was different, when the broad church of that term was truly represented, rather than reduced to one catchall perception of British Muslims.

Goodness Gracious Me offered insight into the experiences and idiosyncrasies – religious or otherwise – of Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans and even English people. It’s what made it so accessible and, in answering why subsequent programmes have failed to reach similar heights, this is a good starting point.

Without the flexible sketch format, the modern Asian sitcom Citizen Khan has struggled to cover multiple topics, and, by being specifically about a Muslim family, it leaves many non-Muslim Asians wondering: where’s ours?

I hasten to add that I feel plenty of sympathy for the British Muslim community, hounded by tabloid headlines that attack their faith, but it would be disingenuous to suggest that non-Muslim Asians are sitting pretty in 2016 and don’t need a similar level of support in terms of positive public perception.

The current volume of British Asian media products is fairly good. The BBC has its dedicated network, The Good Immigrant essay collection was one of the outstanding reads of the year, and we still have champions of comedy in Romesh Ranganathan and Nish Kumar.

But I think ultimately it comes down to the broadness of appeal, rather than the quantity of products. Goodness Gracious Me was not only able to engage the full spectrum of British Asia; it transcended its target audience and was on terrestrial TV.

The British Asian media on offer now is up against it, released as the country’s attitude towards foreigners completes a full circle back to the same suspicion my grandfather encountered in the Sixties.

Fewer outlets are willing to explore the stretch of what it means to be Asian, either by denying it due consideration in mainstream shows or by peddling their own monolithic observations. The BBC Asian Network, for example, is laudable in its existence, but does little to engage the young Asians who aren’t into techno spliced with Bhangra.

The mainstream representations of Asians in Western film and television that are commissioned, meanwhile, are irritatingly limited and sometimes inaccurate. In an article for the Guardian last year, Sara Abassi lamented the disproportionate appetite for “gritty post-9/11 films about conservative Pakistani families”, and that the researchers of American series Homeland failed to realise that the national language of Pakistan isn’t Arabic.

When I interviewed the actor Himesh Patel for the No Country for Brown Men podcast, he suggested that the answer to re-establishing Asians in mainstream media, both here and in America, was three-fold. The first challenge to overcome was for outlets to acknowledge that not all Asians fit the same religious or cultural profile; the second was to be open to placing Asians in non-Asian specific products to better reflect their presence in society.

Patel, who is best known for his portrayal of Tamwar Masood in the soap opera EastEnders, made his third recommendation based on this role. He felt that characters should be written with only their personality in mind, making the ethnicity of the actor who plays them incidental. Tamwar’s awkwardness but underlying kindness, Patel said, was what defined him – not his skin colour.

Goodness Gracious Me, though a primarily Asian show and a comedy at that, actually taught some salient lessons about representation. It succeeded in providing a window into a multiplicity of cultures, but at the same time wasn’t a total slave to the politics of identity – several of the 100-plus characters needn’t have been Asian at all. It was reflexive to the times we lived in and a perfect advertisement for empathy. That is why we still talk about it today.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.