In the Critics this Week

Amanda Levete on the Barbican Centre, Gabriel Josipovici on Michael Hofmann and Will Self on Alastai

In the Critics section of this week's New Statesman, our Critic at Large is architect Amanda Levete, recent winner of a competition to design a new gallery for the Victoria & Albert Museum. Reflecting on the three decades since the opening of the Barbican Centre, she notes that brutalism, at times scorned for its bleakness, was then a mark of aesthetic progress: "The architects' [Chamberlin, Powell and Bon] plans reflected the changing aspirations of a society that had an increasingly complex and optimistic view of the future . . . Their brutalist (from the French béton brut,or 'raw concrete') vision was an extreme reaction to the land-hungry, suburban ethos of the 1950s: a deliberate assassination of a semi-detached mentality." More recently, says Levete, aesthetic opinions of the Barbican have fluctuated: "By 1990 . . . the complex had become unfashionable and unloved. Yet only a few years later, it was rediscovered by the cognoscenti and became popular with architects looking for an inner-city dwelling . . . now, more than half a century after it was conceived, it is truly the vibrant and successful part of the urban landscape that is architects envisaged".

In Books, Gabriel Josipovici reviews Joseph Roth: A Life in Letters, edited and translated by Michael Hofmann. Josipovici acknowledges Hofmann's credentials as a Roth scholar, but questions his judgement in selecting his material: "Hofmann has long championed Roth and has translated ten of his works to date. Here, he translates a volume of letters published in Germany in 1970 and adds his own notes, making this a sort of tour of the life in the company of a passionate but biased and idiosyncratic guide. There are no letters to his mother or his lovers and we learn little about his literary tastes or his artistic aims and ambitions". Ultimately, Josipovici is cynical about Hofmann's inclusion of Roth in the Teutonic literary canon: "[T]o talk about him [Roth] as one of the great German writers . . . is to do a disservice to Mann, Robert Musil and Brecht".

In the Books Interview, Jonathan Derbyshire speaks to Cullen Murphy about his latest book God's Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World. Murphy shows how the Catholic Inquisition's influence remains pervasive in the modern world: "The defining characteristic of the Inquisition was that it had what we think of as modern tools available to it. These include things such as a bureaucratic structure and the ability to collect information, preserve it and then find it again. This kind of ability was relatively new".

Also in Books: Helen Lewis reviews Faramerz Dabhoiwala's The Origins of Sex: a History of the First Sexual Revolution. Especially disconcerting, says Lewis, is the blind eye turned by prominent literary figures to sexual depravity: "Samuel Richardson's treatment of Clarissa Harlowe - whose rape is the central act of perhaps the central text of British 18th-century literature - can be better understood against the context of a society in which women were presumed to enjoy being assaulted." Other reviews: Alan Ryan on What Are Universities For? by Stefan Collini; Amanda Craig on Various Pets Alive and Dead by Marina Lewycka; and Olivia Laing on The Street Sweeper by Elliot Perlman.

Elsewhere in Critics: Ryan Gilbey on Rampart; Rachel Cooke on Homeland; Thomas Calvocoressi on Piet Mondrian and Ben Nicholson; and Alexandra Coghlan on Classical Music. PLUS: Will Self's "Madness of Crowds".

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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.