Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

  Comedy

Chris Tucker, London, Hammersmith Apollo, London W6, 24-28 November
The actor and comedian returns to the stand-up comedy circuit after a five-year absence with a world tour beginning at the capital’s Hammersmith Apollo. A man who was given a record-breaking $25 million for the third Rush Hour film, Tucker’s absence comes to an end with the tour and his role in Silver Linings Playbook, out now. The comedian first started doing stand-up after graduating from high school and during the 1990s frequently performed on HBO series, Def Comedy Jam.

Film

Iranian Film Festival, until 23 November, London
The third annual Iranian film festival in London concludes its run with feature film, The Last Step and other short films. Directed by and starring Ali Mostafa, the surreal film sees a man die and stay on screen, offering observations to his film star wife. For the first time, the festival will be followed up with regular screenings in London next year of the best of Persian cinema. My Persian Nights will bring films from the middle eastern country to London in overnight, outdoor and drive-in shows next year.

Art

Ian Hamilton Finlay, Tate Modern, London SE1, until 17 February 2013
Don’t miss this chance to see one of the most renowned British artists of the past century on show at Tate Britain. Ian Hamilton-Finlay was a concrete poet before he became an artist, and throughout his career the two art forms have remained inseparable –whether he was inscribing text onto stones, crafting hand-made books or cultivating his masterpiece artist’s garden, Little Sparta. Twenty-four of his works are currently omn display in the Duveen Galleries at Tate Britain, in materials varying from classical bronze and ceramic to electric neon.

Dance

Unleashed, Barbican Centre, London EC2, 23-24 November
More than a year on from the London riots, there is still no definitive understanding of what caused them. Adding a new dimension to the barrage of media commentary which accompanied the outbursts, Unleashed is a theatre show that explores the hopes, fears and lifestyles of the riot-generation.
Made by the Young People of Barbican Guildhall Creative Learning and Blue Boy Entertainment, this art-council funded show combines music, dance and poetry in a high-energy exploration of what it means to be a young person living in London today. This is guaranteed to be your only chance this year to tackle the question of cuts, jobs and David Cameron via the medium of break dancing.

Literary

Book Slam Launch II, Rough Trade East, London E1, 28 November
London’s finest literary salon presents some of our best comics, writers, musicians, plus shining greats of the Twittersphere. Scriptwriting legend Jesse Armstrong has writing credits for almost every television show worth watching - Peep Show, The Thick of It, Fresh Meat and Four Lions. He will be speaking alongside the delightful Salena Godden, as well as comedian Peter Serafinowicz. Music is provided from the 25-piece Basement Orchestra.

Ian Hamilton Finlay, A Wartime Garden (collaboration with John Andrew, 1989) © The estate of Ian Hamilton Finlay
BBC/YouTube screengrab
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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.