Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Film and discussion

Made in Birmingham, The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham, 12 May

A special screening of Made in Birmingham: Reggae, Punk, Bhangra followed by a discussion. Professor Roger Shannon, of dge Hill University, will introduce a Q&A session with the film’s director Deborah Aston and executive producer Jez Collins. Famous names from influential Birmingham bands, such as UB40, Musical Youth and many more, talk about their distinctive musical styles in this fascinating documentary.

 

Theatre

The Seagull by Anton Chekhov, Northern Stage, Newcastle, from 14 May

This new production of the Chekhov classic is a collaboration between Headlong, “the country’s most exciting touring company” (Daily Telegraph), renowned for their innovative, accessible re-imaginings of classic texts, and the Nuffield Theatre, Southampton. Directed by Blanche McIntyre, this production has been widely praised for its innovative staging.

 

Exhibition

Houghton Revisited, Houghton Hall, Norfolk, opens 17 May

The art collection of Britain’s first Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole, sold to Catherine the Great to adorn the Hermitage in St Petersburg, will be reassembled in its spectacular original setting of Houghton Hall for the first time in over 200 years. "Houghton Revisited" runs from 17 May-29 September and is a unique opportunity to view one of the most celebrated art collections assembled in 18th-century Europe. The display will include paintings from the English, French, Italian, Flemish and Spanish schools, with masterpieces by Van Dyck, Poussin, Albani, Rubens, Rembrandt, Velazquez and Murillo.

 

Concert

A SCREAM AND AN OUTRAGE 1: Oceanic Verses, Barbican Centre, London, 10 May

The "A Scream and an Outrage" weekend kicks off with two world premieres of specially-commissioned new pieces by Nico Muhly and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang. The BBC Singers open the evening with Muhly’s latest composition, An Outrage; followed by Lang’s new percussion concerto entitled Man Made, performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, with Brooklyn-based innovators So Percussion. The second half features the European premiere concert performance of Italian-American composer Paola Prestini’s new multimedia opera, Oceanic Verses - in a new version for the Barbican stage. It is a multi media opera, a collage of found folk music reworked into a single, contemporary classical music score by the prolific American composer Paola Prestini.
 

Festival

Scratch festival, Battersea Arts Centre, from 17 May

The Scratch festival provides the opportunity to invent the future of theatre, placing the artist and audience in a creative dialogue to develop new ideas. Audiences will be invited to work-in-progress showings from Adrian Howells, Made In China, RashDash and Sleepwalk Collective and others. Past shows to have emerged from this method include Jerry Springer the Opera and The Paper Cinema’s Odyssey.

Bands such as UB40 feature in the documentary Made in Birmingham (Photo: Getty Images)
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.