Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Theatre

To Sir, With Love, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 6 - 28 September

Based on E R Braithwaite’s autobiography and adapted by for the stage East is East writer Ayub Khan Din, To Sir, With Love follows the difficulties of Ricky, a black ex-RAF pilot, as a teacher in post-war England. Although struggling initially to find work, after settling in an East London school, he finds common ground with pupils who themselves have been marginalised and shunned. Made famous by the 1967 film starring Richard Poitier, this adaptation will debut in Northampton before touring the UK.  It stars Matthew Kelly as the school’s headmaster and Ansu Kabia as Ricky.

Art

Urban & Iconic – The World Of Street Art Gallery, 5 - 10 September

A multi media extravaganza with stencil art, free hand sprayed art, oil and acrylic and oil art, sculptures and live graffiti, this free exhibition celebrates some of the best urban art from the world over. The gallery will be open from the sixth to the tenth of September with live music provided by Happenstance and Maya Schenk.  

Film

Peckham and Nunhead Free Film Festival, 5 - 15 September

With 30 events from now until September 15 and the chance to see a range of classic films for free, there’s bound to be something in the Peckham and Nunhead Free Film Festival that grabs your fancy. As well as film screenings, the festival also includes filmmaking workshops, such as animation classes for children, to help people gain new skills and interests.

Among the new releases this weekend are Richard Curtis’ All About Time, the Austrian film Museum Hours, and the winner of the Cinematography Award at the Sundance Film Festival Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.

Music

Last Night of the Proms, 7 September

For the world famous Last Night of the Proms, the music spreads across the UK with outdoor celebrations in Hyde Park, Glasgow Green, Belfast Titanic Slipways and Owain Glyndŵr Playing Fields. With an evening’s entertainment from a range of acts in a variety of musical styles, the events promise to be a spectacular conclusion to the festival. Umbrella advised.

Festival

Wigan Diggers Festival, 7 - 8 September

This free and annual open air event celebrates the life and work of Gerrard Winstanley and the associated seventeenth century “Diggers” movement. Calling themselves the “True Levellers” the Diggers were known for their egalitarian politics and are celebrated this weekend with poetry, music, film and a range of other activities.

 

Last Night of the Proms. Photograph: 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.