What possessed you? Brother Hermes, a Colombian priest, prepares for an exorcism in Bogota. Photo: Getty Images
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Radio 4’s the Exorcist: a restrained yet chilling adaptation

Included the writer’s many nods to literature and film, absent from the film version.

A two-part adaptation of W P Blatty’s 1971 novel about the demonic possession of a child, The Exorcist worked excellently on the radio (20 and 21 February, 11pm), even if the various voices of the demon sometimes sounded confusingly like new characters drifting in and out of the plot. Still, they drifted quietly – this was not an hysterical production and it had relatively little uproar and few expiring cries. “The sound design was a little tame,” was one of the many comments after broadcast, but in fact this was the programme’s chief strength; such low-temperature ordinariness produced something rather chilling, like the ambient sound of a transistor downstairs playing Creedence Clearwater Revival while upstairs echoed a faint scratching on walls.

The demon’s favourite persona was a woman who sounded like a cross between Lady Bracknell and Bill Hicks. Insults emerged in a withering stream: “Jesus? Enough about that Jewboy faggot. The man was a pansy.” After two hours of this, Robert Glenister (playing the disillusioned Father Karras) was completely dried up, little more than a wounded animal pulling himself up to the edge of a cliff. One of the things this adaptation did better than William Friedkin’s 1973 feature film was to show more tenderness of feeling for the possessed girl’s suffering. There are stretches of the film, with its mechanised levitations and vomit-spewing, where you uncharitably wish Regan would just hurry up and croak, so fixed is Friedkin on underlining the ugliness of the world.

On the radio, the novel was mined for its authentic tristesse. Someone remembers the 12-year-old Regan in the early days of her possession bluntly telling a feted astronaut – at a glamorous house party thrown by her famed actress mother – that he would certainly die in space (you can imagine the appalled silence). Blatty’s hundreds of nods to literature and the movies, mostly absent from the film, were here, too: Keats and Hamlet, The Maltese Falcon, P G Wodehouse, Dickens and Top Hat. Nothing decent has been allowed to obtrude on Radio 4 drama in a long time, but this was effectively, wryly forlorn. 

Antonia Quirke is a regular studio guest on “Film 2014” (Wednesdays, BBC1, 11.05pm)

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: a special issue

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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.