Family values: the cast of Citizen Khan
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What would Tony Hancock make of Neville’s Island and the muezzin app?

Mark Lawson’s weekly Critics Notes.

The Swiss are currently applying for national heritage status to be given to the art of yodelling and so maybe the British should seek similar cultural recognition for the ­sitcom. There is a certain type of humour – involving a group of people with one comic characteristic each swapping puns and misunderstandings in a closed setting  – that is as associated with the UK as Basel is known for rolling high notes around the throat.

While situation comedy is primarily associated with television – Citizen Khan starts its third series on BBC1 on 31 October – the genre occurs more generally. For the next five weeks, BBC Radio 4 is running new recordings of five editions of Hancock’s Half Hour, the radio series by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson that began in 1954 and which is one of the progenitors of Brit sitcom. These are recast re­-creations of some of the Hancocks that do not survive in the archives.

Even in theatre, the ­Hancockian influence is felt. Tim Firth’s much- produced 1992 stage farce Neville’s Island, in which four Salford businessmen are stranded during an outward-bound bonding exercise, has the feel of a tele­vision comedy and the revival that has just opened at the Duke of York’s in London acknowledges this heritage by casting four familiar TV faces: Adrian Edmondson, Neil Morrissey, Robert Webb and Miles Jupp.

Although originally a protégé of the great stage craftsman Sir Alan Ayckbourn, Firth has been drawn more towards television, especially with his Territorial Army series Preston Front. And, while Neville’s Island conjures some very funny stage pictures – including two blood-spattered tableaux in which the mood seems to have shifted from comedy to horror – the plot and characterisation constantly betray a desire to stop
after 30 minutes and pick up in a week’s time. The audience seemed to warm more to Edmondson, cast close to his dangerous TV persona, than to Webb, playing against telly type as a psychotic Christian.

In the Muslim sitcom Citizen Khan, the basic set-up of tension between relatives echoes family comedies from . . . And Mother Makes Three to Mrs Brown’s Boys. Co-written by Adil Ray – who also plays the title character, a self-elected “community leader” – the show is a combination of English jokes very old (the protagonist clashes with his mother-in-law) and very new: Khan has a muezzin app on his iPhone to call him to prayer.

Because religious hypocrisy is a running gag – one of Khan’s daughters hides her enthusiastic western values behind a ­hijab and piety – the show has been accused of racism, although largely, in the modern way, by white liberals, perhaps because that tribe is a target of many of the best jokes: Khan often extracts himself from slapstick embarrassments by telling non-Muslim authority figures that his behaviour was “a cultural thing”.

The treat among our trio, though, is The Missing Hancocks on BBC Radio 4, in which Kevin McNally proves a spooky auditory substitute for the late Hancock and Galton and Simpson give a masterclass in joke writing. The biggest risk of English comedy is the reduction of dialogue to punning but these writers show – as they would continue to in their later TV classic Steptoe and Son – the ability to play with language at a much cleverer level.

“I promised your mother I’d never let you go to Paris after what happened last time,” someone says.

The protesting reply: “But I’ve never been to Paris!”

“No. But your mother did!”

Literature and its double

The big autumn film releases include The Imitation Game (released next week), a movie about Alan Turing and the Bletchley code breakers, which activates the memory circuits of those who grew up watching the BBC Play for Today series because one of the standout achievements of that franchise was an Ian McEwan screenplay with the same name and subject, directed by Richard Eyre. The title is the only overlap between the projects.

And, in another soundalike, this year’s Man Booker Prize winner – Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North – shares its name with a 1968 play by Edward Bond about the Japanese poet Basho whose travel sketch (of the same name) was the inspiration for both Bond and Flanagan. As all three texts are still in print, let’s hope that no online book buyers are sent the wrong one.

A really narrow road at the moment seems to be the naming of travel books. Just last month, both Clare Balding and Sonia Choquette published hiking chronicles called Walking Home, which Simon Armitage had used only a couple of years before.

Titles can’t be copyrighted but it feels sad, in the case of The Imitation Game, that the Hollywood movie should, in effect, paint over the memory of a fine tele­vision play, which would now be hard to repeat in case it looked like passing off or cashing in. Greater baptismal imagination seems needed to prevent entertainment schedules becoming like classrooms that have four Georges or five Sophies.

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, British jihadis fighting with Isis

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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.