In all sorts of different ways, Back in Time for Birmingham, the BBC’s latest reality-cum-social-history show, is tediously predictable. You know the drill. The series temporarily transforms the lives of a Birmingham family, the Sharmas, the better that they might experience what life was like for their forebears, who arrived in Britain half a century ago. Whizzing them through the decades from the Fifties on, the idea is that they will be thoroughly shocked and appalled, but also (albeit more rarely) delighted and thrilled.
To sum up: the past was awful, but it was sometimes quite good, too! Inevitably, someone will soon be wearing a maroon tank top, driving an Austin Allegro, or staring in wonderment at a Vesta curry. For anything else to happen would be, well, practically sacrilegious. The clichés are the point, and you, the viewer, are expected to count them, happily.
I sound fed up – and in a way, I am. The BBC doesn’t only show a lot of repeats; it is also, at this point, happy to repeat its own ideas ad infinitum. But I also happened to watch the first episode of Back in Time for Birmingham on the day Priti Patel failed to send a plane carrying desperate asylum seekers to Rwanda. The discourse around immigration in this country is both so dumb and so odious that the smiling Sharmas, and the story they very gamely tell for the camera, feel welcome, even necessary. For all its banalities, the series is loaded with empathy.
[See also: David Olusoga’s BBC show A House Through Time is gripping and hugely informative]
There are four Sharmas: Vishal, his wife Manisha, and their two children, Alisha and Akash. Early on, Vishal and Akash, who are at this point pretending to live together in a Sparkbrook terrace where they take turns with the bed they must share between factory shifts, invite some older men – those who actually experienced what they’re only acting out – for supper. One of their guests tries to describe for them the loneliness he felt when he first arrived in Britain from India many decades ago. “I cried every day,” he says, softly.
What does Akash cook for the assembled company? The thing I like best about Back in Time for Birmingham is the food, which tells the story of postwar Britain in microcosm. Not only must he stick to an impossibly small budget; he must somehow replicate the flavours of home when most spices are not yet available in the UK (it will be a few years yet before Boots the Chemist starts selling little sachets of turmeric and coriander).
Into a pan, he tips a tin of baked beans, to which he adds fried onions, some curry powder (an invention of the British) and a spoonful of Branston pickle, once thought to resemble Indian chutneys (now we know better, however much we like it in a bap with a slice of cheddar). Later on, Akash starts a small business selling spices door to door: not so much Del Boy as Dahl Boy, as he jokes.
Naturally, everyone is relieved when Manisha and Alisha finally “arrive” from India. The liver and parsnip curries they make for the menfolk – Manisha, who works in healthcare, can only smile at the precedence her husband takes in this new-old world – are pretty unappetising. Which animal does liver come from again, they wonder? But quite soon after this the house is transformed, in her capable hands, into samosa central, and everyone’s a lot happier. (I challenge anyone to watch this show and not to hanker for a swift takeaway.)
At its worst, Back in Time for Birmingham is unsubtle to the point of cheesiness. It’s also, I think, too uncritical, picking its fights carefully, so as not to offend. Racism is rightly called out; the family read Enoch Powell’s 1968 Rivers of Blood speech aloud, and visibly blanch at its hateful tone. But arranged marriages are just old-fashioned Tinder, aren’t they? And doesn’t this bloke look gorgeous in his photograph?
At its best, though, it’s all the good things: chastening, warm, generous; rotis for breakfast and chaat for tea. When the Sharmas laugh and roll their eyes at all that previous generations of British Asians had to put up with, it’s impossible not to take heart, even as you dread the News at Ten and whatever fresh outrages it will almost certainly deliver.
Back in Time for Birmingham
BBC Two, 20 June, 8pm; now on catch-up
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This article appears in the 22 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Britain isn’t working