Television: Fancy an English, anybody?

TV's first all-Asian sketch show starts this month and, Sue Gaisford finds, the jokes aren't all about white lager louts
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The Independent Culture
The year is 1947; the platform is cold and dark; the music is soaring Rachmaninov. The lovers search each other's eyes with desperate yearning, knowing that within moments they must part forever - but they are not alone. For this is Jodhpur station in India: all around are people noisily begging, flogging "rude but entertaining" balloons and trying to persuade them that all they need is a nice cup of tea.

"Briefly Encounter" comes towards the end of the first episode of the new television series Goodness Gracious Me, Britain's first all-Asian comedy sketch show. The parody ends as the tragic heroine climbs up to join dozens of other crosslegged passengers on the roof of the hissing train, only to find the persistent, grinning tea-seller beside her.

The distinguished writer and actress Meera Syal thoroughly enjoyed dressing up as Celia Johnson - though she remembers the night they filmed it with some horror: "It was four in the morning, and I had to clamber up on top of an icy carriage somewhere out in Docklands, in these high heels. I was terrified. Luckily there was a moonlighting fireman there to give me a hand."

The show has reached television after a phenomenally successful Radio 4 series, which won a Sony Gold and two British comedy awards. These accolades were richly deserved. There have been other attempts at Asian comedy before, but none as successful as this - or anything like as funny.

The success springs from a bold, non-apologetic confidence. Syal and her friends, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Kulvinder Ghir and Nina Wadia, who write the show and perform in it, are mostly in their early thirties, and come from the first generation of English Asians comfortable enough to be able to laugh at the host community - and to send up their own backgrounds as well. "We are not writing just to teach people how nice brown people can be," says Syal, firmly.

Still, some of the sketches induce a certain uneasy embarrassment - like the one in which an Englishman called Jonathan joins an Indian company and the other members of the board can't quite grasp his name. He tries to insist that "Jonathan" is not that difficult to say, but in the end he wisely capitulates. He takes the chairman's advice not to make things difficult by having a hard-to-pronounce foreign name and introduces himself with a ludicrously multisyllabic label which is immediately and enthusiastically accepted. Another scene features the socially ambitious Kapoors, or Coopers, doing their best to out-English each other in their posh Chigwell semi. Terrified of revealing their Indian backgrounds, they have renamed themselves Denis, Charlotte, Vanessa and, delightfully, St John.

But other jokes are not specifically Asian, just enjoyably silly running gags. For, as Meera Syal says, "all good humour is universal. Woody Allen used to be known as a Jewish comic; now he's just Woody Allen." And the team has already passed the first, demanding hurdle. The R4 audience - largely white and middle-class - loved them. They received only two letters of complaint from this most articulate and easily offended bunch.

The transition from radio to television is not always easy. The "real" Alan Partridge made it, but it took time, as people thought he looked too young for the character whose voice he had made notorious; After Henry was never as good on television, and Up The Garden Path was, to some extent, coarsened by the change of medium. We have yet to see how the utterly superb People Like Us will fare, though Chris Langham has wisely decided to avoid allowing his face to be seen.

Goodness Gracious Me, however, promises to translate well, possibly thanks to the fact that the producer, Anil Gupta (who, like several of the cast, cut his teeth on R4's Week Ending), has made the trip to television with the rest of the team. One sketch, from the very first radio show, is already a classic. Now introduced by a grainy cinema advertisement for "the Mountbatten" restaurant, it shows a group of Bombay lager louts going out on a Friday night for "an English". Having insulted the waiter with leery innuendo - "you know what they say about white men ..." they order 10 - no, 12 - bread rolls. Then they look for the blandest thing on the menu and settle for "steak-and-kiddley pea" - on the same plate as cod mornay, because, one of them maintains, that's how you're meant to eat it. One's local Taj Mahal will never be the same again - and probably a good thing, too.

`Goodness Gracious Me' (BBC2), 12 Jan, 10pm.