Last night's viewing - Citizen Khan, BBC1 Hunderby, Sky Atlantic
Arifa Akbar is literary editor of The Independent and i newspapers. She has worked at The Independent since 2001 as a news reporter and arts correspondent before joining the books desk in 2009. She was a judge for the Orwell Prize for books 2013, and the Fiction Uncovered Prize 2014.
Tuesday 28 August 2012
I had seen the hat before, I was sure of it. Mr Khan's, that is, from Citizen Khan. So I Googled it and sure enough, it was the very same hat worn by the Asian man in Mind Your Language – not the one with the turban but the other one who smiled unctuously and shook his head from side to side every time he spoke. Mr Khan didn't shake his head in the same way, but he may as well have done, and he certainly wore the same hat, which must have been gathering dust in ITV's costume cupboard since the late 1970s, before being taken up now, three decades later, by the BBC.
In fact, the whole show seemed like it was stuck in a 1970s time warp. If the BBC's billing of it as the channel's first British Muslim comedy series had intended to give it some edge, this first episode quickly dispelled the spin. There was even a mention of Mr Mainwaring, from Dad's Army. Perhaps the point was that Mr Khan, a pompous community leader from Sparkhill, in Birmingham, was stuck in the past, but did this mean the jokes had to be too?
It's not to say that it was bad comedy, it just wasn't new. The straight-faced homage to sepia-tinted shows was all too transparent. In a scene in which a rotund, lusty woman called Mrs Bilal cornered the quivering Mr Khan in an office, it looked as if she had been directed to play Hattie Jacques (in a headscarf) to his (multicultural) Kenneth Williams. The smutty last line, as Mr Khan bundled her into his car – "Mrs Bilal, get your hand off my gearstick" – might just as well have been written by the scriptwriter for Are You Being Served?.
There were small moments of originality, but sadly, these were just flashes (the British convert, Dave; the Somali man whose accent Mr Khan couldn't understand – "what's he saying?"); and the odd topical joke – after watching News at Ten, Mr Khan proudly announced: "Pakistan was mentioned seven times… two in a good way."
The characters – Mr Khan, his long-suffering wife, his favourite daughter, who donned a headscarf every time he came in the room but was secretly a party girl, and his other daughter, who was preparing for her Big Fat Asian wedding – were such clichés that they may as well have been dragged out of the same dusty costume cupboard as the hat. How far has this come since Goodness Gracious Me? Not far at all. How much more contemporary is it than East Is East, or Bend It Like Beckham? Less so. How much funnier? Same answer.
To help the audience figure out that this was a PAKISTANI family who acted in a very PAKISTANI way, there were PAKISTANI flags on every window. Mr Khan was a tight-fisted old sod who bought mountains of cheap toilet rolls from the Cash & Carry and watered down the washing-up liquid because he was PAKISTANI. Mrs Khan wiped down the plastic cover on the sofa to keep it looking new because she was PAKISTANI. And they were having a wedding in the local mosque because they were all PAKISTANI. Comedy doesn't have a duty to represent real people, but it does need to be funny, and while a family comedy requires a broad appeal, this is no reason to unspool recycled jokes that worked a treat 40 years ago.
Hunderby, thankfully, did what it was supposed to. A spoofy period comedy drama whose plot seems like a cross between Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca and Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, it might have gone the way of so many previous period spoofs like it, and sunk. It did the opposite. Not every joke worked wonders, but it did manage to be funny in a creepy, faux-gothic sort of way. It's written by Nighty Night creator Julia Davis (who seems suddenly omnipresent on TV), and her performance as the quietly crazed housekeeper is by far the strongest.
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