Box clever: A message to take away

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A ground-breaking Asian sketch show on BBC2 aims to use comedy to make people think. But why hasn't anyone thought of it before?

A group of young Asians sit around a restaurant table extolling the virtues of their weekly ritual: "You go out, get tanked up, and you go for an English. It wouldn't be Friday night if you didn't go for an English." The blokes proceed to order far too many dishes ("24 plates of chips") and insult the waiters, imitating their accents and mispronouncing their names. Some of the party are derided for ordering dishes that are not bland enough. Sound familiar?

This clever role-reversal sketch features in Goodness Gracious Me, billed as "Britain's all-Asian television sketch show". Performed by the versatile quartet of Meera Syal, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Nina Wadia and Kulvinder Ghir, it is transferring from Radio 4, where it won last year's Sony Gold Award for comedy.

Its producer, Anil Gupta, and co-writer, Sharat Sardana, sit in a north London pub between edits and contemplate the question: Why have we not seen a series like this before? "The show is about second-generation British Asians, people born and brought up here," Gupta reckons. "The immigrant culture is to work hard to get a profession or work in business. You don't think, `I'll break into the mainstream media' when you've just arrived and you're building a community. But the children of those immigrants who came here in the 1960s are now finding confidence in their own identity and are saying, `This is who we are'."

"And, `I'm not going to medical college'," adds Sardana with a laugh. "There's an Asian Generation X that has helped. Now you have people like us leaving college with decent degrees thinking, `I don't want to do banking'. I hate the idea of going to law school and sharing a flat with people in Clapham." "Although you'd get a good drama out of it," Gupta chips in, like a veteran double-act partner.

Is there a danger, though, that the humour will not be universal? Gupta dismisses that suggestion. "People say `We won't understand the references'. You might have said that when you first heard Woody Allen, but you soon understand the references to dominant mothers and guilt. You don't have to be steeped in Jewish culture to understand them. We hope people will find the same with us."

The other worry is that Goodness Gracious Me might reinforce racial cliches. "People say we're playing to stereotypes," Gupta admits. "But we're making comedy, and comedy works by playing with stereotypes. You can't be funny and liberal and present the other side all in one sketch. Hopefully, over the series, we present the whole spectrum rather than just one stereotype."

It is important to remember that Goodness Gracious Me is a comedy show as opposed to a promotional video for the Commission for Racial Equality. In the view of Jon Plowman, the BBC's head of comedy and the executive producer of Goodness Gracious Me, "the show is not banging a drum. It's not aimed at a ghetto or a particular community; it's just jolly funny."

Gupta, who previously worked with Sardana on the black sketch series The Real McCoy, chimes in: "On The Real McCoy, after every sketch there'd be a big discussion about whether it presented the black community in a positive light. In terms of comedy, that's very limiting. If you worry about what the BNP will think or about white bigots saying, `Aha, that sketch proves that all black people are criminals', then you're doomed... Audiences' first reaction is to run a mile if they think something is going to be worthy. There have been `worthy' attempts to do ethnic minority shows which fulfil quotas, but a lot of the time they've been awful."

All the same, without being preachy, Gupta hopes that Goodness Gracious Me will at least give people pause for thought. One canny sketch exposes the shallowness of English people in their gap year going in search of the "real India"; it shows a group of Indian students looking for the "real England" in deepest Guildford and complaining about the beggars.

"English people say `You've got to go to the villages to find the real India', but when Americans say `Real England is cricket on the village green and warm beer', we resent it," Gupta declares. "The `real India' travellers think Indian people sit around being mystical in piles of shit accepting it as part of the wheel of life. Bollocks. They want a fridge and cable TV. There's so much comic fuel there, so many myths that need debunking."

He goes on to cite the aforementioned "going for an English" sketch. "That is most English people's experience of Indian culture. The sketch is trying to address the issue in a way that might make people think. If we'd done it as white people, that would just put people's backs up; they don't want to be lectured. This way you make the Indian angle more accessible. It's easier to see the absurdities of what you do when you watch other people doing it. It's like Animal Farm. When you see people asking for 24 plates of chips, you realise how ridiculous it is."

As we part, Gupta has one heartfelt request. "Please don't use any crappy curry puns in the headline."

`Goodness Gracious Me' is on Monday at 10pm on BBC2

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