I’ve been making my through The Ultimate boxset of Goodness Gracious Me, an all-Asian sketch show which ran on the BBC between 1998 and 2001. Although the insane cheapness of the sale price was a good thing from my POV, it’s also slightly saddening because it suggests that the series has fallen out of favour. Throughout the run there were sketches specifically referring to how being Asian had finally become fashionable (“Brown is the new Black!”, one character claimed), but in the final series they depicted a white man dumping his Asian girlfriend, because her ethnicity was no longer considered cool enough. Has the same thing happened to GGM? I hope not, because it is my firm belief that The Future is Brown™ and the sooner we accept that fact, the smoother the transition will be… comedy, as ever, should be the conduit for enlightenment…
The core cast was made up of Sanjeev Bhaskar (OBE), Kulvinder Ghir, Meera Syal (MBE) and Nina Wadia, playing Desi characters of all nationalities, ages and backgrounds. The Token Whites were played by Dave Lamb, and various actresses including Fiona Allen. Bhaskar and Syal were also part of the main writing team, and later went on to make The Kumars at No. 42 (and a baby) together. Ghir is probably best known to international audiences as the brother-in-law in Bend It Like Beckham, while Wadia is probably best known to international audiences as, er, the woman trying to break up a fight at his wedding… but a while back she joined the cast of long-running soap opera EastEnders, which has boosted her profile again.
As noted ad nauseam, I am not a big fan of running gags and catchphrases… but GGM was full of them. In fact, it was pretty much built on them. But at least they had the common decency to vary the context in which the catchphrases cropped up, as their characters travelled far and wide across the country (even if the location was only suggested by a few props on stage). The show’s strongest sketches were the ones which addressed the culture clash between East and West directly, usually by turning the tables on an unsuspecting Token Whitey, by making him/her the minority in a strange and foreign land, and seeing how he/she likes it! The most successful, and most famous of these sketches is titled “Going for an English”, and sees a group of drunken Indians visiting their local English restaurant on a Friday night to cause trouble. Some pedants over at Wikipedia have pointed out that they were not the first comedians to conceive of this humorous scenario… but they were the first actual Asians to act it out, so kiss my chuddies!
What was great about the show was that, as a young white Brit living in a city with a large Asian population, it provided some much needed cultural sensitivity training for me. In theory it should be the easiest thing in the world to pronounce another person’s name correctly, no matter where in the world they’re from… it is, after all, only a string of simple syllables… yet we can’t always control the sounds our mouths make, when trying to wrap them around unfamiliar words. The GGM team were there to remind us that things always seem simple and normal to the people who grow up with them, but that doesn’t mean they won’t confuse the crap out of strangers and foreigners. Speaking of which, many of the sketches feature lines in Punjabi, Hindi and Urdu, which get big laughs from the audience, and go straight over my head. But I dig that. I like the fact they didn’t cop out and pander to a mainstream white audience. Having worked in a Deaf school, I have a vague understanding of what it’s like to be in the minority, surrounded by a strange language, and what a relief it was to get back to the staff room and be able to talk with my mouth again. I don’t subscribe to the theory that a shared skin colour, language or culture necessarily equate to shared values and interests… and indeed, I remember not every Asian kid who discussed the show within my earshot was as keen on it as their friends were… but it must have been a breath of fresh air to many viewers.
In stark contrast to ManStrokeWoman, GGM works through a wide array of classes, religions, occupations and accents. The cast were all very talented and adaptable comic actors, and it’s fun to see them swap places from one sketch to the next… you never knew who was going to be playing the grown ups, and who would be playing the kids… you never knew where in the world you’d end up, between India and England… and you never knew exactly who or what would be the butt of the joke, until it landed. For no apparent reason, Bhaskar also re-dubbed footage of Skippy, as a lairy, leering Skipinder the Punjabi Kangaroo! Oh, and they always liked to go out on a song, with either a parody or an original number. To be fair, not every sketch was laugh-out-loud funny, and it’s true that they sometimes had a point to make in place of a joke… but as the first all-Asian comedy show, and probably the most prominent brown faces on British TV, they must have been under an enormous amount of pressure (spoken or unspoken) to please all camps, while also trying to please themselves. That’s the bugger of being a trailblazer, I would imagine. But they managed to keep an admirable balance between the social commentary and the slapstick, which… well, pretty much no other British sketch show has ever attempted or accomplished.
Overall, it’s hard to say what impact GGM had on audiences in general, but it came along at just the right time for me, to help take some of the edge off my own cultural alienation, and for that I’ll always be grateful. It was also very funny, and remains so to this day, thanks to the energetic performances, and endearing characters. Encouraging people to laugh at themselves is a valuable public service too, of course… especially “well-meaning” whites like myself who try to clumsily cherry-pick parts of other cultures and religions they don’t really understand. In my case, it isn’t really driven by fashion, so much as curiosity and a sincere search for spiritual advancement and understanding… but still, sometimes it’s good to be reminded whose turf one is trampling on. Innit.