How Goodness Gracious Me turned stereotypes to satire & transformed British comedy
Hit comedy Goodness Gracious Me turned stereotypes of British Asian’s upside down and inside out when they launched, initially on radio and then BBC2 TV in the 1990s.
Rather than avoiding stereotypes about Indian culture, the team used them: reversing or exaggerating them. In the process, Goodness Gracious Me both revealed and unpicked over-simplified ways of seeing Asian people. By satirising the British Indians from the inside out, the programme humanised and universalised their experience.
So, the competitive mothers who boast to one another about their successful sons are recognisable to all who know those who seek status through academic and business success.
Bollywood reporter, Smeeta Smitten “Showbiz Kitten” name drops like mad while remaining outside the inner circle at showbiz events and is no different from other wannabees who hang around celebrities.
The snobbish Coopers (Kapoors) and Robinsons (Rabindranaths) who try so hard that they are more English than the English, behave just like nouveau-riche white people trying to fit in with their middle class neighbours that were satirised a decade or two earlier.
It’s not just what you say, but who says it
The fact that the satire were written and performed by British Indians themselves, Meera Syal, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Kulvinder Ghir and Nina Wadia (plus the guy the BBC’s website calls “‘token white’ Dave Lamb”) was a game changer. No longer were British Indians judged by others. Now they included everyone as a target, no matter what culture they came from.
In fact, the name and title music of the show pointedly referred to the previous practise of having comedy Indians performed by ‘blacked-up’ white actors. Goodness Gracious Me, was a reference to a song in which Peter Sellars pretended to be an Indian doctor.
Perhaps their most famous sketch, aired on the first Goodness Gracious Me TV show, was called “Going for an English.” It portrays a group of young Indians going to an English restaurant. There they ask for the “blandest thing on the menu”, order 24 plates of chips for a table of six and are rude and dismissive to the waiter when he suggests they don’t need so many.
Speaking truth and transforming who holds the power
All humour piggybacks on recognising a truth and revealing it in a new way; a way that allows us to see even very critical things without feeling stung. It is the reasons that jesters have traditionally been the ones to speak truth to power.
And no British person who watched “Going for an English” could fail to get the message about the boorish behaviour of drunken Brits “going for a curry”. No longer could white English youth demonstrate how “tough” they were, ordering the hottest thing on the menu, without being self-mocking.
“Going for an English” is now one of the best known and best loved comedy sketches in the UK. And the ability to create situations with new guises that made the show so groundbreaking. Suddenly outsiders could recognise their own experiences in the humour they shared.
The Goodness Gracious Me team combined truth telling, wit and originality to help us to see things in new ways. In the process they paved the way for comedians such as Omid Djalili and Shappi Khorsandi (both with Iranian roots) who have also created assumption-busting humour based on their experiences on the receiving end of stereotypes.
A doorway to the mainstream?
They also opened doors for Asian actors, though Meera Syal believes there is still a way to go.
“Our stories have been seen, I suppose, as not mainstream still”, she said to The Independent journalist Jonathan Owen adding that black actors have moved on further in terms of escaping labelling “because they’ve had America fighting their corner earlier than we did, paving the way.”
Nonetheless, Goodness Gracious Me won Best Entertainment at the Broadcasting Press Guild Award and the Team Award from the Royal Television Society, UK in 1999. The cast went on to produce more original comedy shows, such as The Kumars at no.42, as well as performing in a range of other comedy and drama productions.
Perhaps Syal is right, and Asian comedians and actors are not yet seen as mainstream. But their presence no longer surprises us. The door is open, now, for a range of voices to be heard, not just Peter Sellars with his mock Indian accent. And I wonder, can game-changing comedy ever truly be mainstream.
Devi Clark is CEO and Editor at The Outsiders’ Network. Devi also coaches careers changers who want a meaningful ethical career at NewLeaf Coaching.
You can purchase a DVD of series 1 of Goodness Gracious Me from BBC2 here