I remember interviewing Meera Syal in her (then) east London home in 1998 and talking about a new comedy she had been working on with fellow performers Kulvinder Ghir, Nina Wadia, Sanjeev Bhaskar and “token white man” Dave Lamb.
It was called Goodness Gracious Me and was a sketch show with a twist: British-Asians.
Taking as its title the famous song performed in a cod Indian accent by Peter Sellers, I vividly recall her steeliness when talking about a comedy that took a sideways look at Anglo-Indian life from an insider’s perspective.
The Sellers song “wasn’t especially funny” she remarked. She and her co-stars wanted to “reclaim it” by taking Goodness Gracious Me as their title. I remember Syal telling me that the troupe initially wanted to call the series “Peter Sellers is dead” before settling on Goodness Gracious Me.
The comedy was a hit – a genuine breath of fresh air – and many of the sketches are still fondly remembered today. There was Syal’s elderly grandmother who claimed she could cook everything found in a restaurant at home as long as she could use “a small aubergine” (this character then morphed into the granny she played in the Kumars). Also favourites were the Indian friends going out “for an English” and asking the baffled (white) English waiter for “the blandest thing on the menu”. And of course, who can forget the older man who thinks everything that is good in the world is actually Indian in origin?
This was a comedy that offered a voice to an assimilated generation of young Asians, speaking to them – and about them – for the first time in a mainstream British comedy. Unfortunately there hasn’t been a plethora of Asian-based comedy in the intervening years. It took until 2012 before a comedy – Citizen Khan – earned the distinction of being the first British-Asian sitcom ever on the BBC. Citizen Khan had its fans, but also a number of detractors, some of whom claimed Adil Ray’s patriarchal Brummie stereotyped Muslims.
But Goodness Gracious Me has entered the comedy bloodstream, making stars of Syal and Bhaskar who later married (with both of them honoured by the Queen – Bhaskar with an OBE and Syal with a CBE). Bhaskar even reached number one in the pop charts with Gareth Gates and the Kumars cast in 2003, when a version of the sixties song Spirit in the Sky was released for Comic Relief.
So it’s little wonder that the Goodness Gracious Me troupe have been called up to make a special episode as part of BBC2’s India season – and it feels just as relevant and punchy as it did in 1998.
One of the best new sketches is Brownton Abbey, a spoof of the hit ITV drama series that touches a nerve. Here Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess becomes an Indian grandmother while Hugh Bonneville’s Lord Grantham is replaced by Sanjeev Bhaskar’s head of the household; he summons his burka-clad daughters to demand which of them is marrying a lowly rickshaw-wallah. When the young woman raises her hand, he asks if she is the pretty one. It’s brave. Syal revealed at a preview screening that it was inspired by the similarities between the English class system and the Indian caste system.
Tonight’s episode also has ‘re-imaginings’ of Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi, as if it were made by different directors (Woody Allen, for example, is a neurotic Jewish Gandhi); and there is Brownadder, a spoof of Blackadder which offers a timely reminder of the sacrifices made by soldiers from the subcontinent in both World Wars. A W1A spoof imagines Indian executives agonising BBC-style about whether they should have more white faces on screen to promote diversity.
Goodness Gracious Me still has the power to pack a punch and get you thinking. But isn’t it time there were more British-Asian comedy troupes blazing onto the scene with the panache this lot did back in 1998?
Goodness Gracious Me in on BBC2 at 10pm tonight as part of the channel’s India Season