The BBC comedy machine churns out a new show for the consumption of British Pakistanis, but funny bones are yet to be tickled
Two weeks ago today, I, along with millions nationwide, sat before the TV, phone in hand, Twitter app at the ready to share every ‘lol’ with the world while armed with a metaphorical pair of spare pants because… well, the hilarious Citizen Khan was gonna make me wet myself with laughter.
After the first episode’s irritating inaccuracies and outdated observations, I felt disappointment. But I didn’t lose hope, figuring he might have saved it all for week two… and then when that failed, I crossed my fingers and thought this, tonight, has to be lucky number three. Finally, after going from the nation’s shopkeepers and taxi drivers, to being the terrorist sex-groomers that helped the Daily Mail churn out endless right-wing fodder, British Pakistanis were going to be funny.
So promisingly it began, opening with the family rolling through the streets of Sparkhill, Birmingham, in a yellow Mercedes that was just the wrong side of the line between old and vintage. They even managed to capture the spirit of the make-do attitude typical of British Pakistanis. Of course I’m talking about improvised off-road parking that has no regard for pedestrians, or any form of civil order for that matter.
Adil Ray, through his confidently-talking, phlegm-hawking Mr Khan, seemed to have captured that self-declared, community-leader ‘uncle’ character, iconic in the childhood memories of many British Pakistanis, down to a tee. Couple that with a pre-historic dress sense, top it off with a Jinnah-cap, and things looked promising.
What followed however, was sheer disappointment. Not digressing from Euan Ferguson’s analysis weeks earlier, there was less wit in ‘the whole half hour of Citizen Khan’ than ‘any three minutes’ of Doctor Who.
I didn’t want to believe it. Even after the terrible opening crack with Mrs Khan’s worry about being ‘un-friended’ on Facebook, I kept a pitiful smile on my face hoping the jokes would improve. I saw Mr Khan entering with an industrial load of toilet-paper, ready and waiting to laugh as a fellow Pakistani uses his licence to finally make a deep, witty joke about some of the useless, petty and trivial ‘business ideas’ our people come up with.
There was a laugh or two, like the ginger joke aimed at Kris Marshall’s Dave, the mosque manager. But even the Dave character just felt a little dry, lacking in soul… and doing no favours in the conspiracy against his fellow gingers.
In parts I almost wanted to be offended. But it wasn’t to be. The real jokes we wanted to see were ones penetrating UK-Pakistani culture’s shortcomings in a witty manner. But despite an entire sitcom of British Pakistanis, it seems real issues in the Pakistani community have been left untouched, like the virgin brides of our hypocrite rude-boy player types.
Of course it would be unrealistic to think the BBC would allow anything too sensitive in a family sitcom aired nationally and depicting a community that finds it difficult to face many realities by way of cultural taboo. But I thought Ray, born into the wider Asian community and having delved into these issues before, would perhaps be given licence to explore this.
Instead we got storylines that could fit into any other sitcom quite easily, with a few adjustments acted out by British Asian actors in typified accents (and beside Ray’s, not very good ones), as Jas Blackwell-Pal rightly points out in her review. Plots like losing the dear old granny, or this week’s ego-fuelled over-optimistic bidding by Khan that loses the family’s funds are tried and tested; writers simply regurgitated the same ideas we’re sick to death of.
This coupled with the mostly mediocre one-liners and pitiful attempts to salvage some lowbrow laughs with the overly simple Amjad, really kills off much of the deep comic potential of the show and high hopes we had. It’s patronising to be expected to laugh at entry-level toilet humour followed by a barrage of shocking jokes about Indians, gingers, and family honour.
As I alluded to earlier, one particularly annoying thing for British Pakistanis and Muslims here was how painfully inaccurate it was. It may not be a major issue for the masses, but to most Muslims, not just the ones that issue a damning fatwa every time they see a naked head of female hair on TV, it’s disappointing seeing it come from a writer that supposedly understands ‘British Pakistan’. A mosque, for example is many things, but not usually a wedding hall. In fact, I’ve been to weddings in old schools, hotels, banquet halls, even a rugby club or two, but not a mosque. It’s strange to see the mosque depicted as an essential venue.
It’s just these little failures in observation and storyboarding that take away support to an already dry script. And Ray’s style-over-substance snippets of ‘slapstick-uncle ji’ aren’t always enough to distract from the fact there is a lot lacking. I mean, unless, of course, the industrial load of toilet tissue at the beginning was a sequestered metaphor? Because it’d come in handy after the severe load of dried-out, toothless, bland humour the BBC has dumped upon us.
I should stop right there, because whilst the show may not be perfect, we British Asians must learn not to take ourselves so seriously. Inevitably, many British Pakistanis, including myself, will continue to watch. And hope. Hope to be shown a true critical reflection of ourselves in the mirror, and maybe even laugh at it.
Following on from such programmes as Goodness Gracious Me, this show gives British Asians much needed exposure. We’ve got our foot in the door. Now if we can keep it there, just long enough for a few sponsor appeals to get our funnier cousins some form of entry-visa into mainstream comedy, we could potentially sheikh things up.
Like my preferred means of eating naan-kebaab, that’s a wrap.
Photo Credits: Jay Brooks / BBC
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