Going for an English is an all-time classic. Pure comedy gold.
Goodness Gracious Me reviewed by Brian Slade
Now and again a sketch-show will produce a piece of comedy gold that so many people identify with it finds itself being quoted for years after the demise of the programme from which it came. Plenty of people love to quote The Two Ronnies’ Four Candles sketch, or mimic Vicky Pollard’s ‘yeah…but no…but yeah…but…shut up!’ but it was Goodness Gracious Me that offered a remarkably accurate parody of a night at the curry house, but while that sketch will be forever the crowning moment of the series, Goodness Gracious Me offered considerably more treats in its ground-breaking series.
Sanjeev Bhaskar and Nitin Sawhney had performed a two-week run of their double act The Secret Asians in 1995 at the Ovalhouse Theatre. The BBC picked up on its rave reviews and so without much heraldry, on 5th July 1996 Radio 4 broadcast at 11pm the first of a four-part comedy sketch show series, Britain’s first all-Asian effort. It promised the arrival of the massive and fierce Bhangra Muffins and His Most Serene Calmness the Guru Maharishi Yogi and his transcendental animal impressions. Starring Bhaskar, Sawhney, Meera Syal, Kulvinder Ghir, and Nina Wadia the show was successful enough to earn a second four-part series and subsequently get promoted to a series on BBC 2 in early 1998, albeit without Sawhney who was pursuing a very successful musical career.
What Bhaksar and his co-stars produced was a succession of characters and situations drawn from his own life and communities. There were of course the two offerings used to push the radio series. The Bhangra Muffins are a pair of teenagers who are an Asian variation of Kevin and Perry, looking to get women and money but not having enough appeal or intelligence to get either. Even when they want to win the grand prize on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? their stupidity gets the better of them, as they are horrified that they have to be 18 to get on the show. As 16-year-olds, must they really wait another four years?
Guru Maharishi Yogi is a character based on the genuine guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi – with one major difference. The real version was widely known for his promotion of Transcendental Meditation, while the Goodness Gracious Me guru has a rather more fiscal approach to his work. He happily suckers white British looking to find some Indian spirituality into surrendering their money in return for his alleged enlightenment.
There is an array of other characters on offer and as with any intelligent quickfire sketch show with more hits than misses, everyone will have their own favourites. There is Sanjeev Austin, the Six-million Rupee Man, a rikshaw test pilot barely alive. In a glorious pastiche of the 1970s cult favourite, he is rebuilt – just not faster, better or stronger than he was before. His first mission is to buy some groceries, something he is able to do because his new bionic eye allows him to see and his bionic arm allows him to carry small items of shopping.
Then there are the competitive mothers, who have arguments of largely sexual one-upmanship on behalf of their sons before ending with one of the catchphrases of the series, but how big is his danda?
One particular success was the Coopers and the Robinsons, two couples who have pushed their Indian roots down deep (their real names are Kapoor and Rabindranath). Their refusal to acknowledge their Indian heritage is invariably given away by what they see as social faux pas that reveal their identity, especially Mr Cooper.
Interviewed years later, Bhaksar recalled that the British community at large had quite narrow preconceptions of what Asians were and what they were about and that by presenting an array of characters that did funny things, they gained a different view on those preconceptions. Two excellent sketches stood out in that manner. One focussed on a group of wide-eyed students on a pilgrimage to Britain to see the sights and absorb its culture. For every embarrassing stereotype employed by standard Brits abroad, there is an equivalent move from the Indian students. They comment on the fact that if you come to the UK you expect to get the flu, they visit the most popular garden – Covent Garden, where they try to fit in by bargaining down the price of the Evening Standard and they even suggest a daring trip to the villages of England – some places in Surrey have never even seen a brown face!
Despite all those great characters and situations, the other sketch to stand out is an all-time classic – going out for an English. It’s pure comedy gold. A collection of inebriated Indians have arrived at a restaurant on a Friday in a complete flip on the drunken lads behaviour in a curry house. ‘Get me the blandest thing on the menu,’ proclaims one, while his friends harass the young white waiter, discuss the impact of steak and kidney pie on their digestive system and eventually order 24 portions of chips to accompany their meal. It’s a hysterical sketch, frighteningly accurate and speaks to anybody who has seen loutish behaviour inflicted upon their local curry house…and that is perhaps what is key to the success of the whole series.
Bhaksar felt that 100% of the Asian community would get the scenarios and characters presented in the show, but that it would still get a hit rate of 80% with the informed white audience. Regardless of how ground-breaking the programme was, it was at its core simply very funny…for instance, new audio applied to genuine segments of Skippy the Bush Kangaroo, now under the guise of Skipinder the Punjabi Kangaroo needs minimal cultural awareness to appreciate how funny the cantankerous drunken voice-over is.
Bhaksar has spoken of his disappointment that Goodness Gracious Me is still looked upon as a landmark show, suggesting that comedy should have moved further forward in the many years that have passed since its airing. He has also suggested that the show could not have been made five years earlier and that in a further five years someone else would have done it. Whatever his thoughts on its impact or legacy however, there is no doubting that simply as an extremely funny sketch show, Goodness Gracious Me remains at the top of the tree 25 years after its arrival.
Published on January 8th, 2023. Written by Brian Slade for Television Heaven.