By the 1990s, there was a sizeable population of Asian—specifically, South Asian—origin in Britain. In 1948, needing labor power to rebuild the country after the Second World War, Britain had opened its doors to all subjects of the Empire, or former Empire. In 1962, after the economy started slowing down, immigration was restricted, and that process continued with still more restrictive legislation going into effect in the 1970s and 1980s. Still, by the 1980s and 1990s, the mostly British-born children of the post-war immigrants were making their presence felt in the culture, and the BBC Two television skit comedy series Goodness Gracious Me (1998-2001) was a hilarious and influential example. The show started out on BBC Radio 4 (1996-1998), and the television series was a huge crossover success, followed avidly by Asians and non-Asians alike.
The show’s title came from a song of the same name in the Peter Sellers-Sophia Loren comedy, The Millionnairess (1960), in which Sellers, playing an Indian doctor, created a parodic Indian accent that was to become the definitive, almost the “authentic” accent required for anyone playing the part of an Indian on stage or screen, even if they were actually Indian themselves. The brilliant young ensemble cast, Meera Syal, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Kulvinder Ghir, and Nina Wadia played on this irony, parodying the parody.
Written as they were by young British Asians, the skits’ irreverent humor more-or-less equally targetted white British stereotyping of Asians, and their parents’ generation of Asian immigrants. Many of them turned the tables on British ignorance or racism (see Jonathan, Going for an English, Authentic, and the fake Guru), while others comedically reinforced the stereotypes of Asian parents (see Muslim Boy Converts to Judaism (oops, this one seems to have been removed from YouTube), Typical Asian Parents, and the skits of The Coopers (Kapoors), who try to be more English than the English). I adored the show, because there was nothing nearly as clever or sophisticated in the U.S. at the time (the South Asian population being largely made up of post-1965 immigrants and their children). Still, I winced now and then when the jokes were at the expense of the immigrant parents, since, as a 1.5 generation immigrant born and raised outside of the U.S., I identified with the parents’ generation at least as much as that of the children.
Each member of the cast has gone on to even greater accomplishments, especially Meera Syal and Sanjeev Bhaskar, who married each other after doing the talk-show parody The Kumars at No. 42 together. Meera Syal, MBE, who played Sanjeev’s grandmother in The Kumars, has acted prolifically in theater and film as well as in television, and is the author of two novels, Anita and Me (1996, made into a BBC film, 2002) and Life Isn’t All Ha Ha Hee Hee (1999, made into a BBC mini-series, 2005). Besides acting in Goodness Gracious Me and The Kumars, and playing numerous film roles, Sanjeev Bhaskar, OBE, has hosted the documentary series India with Sanjeev Bhaskar, written and starred in the ITV sitcom Mumbai Calling, and most recently, stars in The Indian Doctor (BBC One).
My focus on Syal and Bhaskar should in no way diminish the talent of Nina Wadia and Kulvinder Ghir. Wadia is perfect in her over-the-top parodies of Indian mothers (see Competitive Mothers: Sexual Prowess) and perhaps my favorite sketch of all is Ghir’s Buddhist Pest Control Man. I can’t imagine British culture without Goodness Gracious Me. If you haven’t yet come across it, and have even the tiniest funny bone in your body, you’re in for a treat.