Citizen Khan: The Rise and Fall of Asians on the Box

From a position of nigh-invisibility, for about 5 minutes in the 90s to be Asian was almost cool. I think as Citizen Khan has reminded us, we've come back down to earth since then, some would say with a bump that still resounds.

Back in 1985, Channel 4 launched the first British Asian sitcom Tandoori Nights.

In a pre-google/ youtube age it's left little digital footprint. Yet the much heralded BBC 1 series Citizen Khan has so far in its two episodes seemed pointedly more dated than its 23 year old predecessor.

The set is straight from East is East. Some of the props are from elsewhere eg the titular Mr Khan's comical headgear had featured earlier in Mind Your Language and the nudge nudge, wink wink humour was sub -Carry On style.

I have used clips of 70s series Mind Your Language (set in an English language class) and Love Thy Neighbour (a situation comedy where the black couple next door was the situation) to show media studies students how British sitcom used to be. Citizen Khan seemed to have plunged backwards in time.

Even some of the gags were recycled - Goodness Gracious Me did the "keeping the packaging plastic on their consumer durables" joke over a decade ago in a much wittier "Bharat Homes" sketch about Asians interiors. This was unsubtle to the point of being bashed over the head with an iron bar.

I'm not alone either in reaching my conclusions. The show has provoked complaints aplenty:

BBC Asian Network claimed an unprecdented response to the subject in the phone-in section.

Callers were divided between taking either the irresponsible or harmless fun positions. The most extreme detractors claimed it was Islamophobic: with the logical conclusion being people attacked outside mosques, EDL surges, girls have hijabs ripped off". Inevitably it has trending on Twitter too both nights running.

British Asian fortunes in popular culture at large/ tv have fluctuated. There were the 80s lavish period dramas of Asians-in-Asia like "Last Days of the Raj" and "the Far Pavillions", recalling the glories of Empire. Later on we were depicted as the quivering victims of Gripper the bully in tv comprehensive "Grange Hill" or in late night BBC2 dramas about girls who'd escaped arranged marriage. The factual stuff felt pretty dreary too - Sunday morning BBC shows with classical Indian dirge-like music fronted by people who looked liked your uncle and auntie in the same way "Blue Peter" presenters always looked like your teachers.

Even when Channel 4 launched the more youth-y magazine show Eastern Eye it was relegated to a graveyard slot and alternated with Black on Black aimed at Afro-Cairibbeans. This idiosyncratic scheduling did have some unintended consequences though - my mum set the video the wrong week once and was converted to heavy reggae act Steel Pulse on the spot.

Things probably reached a high point in the immediate aftermath of Blair's first electoral victory. There was the symmetry of 50 years of Indian independence. It was remarked by the late Robin Cook that the British National Dish was now chicken tikka masala - something cooked up in the UK to be a crowd-pleaser in Indian restaurants making it more British than either than the middle-eastern/ Belgian originating fish and chips or Indian/Chinese-grown tea. "Brimful of Asha" from the still majestic Cornershop reached number one - a pean to an Indian singer delivered by an Anglo-Asian band from Wolverhampton. The newfound influence of all things Asian on all things British was sealed when Blue Peter stopped having presenters like your teachers and got one who looked like your sister (in my case anyway).

Things went downhill as we entered the new millennium. Bradford, Burnley and Oldham erupted into flames in 2001 showing that Asians could riot as well as rock. Hindu community leaders started claiming that these were "Muslim" not "Asian" riots. The disaggregation of the term seemed to be complete by Sept 11th 2011 although as in the London 7/7 bombings, Muslims were perpetrators and victims of the terrorist attacks. Bend it Like Beckham was a hit but probably owed something to the cameo from its title star.

So how do we situate Citizen Khan into this rise-and-fall trajectory? Curiously there was very little in the show to suggest we are in 2012. Possible exceptions are the ginger British convert or Somali mosque-goer who Mr Khan was condescending towards in a rare flash of contemporary awareness - it is the case that there is a hierarchy of immigrants, ask established UK Poles what they think of the recent plumber arrivistes. Things may improve, it's early days but for a comedy show I found it just wasn't that funny.

From a position of nigh-invisibility, for about 5 minutes in the 90s to be Asian was almost cool. I think as Citizen Khan has reminded us, we've come back down to earth since then, some would say with a bump that still resounds.


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