After a quarter of a century, The Real McCoy made a highly anticipated return to our TV screens on Monday.
Every episode of the influential sketch comedy show is now available on BBC iPlayer – the first time many fans will have been able to watch the show since it was originally broadcast between 1991-1996.
I was born in 1992 and, by the time I was old enough to watch and appreciate television, The Real McCoy had finished its run. However, I revelled in watching episodes of the hit-show that a family member had taped on VHS – remember those?
The Real McCoy wasn’t just comedy for the sake of laughs – it was the perfect example of edutainment (where education meets entertainment), and gave a unique insight into Black British life, something that was before then sorely lacking in British media representation.
It blew my little mind to see people who looked like me dazzle the world with their skills and place our stories and cultural experiences at the forefront of TV, to see Black cast members talk like my mum, aunts, uncles and grandparents.
However, the call for the BBC to re-run the show or release it on DVD has been ongoing for almost a decade, so it’s a shame the corporation neglected to act upon it before now.
Back in 2013, a BBC spokesperson told Davina Hamilton, former entertainment editor at The Voice newspaper, who had been spearheading the publication’s Bring Back The Real McCoy campaign since 2012, that there wasn’t “a big enough market to justify the investment.”
For years, the nation has been able to watch white British comedy classics around the clock on platforms like the Gold channel, including Only Fools And Horses, The Vicar of Dibley, Fawlty Towers and Gimme Gimme Gimme. We’ve seen new standards such as The Catherine Tate Show, Gavin and Stacey and even Little Britain, with its racist use of Blackface, being produced and critically acclaimed. Yet, The Real McCoy has remained buried in obscurity, only relevant to those of us lucky enough to have witnessed it the first time around.
So, why bring it back now?
It’s hard not to question the BBC’s timing. Perhaps they felt pressure to make some kind of public gesture towards Black audiences in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, and the global, social unrest of the Black Lives Matter movement that followed.
But why should Black licence-paying viewers have to put down one piece a begging to see this measure implemented?
Indeed, in reaction to this news, cast member Leo Muhammed told Hamilton: “I think it’s more game playing from the BBC. Because of the upheaval that has stemmed from the murder of George Floyd, I think they’re jumping on the bandwagon and delivering a token gesture to make [Black people] think they genuinely care about us.”
Laughter and nostalgia aside, I also felt a curious twinge of sadness re-watching old episodes earlier this week.
A lump formed in my throat because many of the sociopolitical concerns of the 1990s that were being addressed in sketches are still relevant today, such as police stopping and searching Black men, Conservative government policies disproportionately targeting Black communities, and lack of diversity on television, such as the below gaff: “Look, mum: Black people are on telly!”
It reinforced how so much has changed and yet so very little.
I also felt waves of quiet rage because, almost three decades after The Real McCoy first aired, there’s no equivalent on national television for Black audiences.
How has that been allowed to happen? A couple of short-lived, albeit brilliant, series have come and gone since such as The Lenny Henry Show (originally aired between 1984-1988, then revived in 1995 and 2004-2005), The Crouches, Three Non-Blondes and Famalam.
But a handful of Black shows – both comedy and otherwise – in over a quarter of a century is frankly unconscionable.
Aside from clinging to the odd diverse character in mainstream soaps such as The Trumans in Eastenders during my adolescence, my personal dose of representation as a teenager largely came from Black US sitcoms such as The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and My Wife And Kids, accessed via now-defunct comedy cable TV channel Trouble!. Transatlantic productions provided me with the type of content that was unavailable in my own backyard.
The trouble was that, as much as the physical representation was wondrously refreshing and very necessary, these shows did not totally resonate with me – a Black girl from inner city London – on a cultural level.
The references were not the same; it was not the real McCoy, as it were.
So, for me, The Real McCoy’s return actually highlighted something that perhaps the corporation didn’t intend: as well as the consistent sociopolitical themes across decades, the staggering present-day absence of Black representation on television was laid bare.
And it begs the question: Why? There’s no absence of Black talent, so why aren’t these shows being regularly commissioned?
Even after the plug was pulled on the show, two spin-offs were produced: Goodness Gracious Me and The Kumars at No. 42. Both featured an almost entirely Asian cast, some of whom starred in The Real McCoy, with no permanent Black characters.
This has given rise to accusations that the BBC has deliberately scaled back on Black representation while fulfilling its “BAME” diversity quota with Asian – that is to say non-white – talent.
This has never been publicly addressed but I’ve heard the question raised time and time again during conversations with Black people in our safe spaces. And it’s time to have the discussion more openly, given the national conversation around the use of the acronym during this period of heightened racial tension.
The Real McCoy’s return will expose this classic show to new audiences and make old faithful viewers, like me, very happy – both worthy feats.
But there’s more work to do in terms of increasing Black on-screen representation at the BBC. So, for now, I am holding off from doing cartwheels.
Nadine White is a reporter at HuffPost UK.