TV Review: Lenny Henry's Race Through Comedy – Sitcoms

TV Review: Lenny Henry's Race Through Comedy – Sitcoms

Lenny Henry is definitely the best person to front this examination of race in television comedy. After all, he's been in quite a lot of the programmes featured. In this first episode, for example, he pitches up in early ITV sitcom The Fosters and later BBC cooking comedy Chef! No doubt he will crop up in archive clips in the forthcoming episodes looking at stand-up and sketch shows.

The use of the word "race" in the title can also describe Henry's presenting style as he rattles through clips of “the good, the bad and frankly really ugly" sitcoms at a fair old lick. But then again there is a lot to get in as we see the way black comedies have changed over the years. Things start off pretty bad, of course, with Spike Milligan blacking up in the factory-set Curry and Chips. Though it is not mentiond here, I thought Milligan had defended his portrayal of an Asian immigrant by saying that he grew up in India, but the concept still seems pretty uncomfortable.

Not as uncomfortable, of course, as Love Thy Neighbour. Even though the white family was portrayed as bigots and the black family next door always got the better of them, hearing the words "nig-nog" and "sambo" repeatedly bandied around send a chill down the spine in these more enlightened times. On the other hand, Don Warrington brought a touch of class to Rising Damp. 

There are also interviews with cast members and clips from less well-remembered shows that traded on racial sterotypes such as Mind Your Language and Mixed Blessings. As is pointed out, even when the programmes were setting out to be sympathetic they portrayed black families as a problem. Things did change though. Desmonds on C4 starring the late, great Norman Beaton (compared to David Jason and John Cleese here) was a big hit and had a very positive, classic comedy vibe. 

It's interesting to see that a lot of the British attempts to get black faces onscreen were following in the slipstream of Amerian mega comedies including, ahem, The Cosby Show (dealt with delicately here) up to Will Smith in the Fresh Prince of Bel Air (Henry is pictured with British actor Joseph Marcell, who played the Bel-Air butler). 

Things these days seem healthier as the programme comes more up to date and celebrates hits such as PhoneShop and Chewing Gum. Then again, doesn't Citizen Khan trade in clichéd stereotypes?  It's interesting to hear that the people behind Phone Shop were not getting very far with Channel 4 until Ricky Gervais took a look at their draft, let them credit him as script editor and before you can say "dodgy iPhone charger" they were commissioned.

Henry has regularly spoken out about diversity in broadcasting so he a) knows his subject and b) cares about his subject. The only shame about this illuminating programme is that it is on Gold, rather than primetime BBC One. Maybe they should have given Ricky Gervais a script editor credit.

The series continues with programmes on stand-up and sketch shows on Gold at 9pm on Wednesday 16 Oct and Thursday 17 Oct.

 

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