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Lenny Henry's Race Through Comedy, Gold review - illuminating account of TV's struggle to become multicultural | reviews, news & interviews

Lenny Henry's Race Through Comedy, Gold review - illuminating account of TV's struggle to become multicultural

Lenny Henry's Race Through Comedy, Gold review - illuminating account of TV's struggle to become multicultural

Dudley's most famous son delivers home truths about sitcom history

Lenny Henry, in search of comic diversityUKTV / Mark Johnson

Sir Lenny Henry, PhD and CBE, is scarcely recognisable as the teenager who made his TV debut on New Faces in 1975. He’s been a stand-up comedian, musician and Shakespearean actor, and even wrote his own dramatised autobiography for BBC One.

A determined buster of boundaries, he has also campaigned tirelessly for more ethnic diversity on British TV. For this new three-part series, aided by film clips and a few talking heads, he uses the history of TV comedy to map changing attitudes to race and immigration. Programmes two and three will tackle stand-up and sketch comedy, while this opening episode concerned itself with sitcoms.

Henry himself became a part of TV history when he appeared as Sonny Foster in The Fosters (1976), British TV’s first all-black sitcom, albeit adapted from the American series Good Times. “I was terrible, I was really bad,” he cringed, but he’d placed himself on the right side of history. The TV establishment of the Sixties and Seventies had had difficulties in grasping the changes going on in British society, and went through an excruciating learning curve. Michael Grade, a bigwig at London Weekend Television through the Seventies, admitted here that “we didn’t notice that there were people of colour out there” (pictured below, Lenny Henry as Theophilus P Wildebeeste).

It was flabbergasting to look back and see how different the cultural climate was 50 years ago. In 1969, ITV broadcast Curry and Chips, a sitcom written by Johnny Till Death Us Do Part Speight, and starring a blacked-up Spike Milligan as a Pakistani immigrant called, strangely, Kevin O’Grady. It was rapidly pulled from the schedules following widespread outrage.

Love Thy Neighbour (1972) did at least cast real black people, but became notorious for use of terms like “nig-nog” and “sambo”. Mind Your Language and Mixed Blessings weren’t a lot better. Even though Mind Your Language was a ratings hit, Grade (who’d commissioned it) cancelled it because of its racial stereotyping.

Sir Lenny hailed the arrival of Channel 4 in the early Eighties as an emancipating breakthrough moment, and in 1983 it launched the first original black British sitcom No Problem! Still, American TV was leading the way with The Cosby Show – which featured “stories where black people had agency,” as the academic Robert Beckford put it – and charged into the Nineties with the hiphop-influenced Fresh Prince of Bel Air, the launchpad for Will Smith’s career. Henry gently reminded us of another of his personal landmarks, his mid-Nineties series Chef!, which succeeded both as a satire on bombastic telly-cuisiniers and as proof of his all-round acting skills, regardless of ethnic background.

This wasn’t exactly dynamite TV, but it was an illuminating and sometimes horrifying documentary which reminded us of some pertinent truths. Henry ended on an optimistic note, enthusing about recent British shows like People Just Do Nothing and Michaela Coel’s Chewing Gum, which have short-circuited old-style TV commissioning via social media and the net. Suddenly, all things seem possible.

'Curry and Chips' was rapidly pulled from the schedules following widespread outrage

rating

Editor Rating: 
3
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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