I have a problem with blackface and yellowface, generally when there are more than capable actors who could have taken the role, but I make exceptions in some situations.
Take, for example, the news that Little Britain and Come Fly with Me are being removed from streaming services because of what are now deemed racist portrayals. Matt Lucas, who plays half the roles in each, has even said that the shows were right for the time but they’re not what he would make today. Yet I don’t find myself being troubled by his and David Walliams’s characters, since in both they are equal-opportunity about it, even going so far as to address racism head-on with Come Fly with Me’s Ian Foot, a clearly racist character.
I always viewed everyone from Ting Tong to Precious as caricatures viewed through a British lens, and it is through their comedy that they shine a light on the nation’s attitudes. Matt and David might not like me grouping their work in with Benny Hill’s Chow Mein character, who, while offensive to many Chinese, tended to expose the discomfort of the English “straight man” character, usually portrayed by Henry McGee. I can’t think of one where Mein doesn’t get the upper hand. I like to think these characters all come from the same place.
Sometimes, especially in comedy, you need people of the same race as most of the audience to point to their nation’s attitudes (and often intolerance)—it’s often more powerful for them as it’s not seen as preaching. Where I have a problem is when characters are founded on utterly false stereotypes, e.g. the bad Asian driver, the loud black man.
And can you imagine the furore if every character portrayed by Matt and David in Come Fly with Me was white? They would be sharply criticized for not being representative of the many cultures at a modern British airport.
I don’t turn a blind eye to brownface in Hong Kong (Chinese actors playing Indians) or the mangled Cantonese used to dub white actors, but the same rules apply: if it shines a light on a situation, helps open our collective eyes, and make us better people, then surely we can accept those?
I Tweeted tonight something I had mentioned on this blog many years ago: Vince Powell’s sitcom Mind Your Language, set in 1970s Britain, where Barry Evans’s Jeremy Brown character, an ESL teacher, has to deal with his highly multicultural and multiracial class. The joke is always, ultimately, on Mr Brown, or the principal, Miss Courtenay, for their inability to adjust to the new arrivals and to understand their cultures. Maybe it’s rose-coloured glasses, but I don’t remember the students being shown as second-class; they often help Jeremy Brown out of a pickle.
Importantly, many of the actors portrayed their own races, and, if the DVD commentary is to be believed, they were often complimented by people of the same background for their roles.
Powell based some of his stories on real life: a foreign au pair worked for them and brought home her ESL classmates, and he began getting ideas for the sitcom.
However, at some stage, this show was deemed to be racist. As I Tweeted tonight, ‘I loved Mind Your Language but white people said the depictions of POC were racist. Hang on, isn’t it more racist to presume we can’t complain ourselves? Most of the actors in that depicted their own race.
‘I can only speak for my own, and I didn’t find the Chinese character racist. Because there were elements of truth in there, she was portrayed by someone of my ethnicity, and the scripts were ultimately joking about the British not adjusting well to immigrant cultures.
‘Which, given how Leavers campaigned about Brexit, continues to be true. I get why some blackface and yellowface stuff needs to go but can’t we have a say?
‘Tonight on TV1 news, there were two white people commenting on the offensiveness of minority portrayals in Little Britain and Come Fly with Me. I hope someone sees the irony in that.’
However, if any minorities depicted by Matt and David are offended by their work—Ting Tong, Asuka and Nanako are the only Asiatic characters they do that I can think of, so east Asians aren’t even that well represented—of course I will defer to your judgement. I can’t pretend to know what it’s like for someone of Pakistani heritage to see Matt’s Taaj Manzoor, or someone with a Jamaican heritage to see Precious Little. However, unlike some commentators, I do not presume that members of their community are powerless to speak up, and they are always welcome on this forum.