Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
Race and the Sitcom

How the sitcom has tackled one of society's must difficult subjects

Main image of Race and the Sitcom

Before the 1950s, when the 'Windrush generation' of immigrants from the West Indies began to make its presence felt, race was a relatively little-used subject for British comedians. Even after that, while those touring the pubs and working-men's clubs might well have included racial material in their acts, such humour made little impact on television or radio comedy which, thanks to strict producers' codes, scarcely if ever touched on controversial issues.

In the early 1960s, however, in the wake of the opportunities created by series like That Was the Week that Was (BBC, 1962-63) and Steptoe and Son (BBC, 1962-65; 1970-74) to reflect and engage with contemporary social issues, Johnny Speight's Till Death Us Do Part (BBC, 1965-75) introduced working-class bigot Alf Garnett. Exceptionally played by Warren Mitchell, Garnett was unlike any character seen on television before that time; an unapologetic racist, passionate super-patriot, aggressive anti-trade unionist and monarchist, he was the expression of the most appalling rightwing views that Speight could dream up. The character and the show were huge hits, regularly leaving pubs almost empty on Monday evenings.

Comedy frequently offers insights into the most sensitive of social or political issues of its time, and Speight and Mitchell's intention in Till Death was to ridicule the attitudes embodied in Garnett. But fiction can have a power beyond the control of its creators, and although the comedy was largely at the expense of him and his long-suffering but similarly ignorant wife, Elsie, it became clear that a proportion of viewers identified with 'Chairman Alf' and considered his declamations on 'coons', 'wogs' and immigration a courageous expression of their own views.

While Speight's defence of Till Death was undoubtedly sincere, he was on rockier ground with his subsequent creation, Curry and Chips (ITV, 1969). The Irish-Pakistani Kevin O'Grady, played by a browned-up Spike Milligan, had previously appeared in an episode of Till Death. But Curry and Chips, though it again attempted to raise important questions, lacked a strong enough voice to challenge the racist attitudes of its characters, and too much of its humour relied on the use of crude racial abuse and Milligan's caricatured performance as the charmlessly-nicknamed 'Paki Paddy'. The shocked reaction from some viewers and cultural commentators led to the show being dropped by ITV after just six episodes, and in retrospect it's hard to understand how Speight and LWT can have failed to anticipate the offence it caused.

Milligan, for one, was undeterred - in 1975 he browned-up again for The Melting Pot (BBC), in which he and John Bird played a Pakistani father and son illegally arrived in Britain via Amsterdam and landed in a very racially-mixed London lodging-house, replete with a black Yorkshireman and a Chinese Cockney, among others. The BBC, fearing a public relations disaster, pulled the series after a single episode.

Such sensitivity did not mean that the tide had yet turned, however. In the early 1970s, with the anti-immigration warnings of politician Enoch Powell and others stirring up racial tension, one of ITV's most popular shows was Love Thy Neighbour (1972-76), written by Vince Powell and Harry Driver. The series dealt with the tensions that arise when a Tory-voting West Indian couple, Bill and Barbara, move next door to white working-class socialist Eddie and his wife Joan. As in Curry and Chips, the antagonism between the two lead characters, played by Rudolph Walker and Jack Smethurst, was expressed with little more than obvious racial name-calling, with words like 'coon', 'sambo' and 'honky' recurring with distressing regularity, to the apparent hilarity of the studio audience.

Walker has defended his role in the series, arguing that Bill was just as much a fool as Eddie, and gave as good as he got. This, however, seems to be missing the point. Worse, it leads by implication to the view that the racist and the victim of racism are somehow 'as bad as each other'.

The BBC's It Ain't Half Hot, Mum (1974-81), written by Dad's Army (BBC, 1968-77) creators David Croft and Jimmy Perry and set among an army entertainments unit in India during and after WWII, gained most of its laughs at the expense of the British occupiers, but suffered from its narrow stereotypes of its handful of Indian supporting characters as alternately servile, foolish, lazy or devious.

Stereotyping was at the very heart of Mind Your Language (ITV, 1977-79), which presented an unprecedented mix of nationalities and races for a British sitcom, but offered only the crudest caricatures. The series was saved from the grossest offensiveness partly thanks to the genial tolerance of its central character, English language teacher Mr Brown (Barry Evans), but it was hardly an advance.

ITV's Mixed Blessings (1978-80) was, superficially, more progressive, comically exploring the relationship between white man Thomas and his black fiancée, Susan, and its effects on their respective families and neighbours. But although the two main characters were sympathetically played by Christopher Blake and Muriel Odunton, the series was critically undermined by presenting their relationship as a problem.

Thankfully, not all '70s sitcoms were so muddled. In Rising Damp (ITV, 1974-78) Don Warrington's Philip may have suffered the ignorant racial slurs of Leonard Rossiter's odious Rigsby, but he routinely got the better of his would-be tormenter and was by some way the series' most intelligent and dignified character. In Porridge (BBC, 1974-77), the troubled mixed-race Scot, McLaren (Tony Osoba), faced some taunting from his fellow prisoners, including Ronnie Barker's Fletcher, but was generally treated with respect and sympathy.

By the mid-1970s, however, the absence of black voices in television fiction's discussions of race was causing growing resentment among black audiences and, particularly, black political groups. In this charged atmosphere, new comedies aimed at black audiences, even those by black writers, were judged by harsh standards and, perhaps inevitably, found wanting.

Britain's first all-black sitcom was The Fosters (ITV, 1976-77), about a Caribbean couple and their three British-born children living on a South London housing estate. But the series' American origins (it was almost wholly reliant on the scripts of US sitcom Good Times, only slightly tailored for British sensibilities) worked against the gritty realism of its scenario, and despite its pioneering status, it attracted little enthusiasm and is best remembered for the appearance of the young Lenny Henry.

The 1980s saw television moving with the times and beginning to respond, albeit awkwardly, to calls for greater sophistication in black representations. No Problem! (ITV, 1983-85) drew its cast and creators from the Black Theatre Co-operative, and concerned the teenage and twentysomething Powell kids, left to fend for themselves in a Willesden council house after their parents have returned to Jamaica. But the accent was on comedy, not politics, and the show quickly alienated some black activists, who objected to the narrow roles allotted to its female characters, to its casual jokes at the expense of Asians (ironic given its Asian co-writers, Farukh Dhondy and Mustapha Matura), and even to the scenario itself, which, in the words of cultural critic Paul Gilroy, put "voluntary repatriation at the heart of the situation".

Dhondy was subsequently appointed Commissioning Editor of Multicultural Programmes at the recently-established Channel 4. The very existence of such a post was a sign of the sea change in British broadcasting represented by the new channel, with its unique remit to serve minority interests. Dhondy had already scripted an Asian-themed sitcom for the channel. However, Tandoori Nights (1985-87), about a pair of rival Indian restaurants on East London's Brick Lane, failed to live up to expectations, despite a talented cast and writers including Meera Syal.

Channel 4 arguably did more for the cause of black comedy with its imports of The Cosby Show (US, 1984-92), which not only offered a rare example of a financially secure and happy black family, but actually managed to be consistently funny, even if the lifestyle it depicted was an unattainable fantasy for most British (or American) blacks.

Closer to home was Trix Worrell's Desmond's (1989-94), unquestionably the most successful black British sitcom and one of Channel 4's biggest comedy hits. Set in a Peckham barber's shop that doubled as a kind of drop-in social centre for friends and family, the series centred on Norman Beaton's tetchy but warm-hearted title character and his forgiving wife Shirley (Carmen Munroe). Comedy sprang from generational misunderstandings between the West Indian parents and their British-born offspring, but also from the good-natured banter between the characters. Enthusiastically received by its studio audience, Desmond's was unusually comfortable with itself, but came to a close following Beaton's untimely death in 1994. Its legacy survived for a time in the spin-off Porkpie (Channel 4, 1995-96).

Desmond's represented a breakthrough for black representations. In his sitcom return, Chef! (BBC, 1993-96), Lenny Henry, by now well-established as the only black British comedian with mainstream appeal, achieved the distinction of making race almost entirely incidental to the scenario, while spoof chat show The Kumars at Number 42 (BBC, 2001-), like its two stars' (Meera Syal and Sanjeev Bhaskar) previous work, the sketch show Goodness Gracious Me (BBC, 1998-2000), wittily played with Asian stereotypes, particularly family relationships.

In Henry, Syal and Bhaskar, Britain now has three black performers who have managed to attain true and lasting stardom in comedy. But although this represents a positive development, it seems little to show for a history of more than half a century.

Mark Duguid

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of Chef! (1993-96)

Chef! (1993-96)

Lenny Henry's triumphant return to sitcom

Thumbnail image of Curry and Chips (1969)

Curry and Chips (1969)

Notorious sitcom starring Spike Milligan as an Irish/Pakistani worker

Thumbnail image of Desmond's (1988-94)

Desmond's (1988-94)

Comedy series set in a Peckham barber's shop

Thumbnail image of Fosters, The (1976-77)

Fosters, The (1976-77)

Sitcom about the life of a South London black family

Thumbnail image of It Ain't Half Hot Mum (1974-81)

It Ain't Half Hot Mum (1974-81)

Popular sitcom from the creators of Dad's Army

Thumbnail image of Kumars at No.42, The (2001-03)

Kumars at No.42, The (2001-03)

Comedy chat-show featuring the Kumars interviewing genuine guests

Thumbnail image of Love Thy Neighbour (1972-76)

Love Thy Neighbour (1972-76)

Notorious but once-popular sitcom about racially-feuding neighbours

Thumbnail image of Mind Your Language (1977-79, 1986)

Mind Your Language (1977-79, 1986)

Sitcom about a class of foreign students learning English

Thumbnail image of Mixed Blessings (1978-80)

Mixed Blessings (1978-80)

Comedy series about a mixed-race married couple

Thumbnail image of Porridge (1974-77)

Porridge (1974-77)

Ronnie Barker goes behind bars in the definitive prison sitcom

Thumbnail image of Red Dwarf (1988-99)

Red Dwarf (1988-99)

Hugely popular SF sitcom that defied BBC critics to run for over a decade

Thumbnail image of Rising Damp (1974-78)

Rising Damp (1974-78)

Leonard Rossiter's first great sitcom role as seedy landlord Rigsby

Thumbnail image of Tandoori Nights (1985-87)

Tandoori Nights (1985-87)

Sitcom set in an Indian restaurant in East London's Brick Lane

Thumbnail image of Till Death Us Do Part (1966-75)

Till Death Us Do Part (1966-75)

Controversial comedy with Warren Mitchell as the bigoted Alf Garnett

Related Collections

Thumbnail image of Black TV Writers

Black TV Writers

Small-screen pioneers

Thumbnail image of Sitcom


Ever-popular television genre

Thumbnail image of The Sitcom Family

The Sitcom Family

Half a century of social change played for laughs

Related People and Organisations

Thumbnail image of Barclay, Humphrey (1941-)

Barclay, Humphrey (1941-)

Producer, Executive

Thumbnail image of Beaton, Norman (1934-1994)

Beaton, Norman (1934-1994)


Thumbnail image of Henry, Lenny (1958- )

Henry, Lenny (1958- )

Comedian, Presenter, Writer

Thumbnail image of Mitchell, Warren (1926-)

Mitchell, Warren (1926-)


Thumbnail image of Munroe, Carmen (1932-)

Munroe, Carmen (1932-)


Thumbnail image of Speight, Johnny (1920-1998)

Speight, Johnny (1920-1998)


Thumbnail image of Syal, Meera (1962-)

Syal, Meera (1962-)

Actor, Writer