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Rag-and-bone story

24 August 2012

by Pat Ashworth


POST-Olympics, it is a flourishing climate in which to reflect on what it means to be British. That was not any intention of Steptoe and Son . . . and Sons (Radio 4, Thursday of last week), where Paul Jackson and a group of later-generation TV comedy writers were assessing the show's legacy with its screenwriters, Ray Galton and Alan Simpson. But it provided some fascinating insights.

The show, piloted in 1962 and one of the first to feature working-class people on TV, ran for 13 years. Harold's pretensions to rise above his station made it a political commentary on the times, and the writer Laurence Marks remembered the wildfire of Harold impersonations - "You dirty old man!" - that ran round his school the day after the show went out.

But here was the most powerful suggestion: that, without Steptoe, the unequivocally acknowledged template for character-driven British TV comedy, we might have been doomed to the American gag-driven model. Galton and Simpson said that the show was about what bound the father and son together, and what pulled them apart.

Steptoe has been likened to Pinter, and to Strindberg, which could perhaps account for why this oh-so-British offering ran longest of all in Norway.

Preachers have provided fertile ground for comedy sketches over the years, and Rowan Atkinson is an undoubted master of ecclesiastical cringe. In Word of Mouth (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week), Chris Ledgard embarked on a journey to examine the language used by preachers to inspire their flock.

It took him to a Leicester house-mosque, and to the Nigerian Church of the Redeemed, Bristol. At St Mary's, Battersea, he encountered Canon Simon Butler, and a 20-foot-high pulpit that, Canon Butler acknowledged, could increase the sense of performance, while being no good for vicars with vertigo. Clerics such as the ones relished by Atkinson were probably a thing of the past, he sugges- ted, but he advised: "You always have to be aware of the parsonical voice."

Voices on the radio have an intimacy and a mystery that is not conveyed to the same extent by TV. I love to hear the Scottish inflection in the voice of the cheery Sikh writer, comedian, and broadcaster Hardeep Singh Kohli, who grew up in Glasgow and has been travelling around the UK to see how integrated British and Indian cultures have become since independence.

In Indian Britain (Radio 2, Wednesday of last week), he was enjoying a series of satisfying encounters in my own East Midlands region, which illustrated just how richly infused the two cultures have become. A bridal shop on Belgrave Road, Leicester, has become a magnet for the many young women in Britain living part-Western, part-Asian lifestyles. There is a whole fashion industry here, dedicated to making wedding dresses that reflect this infusion, which the broadcaster cheekily summed up as Dynasty meets Dar es Salaam.

He has a light touch, but a great deal of perception. "I wonder what would have happened if we hadn't put the race industry in place," he said. "I do worry that we sometimes create as many problems as we cure."


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