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
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
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."