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    English People Very Nice (a review)

    by guest on 22nd March, 2009 at 8:40 pm    

    This is a guest post by Anwar Akhtar as part of Speaker’s Corner Sundays.

    The play English People Very Nice caused somewhat of a furore at the National Theatre recently. I think it’s good the National Theatre continues its welcome run of work about life in modern urban Britain and not only voices in tweed or period costume. The fact that I loathed large parts of this play is no reason to criticise the National Theatre for putting on work like this, but every reason to criticise the work. Theatre, like all art forms should take risks, even if it offends people.

    The narrative of the East End story regarding race and migration is a familiar one; the Huguenots, the Irish and the Jews all escaping persecution and conflict, followed by West Indians, Asians (especially Bangladeshis), and now the Somalis and the Polish.

    Brick Lane is in many ways to London what Rue De Lapp, Bastille is to Paris and La Ramblas to Barcelona. Walking down it you feel centuries of the history of people, stories, communities, cultures, literature, rather than a history of buildings and rulers (although the religious buildings of Brick Lane (especially the church that became a synagogue, and then a mosque) have their own compelling narrative).

    The play’s first part is a rollicking mix of slapstick and entertaining historical overview; it comes thick and fast with stereotypes and jokes loaded, with what are now fairly benevolent if not affectionate emotions within their usage. More bawdy than brutal, not loaded with the everyday fear and loathing many British Muslims put up with today.

    I realise this is not a fair criticism as obviously time and prejudices move on. As the writer and director would argue, this is the fundamental point of the play. The problem I have is with the second part, with the first on the Huguenots, the Irish, the Jews, was always going to lead up to, The Muslim thing.

    I sat next to an Australian Chinese friend. Her words as the interval arrived were: ‘Dude, your lot are sure going to get it next, I’m so glad there is no Chinese in this’. This sums up what came next.

    Part two was basically the Spectator magazine’s take on Brick lane, British Muslims and multicultural Britain. If you’ve never read the Spectator, I’m inclined to say count yourself lucky, but imagine Fox News, with elocution lessons and you’re there.

    Whilst the National have got every right to put this play on, I’ve got every right to say it is basically how the Spectator et al see Brick lane. I know they are now supposedly in the cultural ascendancy, with one of their boys (Boris) now Mayor of London, but Brick Lane and more widely Britain’s recent cultural, political and social history cannot be left to them to narrate alone as this play does.

    It’s a fruitless exercise to accuse a play of what was not included, but here goes.

    For the tiny minority of young British Muslim taken in by the messages of racism, hatred and sectarianism from fascists such as Al-Mujaroon and Hizbut Tahir, there are many more positively politically engaged young citizens in the democratic process. Witness the scale in terms of activity and membership of the Stop the War coalition to the many organisations campaigning for the civilians under occupation and siege in Gaza. Bless them all. British Muslims come in all shapes and sizes. Doctors, artists, youth workers, taxi drivers, entrepreneurs, layabouts, scientists, dope heads, police officers, military personnel, etc, but not in this play and the Muslim community it portrayed.

    Nor was there any mention of the recent cultural history of the anti fascist movement in Britain, where the East End is often central, from Cable St, to the Anti-Nazi League to Rock against Racism or campaigning Asian Women’s groups and networks. The bigots are not getting it all their own way.

    There was thankfully several references to the tens of thousands of Muslims that served in the British forces during World War II, a historical fact which both irritates those hate filled men that lead organisations like Al Mujaroon, as it does get ignored by their fellow fascist journey men that lead the BNP.

    Nor any mention of the embracing of Islamic fundamentalist ideology, particularly Wahabi, by the West as a tool of cold war policy, to give it to the Russians in Afghanistan, with base camp in Pakistan. Has history ever shown investing in religious fundamentalism to be a good thing?

    We are still dealing with the consequences today, but not in this play, which is a huge omission. Just lots of panto booing and hissing of the Saudis and Wahabis, but no line on how they got the power to strengthen their empires on the back of the religious intolerance, bigotry and misogyny that helped the West win the cold war.

    What we got was a mirror reflection in our National Theatre, of the worst elements of tabloid coverage of Muslim radicals, extremists, assorted fruit cakes and bigots from the downright evil to the ‘look at me’ theatricals of Abu Hamza, aka Captain Hook himself, who I remain convinced to this day is bitter, because he did not get his role as the bad guy in a James Bond movie. Of course these people exist, and of course they are a menace that needs to be challenged and theatre can and must play a major role in this.

    The writer and director may say how the hell do we put any of this in a two and half hour play and make it work. My point is they put hardly any of it in, they just further demonised British Muslims, as if we need more of that.

    One scene had the most embarrassing British Muslim, Ali G caricatures imaginable and then we switch to them having an audience with Captain Hook. That’s like saying here is a scene on every thing you ever wanted or need to know about Christianity, presented by Ian Paisley, followed by one on everything about Judaism presented by Melanie Philips.

    The National Theatre has every right to show this work. I have every right to say part two could have been written the Spectator. I now hope that we see many more plays on these issues including many by British Muslim playwrights, especially women, open on stages across the UK to open up this most important of issues for Britain.


    Anwar Ahktar spent the best part of ten years working in the East Endas Director of the Richmix Centre and as Director of CIDA.

      |     |   Add to   |   Share on Facebook   |   Filed in: British Identity, Culture, History, Muslim

    30 Comments below   |  

    1. dave bones — on 22nd March, 2009 at 10:18 pm  

      …the most embarrassing British Muslim, Ali G caricatures imaginable and then we switch to them having an audience with Captain Hook…

      I don’t understand what you are saying is going on here. Captain Hook the character or there is an Abu Hamza character in the play?

    2. billericaydicky — on 23rd March, 2009 at 6:47 am  

      Well unfortunately the link to CIDA doesn’t work, the Richmix center hasn’t been open for ten years and I have never heard of Anwar Ahktar but I have know Brick Lane and been involved in the development of the Bangladeshi community.

      The play is very funny and as I have said before the only people complaining about it are therace relations industry and the trendy left.

      The whole furore began in the pages of Socialist Worker,that well known organ of truth and accuracy, with an article by another unknown playright who has supposedly been writing plays and working in the East End for years. He is so famous I can’t remember his name without going back through my e-mails.

      He is the character who tried to get some publicity for his non existent plays by invading the stage of the National. The problem is that he is actually paid by Tower Hamlets Council to brainwash young Bangladeshis that everything that happens to them is racist.

      The vast majority of Muslims have never even heard of the play never mind seen it and the only ones that have are like the writer of this piece those with an axe to grind and looking for a bandwagon to get on to promote themselves.

      I have on my bookshelf the hundred best Jewish jokes written by a Jew. The white working class thought that Alf Garnett was hilarious because he was ridiculous, the Irish were surprised and pleased that Father Ted was so popular because it sent up Irish Roman Catholics.
      I could go on and on but I think you all get my drift. In fact Muslims don’t think it is offensive because they don’t know about it and ninety nine per cent of East End Bangladeshis have never set foot in Richmix because it is the preserve of the trendy left from various parts of London and the South East.

    3. marvin — on 23rd March, 2009 at 9:39 am  

      The play is very funny and as I have said before the only people complaining about it are therace relations industry and the trendy left.

      Indeed. Predictably the Guardian doesn’t get it. Think’s it’s offensive. The Indendent struggles to give it an extra star. Bob Pitt is outraged. So are the SWP.

      The Guardian **

      The Independent ***

      The Times ****

      The Telegraph ****

      Time Out ****

      The Jewish Chronicle ****

    4. marvin — on 23rd March, 2009 at 9:45 am  

      One scene had the most embarrassing British Muslim, Ali G caricatures imaginable and then we switch to them having an audience with Captain Hook.

      Very telling. The reviewer is hypersensitive about ‘islamophobia’. The play lampoons every group.

      Nor was there any mention of the recent cultural history of the anti fascist movement

      Why should there be?

      That’s like saying here is a scene on every thing you ever wanted or need to know about Christianity, presented by Ian Paisley, followed by one on everything about Judaism presented by Melanie Philips.

      And why not? I could laugh at that. Poeple on the left find it very hard indeeed to raise a laugh about the cultural differences between us. A sad state of affairs. Because it puts some legitimate (or otherwise) grievances under the carpet, differences can no longer be freely discussed, so it gets bottled up and can be go more extreme and get channeled into political extremism.

      Grow up trendies.

    5. blah — on 23rd March, 2009 at 9:50 am  


      “The Jewish Chronicle ****”

      hehe. So how many stars did the JC give Carol Churchill’s play “Seven Jewish Children”? Or didnt they get it?

    6. marvin — on 23rd March, 2009 at 9:53 am  

      I knew I should have left out the JC. Red flag to anti-semitic bulls….

    7. marvin — on 23rd March, 2009 at 10:14 am  

      On ‘politically incorrect’ humour in the Times and the new legislation on homophobia…

      So a gay, blind suicide bomber walks into a bar . . .

    8. damon — on 23rd March, 2009 at 11:00 am  

      About the Jewish Chronicle, and it being a Red flag to anti-semites.

      It’s not a paper I look at regularly, but i did pick up a copy at the end of the 2006 Israeli onslaught against Lebanon, and these ”jokes” were in their ”funnies” section. (Taking the mick about BBC news coverage).

      ”They came in their hundreds, Allied bombers, unloading their hideous cargoes of death on the unsuspecting innocent civillans of this proud city. I haven’t seen a single anything that hasn’t been totally destroyed” (Orla Guerin in Hamburg).

      ”A few hit-or-miss doodlebugs landing in the general vicinity of London are a minor inconvenience when compared with the terrible destruction visited upon the poor victims of Peenemunde by the latest British bombing raid over this benighted country. As I gaze out over the smoldering ruins, I cannot help but ask my self how much a disproportunate use of force can ever be justified against a scientific reserch centre.” (Hugh Sykes at Germany’s V2 test facility).

      ”A little baby bunny-rabbit nuzzles the lifeless body of it’s mother, yet another victim of a stray American bomb” (Fergal Keane reports from the Ploetsi oil field of Romania).

      It made me feel cynical about the paper.

    9. marvin — on 23rd March, 2009 at 11:11 am  

      The BBC is seen as inherently pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel, and other liberal-left outlets, in the UK the Guardian and of course the rather nausating Robert Fisk in the Independent. I don’t blame Jewish and Israeli media for thinking, well, fuck them, we’ll take the piss out of their biased coverage. I’m sure they realise some will find it in bad taste. But then again I think it’s designed to shock and make you think.

      If you thought that was bad try this

    10. fugstar — on 23rd March, 2009 at 11:38 am  

      The Jewist chronicle gives it four stars?

      Classic, couldn’t have scripted it better myself.

    11. BenSix — on 23rd March, 2009 at 11:43 am  

      Why is Robert Fisk nauseating, then?

    12. Der Bruno Stroszek — on 23rd March, 2009 at 11:53 am  

      Hey, come on, marvin, “anti-semitic”? You’re not part of the trendy left, aren’t you? Or, even worse, the race relations industry? Don’t you know that race-baiting is fun! You’re not allowed to have a dissenting opinion on it, even if you lay it out in a reasonable and conciliatory fashion like Anwar has in the OP. Come on, can’t you take a bit of fun?

      Everyone knows now that if you dare issue even the mildest complaint about bigotry of any kind you’re a humourless scold acting on behalf of the PC mafia, who are the biggest threat to freedom of speech we’ve ever encountered, so shut your face, sunshine, and act nice or we’ll go after you in the name of free speech.

      Or is it just that you can dish this sort of nasty shit out, but you can’t take it?

    13. damon — on 23rd March, 2009 at 12:16 pm  

      If those JC jokes I talked about are anything typical of that newspaper, then I think you (one) really has to drop the anti-semite charge.
      I remember where I was when I got that paper.
      I was in Trafalgar Square on a saturday or a sunday - and there was a Jewish event going on, with a couple of thousand people milling around, and cultural events and some singers from various places.
      A high profile London Jewish event.
      There were several tents and stalls, and the JC was one of them - giving out free copies if I remember right.
      And Marvin, that link you did about ”Israel/Gaza: satirizing world media” was most interesting, and thanks for showing it as I’d never heard of it before. But that sketch is rotten to its core.
      Maybe the Sudanese government could follow suit and do some skits about Darfur.

      ”Nausating Robert Fisk” is obviously a whole different discussion. (To me those words words remiind me of this right wing American oaf called ‘Charlie Woolf’ who used to do the weekend overnight slot on Talk Sport radio).

      Back on topic … aren’t many mosques (like the Birmingham Central Mosque run by
      open for criticism??

      Maybe the East London Mosque near Brick Lane too??

      How distorted was that ‘Policy Exchange - Newsnight’ report where they ….. ”visited 100 mosques and Islamic institutions and said they found extremist books available in a quarter of the survey sample.”

      They produced some dodgy receipts …. which is fair enough to pull them up about.
      Does that mean that ”unsuitable material” is not widely onsale at mosques (like on stalls outside the big one at Brick Lane - whether sanctioned or otherwise)??

      I don’t know if Pickled Politics has done all that ”Saudi Korans and books” stuff.
      Actually, I’m sure you have. Is it benign? Just a minority thing? Something for Richard Littlejohn to get worked up about - and therefore ignored?

    14. marvin — on 23rd March, 2009 at 12:49 pm  

      Maybe the Sudanese government could follow suit and do some skits about Darfur.

      There is no genocide in Gaza. The average life expectancy is 72. Nobody has died of starvation or thirst. The population has increased by 40% in a decade.

      Only antisemites lie and claim that the Israelis are commiting a genocide. Why? Because you hate the state of Israel, full stop. Faced with such hatred, on all sides, globally, I am NOT surprised they’re driven to mocking the media reports of them, even if it seems rather tasteless. At least they are not strapping on bombs to their bodies and detonating at media outlets to express to frustrations.

    15. Concerned Asian Theatregoer — on 23rd March, 2009 at 1:45 pm  

      “I now hope that we see many more plays on these issues including many by British Muslim playwrights, especially women, open on stages across the UK to open up this most important of issues for Britain.”

      Just your hoping isn’t going to make it happen.

      There was recently a play at the Royal Court in Sloane Square by a young British/Pashtun girl called Alia Bano which ripped the covers of young British Muslim life with such brilliance and authenticity that the critics went into raptures.

      And how long do you think that play lasted? About three weeks. Don’t get me wrong - so good was its word of mouth that it was sold out solid but the day I went there was nary a brown face in the audience. So you can go and patronize Richard Bean (which I have pointedly refused to do because I have seen his previous work and that too is full of unmitigated bigotry) but you would do much better promoting someone like Alia Bano.

      So why not bring her work to the Rich Mix for example? Or the Brady Centre or Oxford House or any other number of East London venues. But I suppose that’s really not going to happen.

      More on Alia Bano here

    16. Golam Murtaza — on 23rd March, 2009 at 1:57 pm  

      No point complaining about this play, especially if you haven’t seen it yet (I haven’t). Could be great, could be a load of old cobblers. I’ve no idea.

    17. damon — on 23rd March, 2009 at 2:04 pm  

      I’m still wondering about Yasmin Alibhai-Brown.
      She’s got slagged off on this website.
      Is she bad? You don’t like what she said??
      Well then speak up.

    18. The Queen of Fiddlesticks — on 23rd March, 2009 at 2:31 pm  

      There is no genocide in Gaza. The average life expectancy is 72. Nobody has died of starvation or thirst. The population has increased by 40% in a decade.

      I have argued against the word “genocide” myself .. still you really seem to have an “oh well” attitude towards the Palestinian people? Maybe no one has died from starvation or thirst but they sure have died from other things. Where in what laws of nature is it a positive thing when a population increases 40% in a decade? especially when that increase is mostly inside refugee camps? It has already been acknowledged here taking sides at this point in the game is not acceptable and that goes for the die hard, uncritical supporters of Israel too. The entire argument is becoming a total fallacy.

      I dare you to call me antisemitic now.

    19. damon — on 23rd March, 2009 at 7:41 pm  

      Who’s talking about genocide? No one on Pickled Politics as far as I can see, so can we leave that terminology to one side?

      Starvation thirst? Really? come on. So it’s not as bad as in East Congo - so why get your knickers in a twist?
      Is that what you’re saying Marvin?

      I think the key to this (and is something I’m sure wont be resolved on this website - as it’s gone mainstream) is the ”anti-semite” claim to anybody who criticises Israel’s actions.
      I have Jews in my wider family, and …. so what? It means nothing - apart from .. culture and history - which makes life more interesting.

      I am new to this website, but I can’t believe that the ”Israel = Jewish” thing hasn’t been done to death already.
      I’m sure it has, and my personal opinion is that the kind of opinion that I showed in those ”Jokes” in the Jewish Chronicle a few posts back, and that website that Marvin put up (of Israeli war humour) - are really barbourous.

      ”I am NOT surprised they’re driven to mocking the media reports of them, even if it seems rather tasteless.”

      Im not SURPRISED either, having spent a month backpacking in Israel in the year 2000. Before the bombs started going off.
      I thought it was a screwed up place even then, when it was quiet.

    20. Golam Murtaza — on 23rd March, 2009 at 8:12 pm  

      “…I can’t believe that the “Israel=Jewish” thing hasn’t been done to death already”.

      You’re not wrong there chief.

    21. billaricaydicky — on 24th March, 2009 at 10:46 am  

      An Irishman is on Mastermind and only has to answer one more question to win.

      Magnus asks him

      “Which of these Ronnies was a Great Train Robber?
      Ronnie Barker,
      Ronnie O’Sullivan,
      Ronnie Biggs,
      or Ronnie Corbett?

      “I refuse to answer” says Paddy. “Why” asks Magnus. “What do you think I am, a fucking grass?”

    22. munir — on 24th March, 2009 at 11:58 am  

      “Why is Robert Fisk nauseating, then?”

      He thinks Palestinians are human beings.

    23. damon — on 24th March, 2009 at 12:00 pm  

      marvin said: ”At least they are not strapping on bombs to their bodies and detonating at media outlets to express to frustrations.”

      ”At least”? They only need to strap huge bombs to their fighter planes.
      Maybe there were some Hamas people hiding out in this building. Does that make it OK to blow up the whole street?

      Back to the play. So it’s a bit like a Spectator view of things. Is that so surprising that a large part of England doesn’t really understand the reality of a place like ”Banglatown”?
      I live about ten miles from it, and have been there often, (not just on Brick Lane itself, but in the back streets and council estates that surround it).
      I don’t really understand it either. What’s going on, who is who? Who is British and who might have been living in Bangladesh just last year? I have no way of knowing. (Does it matter anyway?)
      Going up and trying to talk to people is very hit and miss, and can be seen as bizarre behavoir.

      Just like in West Croydon on London road. There are dozens and dozens (maybe hundreds) of these young men from (I’m presuming) Iraqi Kurdistan, Albania and Afghanistan …. and they just hang out (very publicly) on the street together, and seem now very much at home.
      They only seem to interact with each other, and are quite loud and are just always there, standing about outside the shops.
      Just yesterday I was in a corner shop next to West Croydon railway station and a few of them were in there haggling a bit over the price of a half bottle of vodka - to which they then retire to the Ladbrooks bookmakers and spend the rest of their sunday afternoon. (And then to the internet cafe where they watch kurdish folk songs on youtube).

      Does that sound like a Spectator magazine take on things too?
      I reckon it does. But it’s only what I see - as an outsider.
      I say outsider as I don’t understand the waves of immigration and migration that are occuring right under my nose. I grew up in that area, but as a local you can be often the last to know what is actually occuring. It was said that there are 400,000 illegal immigrants in London alone. I’m guessing that many of the people I was walking past yesterday are part of that number.
      What’s to be done about it I don’t know. Boris talks of an amnesty, but only for long established people. Unless these unaccompanied young men are in the system and being granted political asylum, then the future looks somewhat bleak for them.

      I’d like to find out more about them, but don’t really know how. They are the very kind of people that we saw nespaper pictures of in Calais last week.
      Young men who have come on long and perilous journeys, just so thay could wash up in a place like West Croydon.

      How ”ignorant” is that of me?

    24. munir — on 24th March, 2009 at 12:01 pm  

      Israeli arrives at Heathrow airport for the first time
      The customs official asks him “Occupation sir?”
      The Israeli replies “No thanks , just visiting”

    25. billaricaydicky — on 24th March, 2009 at 1:48 pm  

      Nice one Munir,

      I,m glad to see that it’s not just the Irish that have a sense of humour.

    26. Golam Murtaza — on 24th March, 2009 at 2:13 pm  

      Not ignorant at all Damon. Just normal. I was in London’s Chinatown the weekend before last (great weather!) and glancing at the large numbers of people of East Asian appearance all over the place I couldn’t immediately tell which were on holiday, which had recently arrived to live and which had been living here for decades. No big deal of course, but I did feel very slightly inadequate at my inability to ‘place’ people.

      Mind you I can’t always place people when wandering around areas with large numbers of South Asian people. Despite being South Asian myself.

    27. Chrisantha Fernando — on 28th March, 2009 at 9:16 am  

      I was born in Sri-Lanka and I have lived in England since I was 3. I went to see England People Very Nice”. I thought it was going to be racist, but I found it was very moving. I thought it was the only piece of drama about being English that I had been able to actually feel positive towards. The reason I was so moved by it was that it was all about how England was so influenced by waves of immigrants that eventually were assimilated into the values of being English. A wonderful line was…

      ATTAR (An Indian restaurent owner) : No thats a personal thing. Make Englishman out of these boys, that is the highest goal, and not easy. Many English are not worthy of the title.

      I was very moved by this sentence. Now think about this. This is an Indian character in a play, speaking about how wonderful the idea of an Englishman is, from which many English Men are even excluded. The play actually made me proud to be English, which no piece of art has ever done. This then is why I find it very worrying why the major newspapers and the BBC said it was racist. There WERE stereotypes, but these stereotypes were making fun of everyone not any one group. In fact they were the stereotypes that I felt any “assimilated” immigrant would gladly make of themselves, in self-deprecating humour. The English were the hardest criticized. All groups were made fun of. Why? Because every ethnic minority (including the “genetic” english) hates the next generation of immigrants. The play stopped at the Somali immigrants who the Bangladeshi immigrants hated! But the point was, ultimately they are assimilated and become English. I was so moved by some of the scenes where there were tender feelings between races made common in Englishness. It was such a FUNNY play as well. I think there is a racist white establishment who find it racist against themselves, but say in the newspapers that it is racist against the ethic minorities in the play. I really can’t understand how any newspaper can print that this play is racist. It is the ABSOLUTE OPPOSITE OF RACIST. Actually, another reason this play made me proud to be English is that I think it is a play that could not have been made anywhere else in the world, because only the English can so unashamedly destroy themselves with criticism.

      Chrisantha Fernando

    28. damon — on 28th March, 2009 at 6:32 pm  

      It’s slightly away from the play (and I found that last post about it by Chrisantha Fernando most interesting), but I just read this in my local paper today and it seems to go with the ”England people vey nice” theme.

      In my London borough of Croydon they say that ”Majority of children in Croydon Council care are asylum seekers”

      I was just saying how I’d been noticing all these young men (who I think many of are from Afghanistan) hanging about the streets.
      They’re young, so it’s perfectly believable that youths over 18 are knocking a couple off years of their age, so that they become minors - and subject to much more benign rules.

    29. sonia — on 4th June, 2009 at 2:59 pm  

      should we all go and see it then and make up our own minds.

    30. munir — on 4th June, 2009 at 3:20 pm  

      Chrisantho Fernando
      ” Actually, another reason this play made me proud to be English”

      Thanks for your input. Actually i found it interesting that you said English as most ethnic Britons say they are proud to be “British”.

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