Monday, 18 January 2010

Send for that dark-skinned fellow

Last night I enjoyed a film version of Gerald Durrell's "My Family and Other Animals" on television. The role of Spiro, the Durrell family's self-appointed factotum, was taken by Omid Djalili, born in the UK to Iranian parents.

In an earlier epoch, the role might have been taken by Anthony Quinn, a Mexican American (with some Irish mixed in) who most people remember in his role of Zorba in "Zorba the Greek". Wikipedia describes Quinn's early career thus:

He played "ethnic" villains [and] Indians, Mafia dons, Hawaiian chiefs, Filipino freedom-fighters, Chinese guerrillas, and Arab sheiks.
And plenty more besides. Omid Djajlili is fast becoming the Anthony Quinn of the 21st century, at least in Britain, filling a variety of film, TV and theatre roles wherever someone of Mediterranean/Middle Eastern extraction is called for. He's even in an advert at the moment, playing "some sort of Arab" who, unlike white Anglo-Saxon Brits, is not afraid to haggle.

Type-cast? I would say so. Given his shape, he also tends to be cast at the less flattering end of the spectrum; Omar Sharif, who was Lebanese, also portrayed many nationalities/ethnicities, but at least he often made the romantic lead.

A Greek friend of mine is going to do his national service soon. I was trying to think of humorous portrayals of military life to cheer him up, and tried to get him excited about "It Ain't Half Hot Mum". He took a brief look and couldn't get the humour (there was some, wasn't there?), mainly finding the programme deeply offensive.

I must say, looking at it now, the character Bearer Rangi Ram (played by Michael Bates!) is a pretty terrible stereotype. We are asked to laugh at his "silly" accent, and the way he wears a snake-belt around his turban, and, especially, his habit of talking about "we British".

Such a character has an echo later in the Coopers (Kapoors) and Robinsons (Rabindranaths) in "Goodness Gracious Me", who are in denial about their background. But there they are the losers for it, rather than being mocked for their presumption at reckoning themselves English.

The character Rangi Ram is something different. As a society we are now more aware of the important role that people from all over the British Empire played in Britain's armed forces, and such a portrayal wouldn't be acceptable today.

So there has been some progress, but not nearly enough.

I'm sure Omid Djalili knows the score, his comedy show is pretty astute on the way different groups rub along in the UK. But, while he's probably only too pleased to be working, hopefully he can start to use some of the credit he has earned to shine a harsher light on our abiding prejudices and those more recently acquired.

And, on a related note, surely it can't be beyond the wit of producers to find a Greek actor to play a Greek, etc.

1 comment:

vickim57 said...

I've since found an interesting academic article on the subject of Rangi Ram. "A Critical Analysis of the Portrayal of ‘Race’ in It Ain't Half Hot Mum" by David James of Manchester Metropolitan University. I managed to access it free although I'm not sure that I was supposed to!

It says Rangi Ram is a more nuanced character and, actually, I agree. He is portrayed somewhat sympathetically, and often gets one over on the British - but in a way that the audience is invited to approve of. And it's not just 'let's laught at the typical, wily native' stuff.

Perry and Croft who wrote the show later say that while it is the one of their series they are not allowed to talk about now, it's the one they're proudest of.

Just thought I would provide some balance to my own post! The snake-belt detail apparently was copied from a real-left person that Michael Bates knew from his own childhood experiences in India.