Socialist Worker

England People Very Nice: why racism and comedy do not mix

Playwright and activist Hussain Ismail is shocked at the racism of the National Theatre’s England People Very Nice

Issue No. 2138

Even the publicity for the England People Very Nice depicts crude and stereotyped images of immigrants

Even the publicity for the England People Very Nice depicts crude and stereotyped images of immigrants

I wasn’t surprised by Carol Thatcher making racist jibes. She is after all the daughter of Margaret Thatcher, who once declared that immigrants were “swamping” Britain.

What did surprise me was the number of commentators who defended her “golliwog” remark as harmless.

The truth is that racists have often hidden behind “humour”. Jokes about “pakis” were once considered acceptable. Growing up in east London during the heyday of the National Front,

I didn’t find them remotely funny.

Thankfully this old English tradition – once a kind of national sport – waned and almost disappeared from public life over the last 20 years.

But recently it has started to make a comeback. Richard Bean’s new play England People Very Nice at the National Theatre is a case in point.

It is meant to be a comedy about immigration, and it’s meant to make you laugh. It doesn’t.

The play is trashy, and tries to mask its ugly prejudices behind claptrap, cheap humour and tired stereotypes.

The Irish and the Bangladeshis come off worst. The Irish are wife beaters, alcoholics and incestuous. Bangladeshi youth are muggers, drug dealers or jihadis.

This comedy goes from bad to worse as it presents a potted history of migration to Spitalfields in east London.

It starts with Huguenots who came from France in the 18th century. Local residents are shown taking up arms against the new arrivals in what appears to be an early version of the “British Jobs For British Workers” struggle.

Later the Irish arrive and the now assimilated Huguenots take up arms against them.

Then with the arrival of the Jews, the Irish take up arms. Bangladeshi arrivals after the Second World War displace the Jews. And finally the Somalis end up clashing with the Bangladeshis.

Apart from the historical inaccuracies and banalities, the message is that migrant groups are always at loggerheads and can only really integrate if they have sex with the locals.

Is this really the level of debate on immigration and multiculturalism that goes on at the National Theatre?


I went to the first night of the show. All I could see was a sea of people laughing at immigrants. Surely there must be a way of talking about such an important and sensitive topic without making it one big joke against people who have borne, and continue to bear, the brunt of violence and prejudice?

This crap really got me thinking. Did racist humour ever really disappear, or, did the rise of multicultural Britain just drive it underground?

Jokes about Muslims have been doing the rounds for a while, but after 9/11 it became acceptable to openly ridicule and dehumanise Muslims. But Muslims are by no means alone.

Remember the Morecambe Bay disaster where at least 21 Chinese cockle pickers died? After that tragedy Tory MP Ann Winterton joked about sharks “going to Morecambe Bay to get a Chinese”.

Evidence from surveys also shows increasing tolerance of jokes directed against ethnic minorities and those from “other nationalities”.

One found that the French were considered the most acceptable targets, followed by the Irish, who were also considered “fair game”. Knocking the Chinese came third. Phew! At least Muslims are not alone. That’s really comforting.

The multicultural Britain that we have fought for over recent decades is the place where I want to be. Britain is a paradise compared to what it was 20 years ago.

But the growing use of “humour” to legitmise racism shows that our past victories are always under threat and that there is still along way to go.

My advice to playwright Richard Bean would be to read Molière, the great comic writer of 17th century France.

Molière loved to lash out at the hypocrisy of the powerful. But he never attacked the weak and powerless – that would be too easy.

So what would he have made of racism in Britain today? He would have lampooned anything that sniffed of xenophobia.

I only wish he were alive today, because after seeing England People Very Nice I could definitely have done with a good laugh.

Hussain Ismail is a playwright and theatre artist who works with the Bangladeshi community in east London. If you want to help his campaign to challenge the National Theatre’s stereotypes and racism, email him on [email protected]

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Article information

Tue 10 Feb 2009, 18:24 GMT
Issue No. 2138
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