Mr Bean and an unfunny farce

A generous satire at the National Theatre has fallen foul of the humourless horde


Irony and satire are risky literary devices. As I know to my cost, some people always fail to get the joke by taking such conceits literally. In these dangerously discombobulated times, when the giving of offence to certain minority groups can be a capital offence, such a sense of humour failure can cost you dear.

The latest victim of this syndrome is the playwright Richard Bean, whose play at the National Theatre, England People Very Nice, received rave reviews — and then was denounced as “racist”.

I loved the play. It is a warm, generous-hearted, rollicking treatment of immigration, prejudice and national identity. Set in London’s Bethnal Green, it charts the successive waves of immigration — Huguenots, Irish, Jews and, finally, Bangladeshis. The four periods are linked by the device of a barmaid who greets each fresh bunch of immigrants with the same profane, prejudiced epithet, but who, with an Irish-French background and accumulating en route a Jewish husband and half-Bangladeshi grandchildren, embodies the play’s underlying message that prejudice can be defeated by people coming together.

Hardly a recruitment pitch for the BNP, then. Yet the play has provoked controversy which has turned nasty. Two protesters, playwright Hussain Ismail and teacher Keith Kinsella, stormed the stage while Bean was giving a pre-performance talk and accused him of racism. Others agree. The charge is that the play deals in crude, Bernard Manning-style stereotypes and offensive jokes in a kind of theatrical tsunami of prejudice.

Talk about missing the point! The play is indeed a pageant of stereotypes. But these are clearly not meant to be taken seriously. They satirise the kind of prejudices which reduce groups to such caricatures.

Thus, the Irish are portrayed as bog-dwelling, incestuous peasants who sleep with their pigs; the Jews as Klezmer-playing anarchists, Chasids and capitalists eating bacon-sandwiches on Yom Kippur; the token Palestinian as consumed by a kind of geopolitical Tourette’s Syndrome of unstoppable anti-Israel ranting.

Still don’t get it? Here’s a clue. These caricatures are exaggerated to the point of utter absurdity. That’s always a bit of a giveaway.

Hussain Ismail, who appears to want Bean to be publicly lynched, says the play makes it seem that all Bangladeshis are into drugs or mugging and marry their cousins.

But this is not true. The play shows immigrant Bangladeshis as peaceful, law-abiding, socially conservative citizens.

The one point where the play becomes deadly serious is when it shows that their children, born and bred in Britain, are being radicalised to deadly effect by Islamist demagogues, whose impact is ignored by a British establishment brushing aside the desperate pleas of these Muslim parents to address it.

This is accurate and fair. It is alarming that there is a reflex action to call such truths racist simply because they shine upon a minority a less than rosy light. Of course the play isn’t racist. It says that prejudice is part of human nature, that we all have it at some level and that it is always absurd.

This latter point was unintentionally proved by Hussain Ismail who, after leading a walk-out from a meeting with the play’s director, Nicholas Hytner, said angrily: “The play creates new stereotypes about Bangladeshis that I have never heard, that we marry our cousins, which is complete rubbish. That is the Pakistanis.” That was apparently said without irony.

This furore reminds me of the Christian protests against Jerry Springer: The Opera on the grounds that it ridiculed Christianity and mocked Jesus by portraying him clad in a nappy. But what the protesters refused to grasp was that the play was ridiculing those who ridiculed Christianity.

In other words, it was actually on their side. So, too, is Richard Bean’s play on the side of immigrants. The people it is against are those of any group who hate rather than love their fellow citizens.

The charge of giving offence is being used more and more to stifle free expression. Along with the Rushdie fatwa and the violence over the Mohammed cartoons, in 2004 the play Bezhti was taken off at the Birmingham Rep after riots by Sikh protesters.

Meanwhile, plays such as Caryl Churchill’s purportedly anti-Israel but actually anti-Jew diatribe, Seven Jewish Children, or Ahmed Masoud and Justin Butcher’s Go to Gaza Drink the Sea — the set of which features a mound of shoes in an analogy between Gaza and Auschwitz — are inciting yet more frenzied hatred and true prejudice against Israel and the Jews.

The upside-down nature of all this is surreal. But then, maybe all of anti-racist, anti-Zionist, anti-anti-Islamo-fascist Britain has turned into one giant nightmarish Pirandello farce.

Melanie Phillips is a Daily Mail columnist

    Last updated: 12:18pm, March 12 2009