Why the BBC needs to stand for backing black comedy
Mo Gilligan's excellent Black, British and Funny, a retrospective of Black comedy on British television, makes for bittersweet viewing. On the one hand it brings together a remarkable array of comedic talent and celebrates decades of black excellence in the comedy field. On the other, it is a damning indictment of the media landscape and industry gatekeepers who have deemed some of the greatest comics of their generations unworthy of attention.
Some of us are old enough to remember The Real McCoy, a ground-breaking BBC sketch show featuring Curtis Walker, Ishmael Thomas, Llewella Gideon, and the greatly missed Collette Johnson and Felix Dexter amongst others. Since its 90s heyday, there has been precious little on the BBC by way of a natural successor. There has been no shortage of black talent, and yet no such ensemble vehicle to showcase a new generation.
But perhaps at long last there is light at the end of the tunnel. Certainly Dane Baptiste's Bamous has the potential to change the landscape (and hue) of British TV comedy - and perhaps even act as a vanguard. The meta premise charts the fame levels of various black personalities, whilst cramming layer upon layer of both verbal and visual gags into the tightest of half hours, as if making up for lost time.
The NASBlaq - an imagined stock index for black talent - is a clever hook for a show based around the finite nature of black opportunity and celebrity. Not only does it symbolise an unofficial quota system that inevitably leads to black talent competing against each other for limited opportunities, but it lends itself to topical fluctuations based on real life events for (hopefully) future episodes.
— BBC Three (@bbcthree) January 20, 2021
There are of course far more disturbing parallels to be drawn from the trading of black lives, but Bamous isn't afraid of uncomfortable truths. A big reason why the show nails it so emphatically is a healthy dose of underlying anger. Any societal or political satire worth its salt requires a level of righteous fury, otherwise it is both toothless and truthless. Bamous drips with caustic consternation.
Thanyia Moore, for instance, artfully delivers laser-guided missiles of malcontent with a genial smile suggesting an innocuous showbiz roundup. Whilst Toussaint Douglass presents a black version of Countryfile - 'Countryfilez Xtra' - painting fox-hunting toffs as gang members. It points to a media obsession with a young 'cool' version of black culture. A perennial juvenescence to glean from with no agency.
Bamous feels exciting, prescient and overdue. A genuinely subversive and grown-up comedy show that is undeniably black and uniquely British. After the global events of the past 12 months, it must have been tempting to focus on Donald Trump's America and the more volatile elements of US-based racism. Not doing so feels like a conscious decision - and absolutely the right call.
Baptiste instead concerns himself with the homegrown variant of anti-black sentiment. There is an insidious politeness to British racism that is deeply ingrained, subtle by design, and far more damaging than blatant racist slurs. What Bamous does so well is skewer the systems and establishments that perpetuate racial inequality in a fresh and entertaining way that isn't preachy. There can be no excuses about 'mainstream appeal'.
— BBC Three (@bbcthree) January 18, 2021
The BBC is not immune to ridicule. In one sketch, Baptiste is subjected to a barrage of whitesplaining by self-styled 'woke' corporation suits, fixated with empty gestures such as Blackout Tuesday's ubiquitous viral square. In another, we are privy to the kind of brainstorm that only exists through a fearfully deluded 'white lens'. Lola Jagun in particular shines in the razor-sharp satire on performative allyship and tokenism.
Baptiste deserves immense credit for the overall tone and structure. He would have been forgiven for using his long overdue 'turn' to solely sell himself as the multi-faceted comedian he is. To selfishly rise up the quota league table alone. Instead he shares this opportunity and showcases a number of incredibly gifted peers. There is an irony in his NASBlaq persona obsessing over personal standing when reality shows the opposite.
The BBC, too, deserve praise for giving Baptiste and his talented cohorts the licence to produce something so wickedly funny and authentic. But it counts for nothing if they don't follow through by commissioning a full series - ideally with a prime-time terrestrial slot. None of this ghettoisation of 'minority' programming late into the schedule, or hiding away from Mock The Week viewers in the sole confines of BBC iPlayer.
Such is the obvious excellence and potential of Bamous in its current embryonic form, that to not develop it further would be another kick in the teeth and the cruelest joke of all. A perverse sort of 'here's what you could have won' trick. Neither would a watered-down version or mayonnaise alternative suffice. It has been far too long, but the BBC have finally got it right. It's time to start representing properly.
You can watch Bamous here.