Curry & Chips

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[This is Part 4 of my Shitcoms series. Part OnePart TwoPart Three]

Furthering my quest to actually sit through the oft-named Worst Ever sitcoms that most people have only seen in the same 30-second clip on C5 talking head shows being described to them by someone who once shat themselves during a threesome on Geordie Shore, I’m finally diving into the big one. Curry & Chips is roundly regarded as one of the most badly-misjudged or outright racist shows in the history of television. Conceived by and starring Spike Milligan, and written by Johnny Speight, the ITV sitcom turned out to be the worst thing to happen in 1969, putting the Manson murders in distant second. It’s notable for centring on a Pakistani lead, played by Milligan in blackface, decades before nobody-at-the-time gave a shit about Fisher Stevens’ appearance in Short Circuit 2. Following the recent controversy about Apu of The Simpsons, it seems like a particularly timely moment to revisit it.

I’m already slightly suspicious of Speight, who must have known he was getting laughs from racists in his classic Till Death Us Do Part and its follow-up, In Sickness and In Health, with an audience split between those who appreciated the irony, and those who merely loved Alf Garnett’s punchlines about “darkies.” The have-your-cake-and-eat-it cheat of another character saying “ooh, bit racist” to a racist joke, while still milking the laughs from it, has become the go-to for sneaking such material through in recent years, but these old shows live in a much greyer area. While Till Death and In Sickness were pitched as an ironic dig at bigots, even if that’s truly what he was going for, the point was missed by many, and they’ve since fallen firmly in the pantheon of shows held up by morons as an example of television as it used to be, before PC culture stole the Grumbleweeds and Black and White Minstrels from us. Alf has since become embraced as a no-nonsense, straight-talking mascot of the right, as the face of a popular Twitter ‘parody’ account that spends its time moaning about liberal snowflakes at the BBC, and campaigning to bring back the great British gollywog.

01

Curry & Chips does nothing to allay my mistrust, with a portrayal of other cultures that makes Temple of Doom‘s heart-ripping, monkey-brain-eating Indians look subtle. It’s abhorrent from the opening theme, which is a dirge of sitars and chimes, and Spike doing the “bud-bud ding-ding, 2.99” voice British schoolkids tormented 1980’s Asian newsagents with, to wail “oh Pakistan, the poppadoms are calling!” to the tune of Danny Boy. This plays over real, documentary-style footage of actual ethnic minorities going about their lives, framed with the finger-pointing voyeurism of the People Are Strange bit from The Lost Boys, and ending with the bleeped swear of presumed racial abuse being hurled at a black lady.

Our setting is Lillicrap Limited, a manufacturer of novelties and practical jokes, and the kind of place I dreamed of working at as a kid, when all my pocket money went on plastic turds from those Joke Shop by Post catalogues you got out the back of Whizzer and Chips. At Lillicrap, burly factory blokes test Groucho glasses, rubber spiders, and knives that look like they’re going through your head; a man bounces up and down on whoopee cushions, as a foreman marks the quality of farts on a clipboard. Heaven! Our introduction to Lillicrap’s manager, Eric Sykes, sees him smoking a cigar while wearing an enormous rubber hand. About Sykes…

02

Eric Sykes, another beloved comedy figure with a CV of classic work, perfectly illustrates the worst part of watching Curry & Chips. The cast is packed with familiar comic actors, like Kenny Lynch, Geoffrey Hughes aka Onslow from Keeping Up Appearances, and of course, Spike himself. It’s from these usually-comforting faces that the wretched material spouts. In our future Hell-world, heroes expose their clay feet, day by day, in terrible headlines, and when you see the name of an adored celebrity trending, your first hope is they’ve died rather than the alternative. Spike’s participation in Curry & Chips is one of those incidents that you wish you hadn’t heard about. Perhaps if this was Jim Davidson slathered in cocoa powder and wobbling his head from side to side, the whole thing could be easily dismissed as the on-brand work of a noted imbecile, but Spike?! Lovely Spike? Still with that playful twinkle in his eye, perpetually on the verge of cracking up? It’s painful. And the excuse people wheel out for this, that Spike was born in India so it’s all fine, is a real “How can I be sexist? My stupid fat wife’s a woman!” what with him being, you know, white.

Alright, let’s get into this. So, Spike turns up looking for a job, and Eric literally recoils in horror at the sight of an Asian man. Similarly, there’s uproar on the factory floor, with union rep Norman pointing an angry finger at Kenny Lynch; “We’ve got our coloured quota, we don’t want any more blacks!” The whole notion of Kenny not counting as black (vs. other black people) because he’s their mate, runs strongly through the entire series, with everyone falling over themselves not to be seen as anything but British. In a way, the show reminds me of Ricky Gervais’ “haha, dwarves” sitcom, Life’s Too Short; a show that operated in a world where everyone was incredibly rude to each other all the time for no reason, as everyone in Curry & Chips is super racist, including Kenny Lynch’s character, who’s desperate not to be be lumped in with Spike as (a) black.

03

Lillicrap’s biggest racist is Norman, who in a modern reboot would be booking days off to go and march for brave Tommy Robinson. A lifelong Labour voter, although “when it comes to blacks, I’m with Enoch,” he threatens a strike if they get a Pakistani on the books. Though he does offer the compromise of sacking Kenny, to keep the racial balance. He ends up storming off, angrily muttering about “bloody micks and coggers(?) and rednecks and piccaninnies and c**ns and w*gs… I tell you what, if they sent all the w*gs back home, we’d have an extra hour of daylight!” Two things to note here. Firstly, while the archaic racial slur ‘piccaninnies’ really dates this as a late 60’s piece, Boris Johnson used it in a newspaper column as recently as 2002, and secondly, this whole section, particularly the punchline about daylight, gets a huge laugh from the audience. If it’s such an ironic show, meant to caricature and laugh at racist opinions rather with them, why is all the racist abuse structured like a well-crafted gag, with punchlines cued by holding up the fucking ‘laugh’ sign?

Anyway, joke of jokes, Spike reveals his name to be Kevin O’Grady, only half-Pakistani with an Irish father, allowing them to throw around endless jokes about ‘Micks’ as well as people of colour. He too, is in constant denial of his own race, or as he puts it “there are far too many w*g in this country… I leave Pakistan because there are far too many w*gs there, so I come to England, and there are still too many w*gs.” If it even has a theme, outside of “aren’t we naughty?!” shock humour, then Curry & Chips is predominantly about Britishness, and what it means to stand beneath the Union Jack and truly belong. What this always boils down to, to the only idiots that care about such toss, be it potato-like cavemen spitting at black footballers, or the cartoon bigots of a horrible old sitcom, is being white.

04

Over lunch break in a canteen decorated with pornography, Spike refuses to eat pork, even though “a few years ago they were eating each other!” Then the lads explain the intricacies of British social etiquette, such as the “chivalry” of whistling at a piece of crumpet, and the ogling of Page 3 girls. But where he’s from, such harlots aren’t considered good women. Based on its reputation, I expected Curry & Chips to be bad, but this section in particular had me rocking back in my seat, uttering ‘fucking hell‘ to an empty room. Firstly, Onslow helpfully informs us that “w*g birds have to wear masks,” leading to the following outburst from Norman. “I tell you one thing about the w*gs, they know how to treat their women. Keep ’em right down, they do, keep ’em right under the cosh. When a bloke dies out there in w*g-land, they burn his missus!” It’s said with such wild glee, he’s practically fucking the table, evoking images of the modern racist, furiously raving against the oppression of the burqa while simultaneously sending casual rape threats to women who they’ve disagreed with online.

After a scene at the pub, Eric takes Spike home, to introduce him to his landlady and have him be the new lodger, though I don’t know what they’re paying at Lillicrap if the 50-something manager’s living in a spinster’s spare room. She’s shocked when she sees him, and though Eric assures her “it won’t come off on the sheets,” she’s “not keen on the colour.” However, as a glass half-full type, she does admit “he’s not as black as some,” but will still have to pay “the coloured-rate.” When Kenny shows up, he’s horrified, warning Eric that “they’re all bloody poofs, his mob,” as Spike’s religion believes if they have enough gay sex, then one day a bloke will give birth to a baby. That’s a new one on me, but perhaps listeners to Nigel Farage’s radio show are more educated.

05

The first episode ends with Eric sat on his bed armed with a metal poker, and with a chair pushed under the door handle, too afraid to go to sleep in case Spike tries to bum a divine baby into his arse. A microcosm of the modern plague of middle-aged men falling pray to scaremongering about immigration, terrified of being raped, he makes a break for the landlady’s room, to explain why Spike has to go, as “a consenting Pakistani male… he’s expecting a baby!” There are huge laughs for all of this, including the gag “I’d better take it easy, if he’s wandering around in the dark, I’ll never see him!” Satire, eh?

Unless you’ve got a Twitter bio that reads “52, love football, beer, and my kids, Brexit means Brexit,” there are no legitimate laughs to be had, though something there is a lot of is racial epithets. In a 24 minute show, I counted 16 uses of w*g, 9 of c**n, 8 of sambo, 6 apiece of coloured and blacks (pejorative), and various others, including 10 micks, making it the Goodfellas of casual racist slurs. Note that these words are rarely just said, but spat, with real teeth-clenched venom, to peels of audience laughter. Even aside from the racism, Curry & Chips took a lot of heat for its foul-mouthed dialogue at the time, racking up 59 uses of ‘bloody’ in a single episode.

06

Skipping forwards to episode four, it’s clear this is less a sitcom than a meandering series of protracted arguments about whether or not brown people are even human. By now, Eric Sykes’ character functions as a parody of today’s professionally Woke, flaunting a more progressive attitude to his bigoted colleagues, whilst still being pretty fucking racist and referring to Spike as “Pa*i-Paddy”. We open on a policeman down at the cop shop, bemoaning “bloody race riots” in a long monologue about violent hooligans and “supposed police brutality” when it’s really the civilians at fault, which plays to no audience laughter, to establish that it’s meant to be serious social commentary.

Spike’s landlady’s there to collect him after he got racially assaulted, and she too, is now Woke, explaining to the copper “all he’s done is been coloured, ain’t it?” adding that it’s all just bad luck for the poor fella, who’s only half-coloured anyway. “If his father was a bit more fussy who he slept with, Kevin would be white like us,” she says, though “knowing the Irish, his father was probably drunk.” Like all policeman, this one isn’t racist, agreeing that gentle Spike wouldn’t hurt a fly, because “they do seem to be a bit fond of them,” as he’s seen them sat there covered in flies, too lazy to brush them off. In contrast to the opening dialogue, this stuff is purely for the laffs, evoking gales of them.

07

At work the following Monday, Spike’s in an eye patch, while Eric, aka the original Lena Dunham, assures everyone the emotional pain he feels over what happened to Spike hurts far worse than the jackbooted beating itself. The others have less sympathy, as that lot ask for race riots, just by being here. There’s more on the continuing theme of what constitutes a ‘proper’ black, where Kenny Lynch, as their mate, isn’t as bad as the real blacks, but still a step down from the whites. It also touches on the attitude you see all the time today, even from the current President, wherein minorities should be grovelling with gratitude at every crumb of humanity we toss their way, as talk turns to British colonialism. Norman brings up the “British bloody Raj” with the spluttering fervour of a Question Time audience member talking all over a woman MP, about how when we went out there, it wasn’t to steal jobs or women (unlike them!) but to civilise; to educate. Onslow’s “and a rotten job we made of it too!” triggers such a raucous round of closing applause, as though the whole audience have stood in agreement, it’s the most uncomfortable moment of the whole series.

We then head to the most British place of all; the pub; where Curry & Chips‘ King of all the racists can be found. With his classic look of a bald old white man gnarled with rage, Tom exists solely as a cypher to say fucking dreadful shit for the audience to cackle at. This week’s boozy argument centres around religion, with tricky notions of whether God could be black, and the thought of having to share our white Heaven when we’re dead; “we’ve got to put up with them up there as well?!

08

Now, I hate to be offering more recap than analysis in these pieces, but I feel like it needs a full record of what’s going on, because “a load of mad racist shit happened” doesn’t cover it. Tom’s livid at Eric’s suggestion minorities can’t be too bad, because the Queen shakes hands with them at the Royal Variety. “Ahh,” fumes Tom, “they were your top w*gs, wasn’t they? They was prime minister w*gs!” He wants them all exported, and says Britain actually helped America out in the old days; “they was understaffed, so we helped em out by flogging ’em all our c**ns, (from the) surplus of them, all sitting about in Africa doing nuffink.” Again, this is a comedy show, and all this shite’s getting laughs.

Because of course it does, talk turns to warfare and the military. Spike says he fought for the UK, while Eric defends him by bringing up the Gurkhas, though portrays them like animals, banging on drums and cutting German dicks off with holy machetes. Then God’s race comes up again, with Tom so mad at the suggestion he might not be white — “are you trying to imply that god’s coloured, sambo?” — that a fight breaks out, with the copper from the opening scene getting a call about a “religious riot” at the pub. Just two episodes into my watch, and above all else, with every single scene arguing the wrongs of “being coloured,” it’s utterly exhausting.

09

Curry & Chips‘ final half-hour is the weirdest episode of a sitcom I’ve ever seen. A Christmas special, we open on the lads decorating the factory for the office party. Briefly, there’s the usual banter, tackling the Queen’s 1969 skipping of her speech, and the tedious confusion of Spike not knowing what “on the box” means. “Not a soapbox, you chocolate-coloured nit!” This segues into a prolonged dig at the BBC, who “must have upset her,” as Eric rants that “shifty little Harold Wilson’s behind that lot!” Settle in for a party political broadcast, as he spends the next ten minutes thumping the table about socialists’ propensity for atheism, and a really lengthy section on the contraceptive pill.

As evidenced by the silence throughout, it was likely somewhat of a surprise for those who turned up to watch a sitcom being recorded, to find themselves sitting through a jokeless debate about which class of people should be allowed to breed. A single, 13 minute take, everyone’s constantly losing their place and muddling through forgotten lines, in a haunted version of that scene from Hunger, if Fassbender had been harping on about “Shifty Wilson” wanting to ban the pill so he can get more Labour voters. Though I do take some pleasure in knowing there are gammons out there who bought the DVD to stick it to the libs, and watch great comedy as it used to be, sat with rictus grins and trying to kid themselves it’s a classic. “They’re really sticking it to the Archbishop of Canterbury about his views on contraception; brilliant! They wouldn’t allow that on Mock the Week! I don’t regret this purchase at all!” Like most scenes of their ilk, the whole thing feels like the pained cry of an old white man who’s confused and afraid by the changing world around him.

10

But amid all the political stuff, there’s still room for terrible racism that has the audience howling. A doddery old man called Smelly uses the phrase “Jew-boy” numerous times, while Norman wants to “stuff the pill in the w*gs’ mouths,” to stop any more of ’em being born. By now, he’s implied to have some gained some small affection for Spike, shown by repeatedly referring to him as “w*g-head.” Oddly, Spike spends much of the scene up a ladder with his head out of frame, tossing in occasional lines, while part two sees a similar lack of screen time. It feels like he’s half written-out, like when a pregnant actress spends a whole season standing in front of desks or holding boxes to hide her belly. Was he ill? Had he had enough?

After the ad break, another long, single take covers the Christmas party, with a live band of aul’ fellas in the corner, and everyone bumping into each other as they waltz around the tiny set, catching eyes with the camera while squeezing through. According to IMDB, a young Bella Emberg is one of these uncredited extras. The lads moan about Labour’s wage freeze, and Sykes reads out a Christmas message from Lillicrap’s owner, to a response of “bloody prosperous for himself, that’s what he bloody means, bloody Jew-boy!” Most of it’s a talent show for the workers, the ‘highlight’ of which is the performance of a song that goes “there was a little fly, flew in a grocer’s store and he [shitting noise] on the ceiling, and he [shitting noise] on the floor” in its entirety, with multiple verses of the fly shitting everywhere.

11

A drunk Norman gives Spike a Christmas present, which is a tub of Blanco; an industrial cleaning product for sinks, so’s he can scrub all that disgusting brown off his face, and then goes to drive home drunk to “stick it to Barbara Castle,” but collapses. The merry festivities end with blood-curdling screams of terror from workplace crumpet, Julia Breck, who runs into the party distraught, with her bra exposed by a ripped shirt, and Onslow following behind. His face is smeared in lipstick, shirt hanging open, and Christmas hat all wonky, following a cheeky attempted rape in the toilet. The chaos is broken up by the national anthem, and as the credits roll, the offscreen screams of Julia Breck are heard again, and this time, Spike emerges from the toilet, with his trousers round his ankles and shirt torn, I guess, after trying for a quick rape himself? Though as she chases him offscreen, she seems to be laughing, either corpsing, or continuing the show’s MGTOW theme of white women being sexually fascinated by brown men, and suggesting it was her committing the sexual assault.

12

Curry & Chips was cancelled after a single series, when the Independent Television Authority forced LWT to take it off air, following accusations of racism, including from the Race Relations Board. Speight always maintained it was meant to satirize British bigotry, and function as a social commentary. If that was the goal, it’s a colossal failure. Fifty years on, it’s not exactly held up as a great, scathing satire, and if you look at that ever-reliable indicator, five seconds spent browsing its Youtube comment section, the fanbase speaks for itself. All of these are genuine.

The pc brigade nowadays makes me sick! If you don’t like it then don’t bloody well watch it!!!!

Trust the urban Guardianista lefties to pounce on anything they find unfunny and attach the racism card. Yawn. Some people have too much time on their hands.

ahh the days before the politicly correct muzzle !!!

they took the golly wog of the jam jars after we had it for years……the trouble is to politicaly correct

good oldfashiond humour before they destroyed it with their not to cleaver think tanks

Extra hour of daylight!

13

Now we’re used to seeing racism everywhere again, the most striking thing about the show is that it’s barely a sitcom at all. There’s a distinct lack of jokes, other than ‘funny’ ways to insult minorities, with most of its monotonous minutes taken up with protracted circular discussions about race. What point was Johnny Speight trying to make? Racists are bad, so here’s a loveable band of them saying loads of jokes about coloureds that you can laugh at?

Spike Milligan would black up again, six years later, for BBC sitcom The Melting Pot, in which he starred as an illegal immigrant from Pakistan who rowed ashore to England. Suggestive of how wildly racist it must’ve been, it lasted just a single episode in the bigot’s paradise of 1970’s Britain, before being pulled off air. He’d also go on to don the brown paint, reprising his Curry & Chips character, for a trio of appearances in Speight’s Till Death Do Us Part, with one episode taking the name of his titular P*ki-Paddy. Alf and Kevin; together at last. That’s double the satire. Take that, racists!

This piece first appeared on my Patreon, where subscribers could read it a month before it landed here. If you’d like to support me for as little as $1 a month, then click here to help provide the world with regular deep dives about weird-bad pop culture, and all kinds of other stuff.

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~ by Stuart on March 5, 2019.

3 Responses to “Curry & Chips”

  1. I love Spike and Eric dearly, but this was terrible. Six laugh-free half hours presumably aimed at people who just get a kick out of hearing taboo racial slurs on television. The Melting Pot was marginally better, but still not a classic by any means – it works much better on the printed page (a book of the scripts was published by Robson in 1983).

  2. […] [This is Part 5 of my Shitcoms series. Part One — Part Two — Part Three — Part Four] […]

  3. […] is Part 6 of my Shitcoms series. Part One — Part Two — Part Three — Part Four — Part […]

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