Some England people not so nice

The row brewing over England People Very Nice, a topical play at the National Theatre, is the latest episode in the confused controversy over free speech and multiculturalism. From the Guardian’s news story : England Very Nice has incestuous, pig-breeding, drunken Irishmen, snooty Frenchmen, farcical Jewish anarchists and the animated presence of a mad mullah ranting about how women must be subservient to men…. England People Very Nice, a new play by the award-winning dramatist Richard Bean about successive waves of immigration to the east end of London, has been labelled racist and offensive by the communities it portrays..

Yet to the Daily Telegraph it offers a topical treat. To the Times it shows “joyful ebullience” Although shrouded in evasion and euphemism the multicultural debate is not as black and white so to speak as some would like to think, as the New Statesman’s blogs on the banning of Dutch MP Wilders shows.
Daily Telegraph “ a topical treat”
This is not a play for the squeamish. The often-filthy language makes Jonathan Ross sound like a vicar at a Mothers’ Union tea party, and Bean gleefully parades and chuckles at racial stereotypes as if political correctness hadn’t been invented.

The Times “joyful ebullience”
Will the Thames “run with blood”, to repeat a quote frequently cited in the play? It’s the sort of question a genuinely “national” theatre should be asking.

Now I haven’t seen the play. Newsnight reviewers weren’t keen and thought it didactic and crude. But I have seen a play on a similar theme which respects the ethnic characters and directs its aim at attempts to codify British citizenship. The comedy in David Edgar’s Testing the Echo lies

mostly by the conflicting notions of the British way of life and some of the ridiculous definitions, as well as some of the more absurd questions in the citizen test. In the final scene everyone gives their idea of what they believe to be British.. “Tradition, rolling back through the centuries”, “God’s law at the very heart of civic life” and the inconsistent “Our tolerance is what makes Britain, Britain. So conform to it or don’t come here.

If you laugh with the ethnic characters at Britishness, you get away with it. Laugh at racial stereotypes, and you get it in the neck, especially from the politically aroused who willfully refuse to understand the wider conventions of dramatic language and bristle with intolerance and insecurity.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London