Produced by London Weekend Television, the sitcom, Mind Your Language, featured the comic antics of a group of students and staff at a fictional London adult education college in the 1970s.
Language teacher Jeremy Brown teaches English to immigrants – but with students from all over the world, there are many misunderstandings, due to the language barrier. When students from as far afield as France, China, Italy, Spain, India, Japan and Greece meet in the classroom, Brown, played by Barry Evans, usually ends up with a headache.
There were four seasons in total, the first three running from 30th December 1977 until 15th December 1979 on the ITV network. The show was briefly resurrected in 1986 for 13 more episodes.
However, despite attracting 18 million viewers on average, the sitcom, created by screenwriter Vince Powell, was cancelled at the peak of its success in 1979 by LWT director of programmes, Lew Grade, who cited its “racial stereotyping” as offensive.
When LWT filmed Mind Your Language in the 1970s, there was a very different social and political climate. Whereas no broadcasting company would consider making a sitcom today that deliberately poked fun at people’s culture and accents, it didn’t seem out of place 40 years ago.
Racial stereotyping and sexism were rife in the British comedy shows of the 1970s. Sitcoms such as Love Thy Neighbour focused on the racial conflict between bigoted white socialist Eddie Booth (Jack Smethurst) and his black neighbour Bill Reynolds (Rudolph Walker). It ran for seven series, between 1972 and 1976.
Meanwhile, On the Buses featured two sleazy male bus drivers, Stan Butler and Jack Harper (played by Reg Varney and Bob Grant) who preyed on younger female conductors, known as “clippies”. Butler and Harper were ageing would-be lotharios, while the female staff were usually portrayed as empty-headed and ditzy.
The show, which also ran for seven series, between 1969 and 1973, featured plenty of sexist gags, which would go down like a lead balloon today. The very premise of the show would be deemed sexual harassment!
So, in terms of racism and sexism, Mind Your Language was pretty tame compared with some of its counterparts of the era, although Grade (who originally commissioned the show) did eventually recognise that it could be offensive poking fun at people’s language and culture.
English teacher Jeremy Brown, an earnest and good-natured single man in this thirties, graduated from Oxford University with a Bachelor of Arts. He is hired as the English language teacher after being warned his predecessor was driven insane by the students!
The college principal, Dolores Courtney, (played by Zara Nutley) is stuffy and thinks she’s superior to everyone, especially men. She frequently pops into Brown’s classroom unannounced for an impromptu check on his progress, but invariably leaves feeling disappointed.
The students include Italian chef Giovanni Cupello (George Camiller) who is the loudest student and frequently gives the wrong answer to questions, although it’s revealed he often does this on purpose to make his classmates laugh.
German student Anna Schmidt (Jacki Harding) is an au pair who is a hard-working scholar, believing in efficiency, but who has trouble with her English, peppering her sentences with German words. Spanish barman Juan Cervantes (Ricardo Montez) is always willing to laugh at himself, knowing that some of his answers are totally wrong.
London Underground worker Ranjeet Singh (Albert Moses) is from Punjab in India and is always arguing with Ali Nadim (Dino Shafeek) from Lahore in Pakistan, especially after Brown sits them next to each other and inadvertently calls them “fellow countrymen”.
Jamila Ranjha (jamila Massey) is an Indian housewife from Shimla, who barely speaks any English at the beginning of the series. However, she eventually learns to speak the language, although she can often be found knitting at the back of the class, rather than concentrating.
Aside from the basic ongoing jokes provided by Brown’s frustrations and his students’ mispronunciation of words and disagreements with each other, each episode had a specific stand-alone plot.
The humour was very gentle and although the characters were later labelled stereotypes, none of it resembled the blatant racist humour popularised in Love Thy Neighbour.
In an episode called An Inspector Calls, broadcast in January 1978, Brown mistakes an education inspector for a new student, leading to comic mayhem, while The Best Things in Life, broadcast in the same month, sees Brown and his students secretly returning items that Ranjha has inadvertently stolen, after misunderstanding a promotional offer.
Some of the jokes are literally “toilet” humour – for example, in The Cheating Game, broadcast in February 1978, Cupello tries to use an English colloquialism for going to the toilet. However, he mentions he is going to “spend 2p”, so Brown pulls him up and explains the phrase is “spend a penny”.
Cupello explains his logic, that if two students are using the toilets at the same time, surely they are spending two pence? Brown finds it hard to argue with that!
After the show was cancelled by Grade in 1979, it was resurrected in 1986, with some of the original cast returning to reprise their roles. However, it ran for only 13 episodes and couldn’t recapture the popularity of the first three series.
The show has found global fame and despite its run on UK television coming to an end, it has been sold across the world and has been broadcast in Australia, Pakistan, India, Kenya, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore and more.
With the script slanted towards local culture, it continues to be popular overseas and many countries including India, the United States, Japan and Sri Lanka (to name but a few) have created their own version.
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