Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Mind Your Language, 1977

This week the British sitcom Mind Your Language is my contribution to Tuesday’s Overlooked/Forgotten films and television over at Todd Mason’s blog Sweet Freedom. Don't forget to check out the other interesting reviews over there.

The family often sits down to watch Mind Your Language, the popular and entertaining British sitcom of the late seventies. My generation first got to see it on the state-run Doordarshan channel in the early eighties. It was a hit in India and in most parts of Asia. In those days and long before cable TV, Doordarshan (which loosely means ‘Far Sight’ in Hindi) used to telecast only British serials like To the Manor Born, Some Mothers Do 'ave 'em, Sorry!, Are You Being Served? and 'Allo 'Allo! Some of these sitcoms are now back and they are as funny as they were back then. Yes Minister came later.

The only American serial that ran around the time was Lucy. She was fun too, up to a point, and as long as Mr. Mooney was around. 

Mind Your Language, made by LWT (London Weekend Television) and directed by British director-producer Stuart Allen, is about an affable and gentlemanly English teacher Jeremy Brown (Barry Evans) who teaches English as a foreign language to a heterogeneous bunch of students from across the world. 

Mr. Brown and his class.

The students are all grown-ups—with families, love lives, careers, unemployment, and immigration issues—who attend Mr. Brown's class with unfailing regularity even if it leaves the "professori" at his wits end. It doesn't help much that the students, especially Danielle (Fran├žoise Pascal) from France, are fond of their teacher and go out of their way to put him at ease even if the outcome is the opposite of what they'd intended. They mean well and Mr. Brown knows it.

The students speak in halting English and without a care for the language in terms of diction, pronunciation, accent, phonetics, spellings, figures of speech. Still, they communicate all the same, with each other and with Mr. Brown who has a befuddled expression on his face most of the time.

Mr. Brown: What was that again?
When the students answer Mr. Brown’s questions, the result is often hilarious. For instance, when he tells the Greek student, Maximillian (Kevork Malikyan), that the collective name for a group of cows is a herd of cows, the Greek student replies, “Of course, I heard of cows!”

His best friend Giovanni (George Camiller) plays class monitor in Mr. Brown’s absence. In one scene, when Mr. Brown returns, the lanky Italian tells his teacher in mock seriousness, “Professori, I don’t know how you put up with these people everyday!”

Mind Your Language is full of such humour, as the foreign students speak in their own distinct voices, reflective of the country they come from. This leaves Mr. Brown and Ms. Dolores Courtney (Zara Nutley), the very propah and formidable school principal, exasperated and at a loss for words.

While the sitcom is a family entertainer, it has been considered offensive for political incorrectness, pitting one nationality against another. 

Mr. Brown with Ali Nadeem and Jamila Ranjha.

For example, the sari-clad Jamila Ranjha (Jamila Massey) is a housewife from India while Ranjeet Singh, a Sikh portrayed by Albert Moses, is from Punjab, which, in spite of being a part of India, is shown as a separate country.

The serial also shows frequent rivalry between some of the students—Ranjeet Singh of Punjab against Ali Nadeem (Dino Shafeek) of Pakistan (reflecting the bitter relations between the two countries); a Chairman Mao-obsessed Chung Su-Lee (Pik-Sen Lim) of China against Taro Nagazumi (Robert Lee) of Japan (a throwback to WWII rivalry); and Maximillian of Greece against Giovanni of Italy (probably alluding to the Greco-Italian conflict during WWII).

On the racial bias in the series, Ranjeet Singh is often portrayed as being subservient—every time he makes a mistake he joins his hands, bows, and says, “A thousand apologies” to Mr. Brown or Ms. Courtney.

For some reason, Ali Nadeem, the most comic of the lot, mouths English catchphrases like “Oh blimey!”, “Jolly good,” and “Yes, please.” He’s at his innocent best when he smiles, "Squeeze me, please!" instead of “Excuse me, please!”

None of these so-called issues bothered me. I had a good laugh throughout the series.


  1. ...or harkening to Hellenic Greece versus the Roman Empire...lovely reminiscence!

  2. Actually, I often watch comedy on my own and laugh when I'm sufficiently amused...being surprised helps.

  3. Never saw it. I wonder if it's on BBC america.

  4. Todd, I had forgotten about the Hellenic Empire and its spread, particularly under Alexander, to Asia and Africa and, of course, its impact on the Roman Empire. Thanks for mentioning it.

    Sometimes I watch comedy on my own but I seldom laugh out loud as I might when watching it with the family. If I'm amused by something, I usually smile, no more. We enjoy watching films, especially LAUREL & HARDY, and sitcoms together. These days it's TWO AND A HALF MEN AND MY FAMILY and re-runs of FULL HOUSE, ALLO! ALLO! and ARE YOU BEING SERVED?

    Comedy Central has also launched a new channel in India though not everything they telecast is funny.

  5. Charles, I'm sure you'll enjoy MIND YOUR LANGUAGE. BBC America might show re-runs of this early serial though DVDs of the entire series should be available in your part of the world. Being a university professor you will, no doubt, be familiar with a lot of things that Mr. Brown has to put up with.

  6. I reemember watching this, fresh off the boat from Italy, when I was briefly living in the UK in the 70s. Nowadays it is seen, here, as a real relic of the past and I donlt think it ever gets repeated, though you can get it on DVD. Really interesting to get your completely differemt perspective on it Prashant!

  7. Thanks very much, Sergio. It's a "relic" out here too but one of the English channels has been re-running the series. You do get it on DVD, though. I watch it whenever I'm in the mood for some old sitcoms that include the ones I mentioned in my post. I'm surprised the serial didn't raise political heckles when it was telecast in the eighties. But then, the Indian political class was also more tolerant then.

  8. A really entertaining piece, sir ! This has motivated me to bring out my volumes of the same show and see it someday soon. A very well written article, brings out the good old days .

  9. Ushnav, thanks for your comments and the appreciation. I still watch the serial as and when I can and continue to enjoy it as I did the first time. Some of the English channels are currently showing reruns of British and American sitcoms.

  10. one of the funniest shows ever, they did really good. thanks for the show.