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Bring back the Real McCoy

ORIGINAL CAST: Leo Muhammad, Judith Jacob and Felix Dexter

THERE’S A certain irony about insulting the BBC whilst sitting in a BBC building. But it was, perhaps, inevitable that awkward questions would be raised at a panel discussion featuring the cast and crew of the Beeb’s much-loved sitcom, The Real McCoy.

Held at BBC Radio Theatre in central London, An Audience With The Real McCoy marked the 21st anniversary of the famed black British sketch show first hitting our screens, and reunited the show’s stars: Curtis Walker, Leo Muhammad, Felix Dexter, Judith Jacob, Meera Syal and Kulvinder Ghir, along with the show’s producer Charlie Hanson, director Terry Jervis and producer Paulette Randall.

And with the event featuring an audience of media folks, industry insiders and the general public – who all proved to be die-hard Real McCoy fans – it was no surprise that the debate got more than a little heated.


FONDLY REMEMBERED: The cast of The Real McCoy in their early years

Thankfully, it wasn’t all doom and gloom as the evening featured video footage of some of the show’s hilarious sketches. From ‘The Dready Bar Kid’, in which Jacob played a black, Rasta version of the Milky Bar Kid, to one of the hilarious skits featuring the miserable Jamaican newsreader Collette (Collette Johnson) and the upbeat Bajan weathergirl Llewella (Llewella Gideon), the footage served as a reminder of why the show is still so loved, 16 years after it came off air.

Widely revered as one of the best products of black British TV history in the last 20 years, The Real McCoy launched on BBC2 in 1991 and ran for five successful series.

But ever since the show came to an end in 1996, there has been much debate and frustration within the black community, as to why the series was never repeated on the BBC; why it was never sold as a DVD; and why – despite its massive impact on both the black community and the wider British audience – it fails to be recognised as one of the major players in the history of British comedy.


TALENT: The lively debate featured a panel discussion with the show's stars (L-R) Curtis Walker, Meera Syal, Leo Muhammad, Kulvinder Ghir, Judith Jacon and Felix Dexter, along with the show's producers Charlie Hanson, Paulette Randall and Terry Jervis

Perhaps the best summing up of these frustrations came from Felix Dexter, who said the BBC seems to give “no recognition that the show ever existed.”

Well, there was no escaping these issues at this insightful panel discussion, hosted by Brenda Emmanus and Eddie Nestor. In fact, audience irritation was sparked early when the BBC’s director of audio and music Tim Davie gave an introductory address, in which he claimed the name The Real McCoy was derived from the expression ‘the real macay’, which was used to describe a brand of Scottish whiskey.

Davie was promptly brought down by an audience member who heckled: “that’s not true – it was a black inventor!” The BBC boss was gracious in his evident embarrassment, joking that the internet site on which he’d found his information should be amended.

And thankfully, the charismatic Leo Muhammad later explained that the show’s name was indeed inspired by the 19th century black Canadian inventor Elijah McCoy, whose invention of an oil-drip cup became so popular that people who later required the product would enquire whether it was ‘the real McCoy’. Suffice to say, this explanation from Muhammad received a huge round of cheers and applause from the crowd.


DEBATE: Eddie Nestor, Walker and Syal enjoy the discussion

Producer Charlie Hanson was extremely honest and frank, admitting it had been a "challenge” getting the show on air, as the BBC seemed to have reservations about commissioning a show written by and starring black talents. He also revealed that there was “nobody in the BBC really championing the show” and said that even now, he still doesn’t see “enough black execs in TV.”

Looking at the current state of black and Asian British comedy, Meera Syal said she believes "we've gone backwards" in terms of progression, while Judith Jacob said that while it was fantastic that The Real McCoy is still so widely celebrated, she feels it is "sad that we've not got anything else that we're talking about in the same way we talk about The Real McCoy."

Add to that a question from an audience member who asked whether black British audiences – who are TV licence payers just like the rest of the British population – should be “holding the BBC accountable” for its lack of black-interest programming, and it was certainly an evening of no-holds-barred discussion, which, frankly, didn’t shine a very positive light on the Beeb.


QUESTIONS: The BBC's Pat Younge (Left) was applauded while Tim Davie was heckled

Still, the broadcaster should be commended for hosting the event, which not only provided the opportunity for debate, but also sought to be a networking opportunity for new writers who wished to pitch their ideas. Thumbs up must go to Pat Younge, the BBC’s chief creative officer for visual production (incidentally, he’s black), who urged writers to email him their ideas (Patrick.Younge@bbc.co.uk).

Another key sentiment that came out of the debate is that the black British community must let their voices be heard. Write letters to the Beeb if you are angered by a programme or an issue surrounding the broadcaster – don’t just sit at home complaining.

Who knows, if audiences lobby hard enough, we might just get The Real McCoy on DVD in time for Christmas. Wishful thinking? Only time and a good deal of proactive campaigning will tell.

Would you like The Real McCoy to be made available to buy on DVD? Email your thoughts to: davina.hamilton@gvmedia.co.uk

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