A COMEDY heralded as both the BBC’s first Asian sitcom and its first Muslim sitcom was never going to ease into the nation’s sitting rooms without comment.
And sure enough, when Citizen Khan - about self-appointed ‘community leader’ Mr Khan and his long-suffering family - first hit our screens a month ago, it prompted a flurry of complaints to the broadcaster.
It didn’t matter that the comedy style is gentle, old-fashioned almost, and that household names such as Kris Marshall (My Family) and Shobu Kapoor (EastEnders) featured among its cast. What seemed to rankle some viewers was the scene in which Mr Khan’s apparently pious teenage daughter took off her headscarf and sneaked out of the house.
The programme was critised for lazy cultural stereotypes and for insulting Islam, but certain prominent Muslims defended the show, such as former Apprentice contestant Saira Khan, who wrote in an extended opinion piece: “Good on the BBC for finally realising the comic potential in one of the biggest communities that make up modern Britain.”
The show’s creator, and the man who plays Mr Khan himself, Adil Ray had certainly not set out to be political.
“Citizen Khan is not a Muslim comedy, it’s a British family sitcom,” says the 38-year-old, who has Pakistani parents but was born and bred in Birmingham.
“This is entirely fictional and it’s one family, a family from Sparkhill in Birmingham, and it’s based on my experience and perspective as well as those of my co-writers. It doesn’t represent all Muslims or all Pakistanis, there’s no way it could do that because they’re not all the same.”
What he was more concerned about was that the show was funny.
“What we have to remember is, it’s just a comedy. The most important thing is that people are laughing, that they can sit there with their family and enjoy the 30 minutes,” says Ray, who wrote for Paul Whitehouse on Bellamy’s People before landing his own show.
The series is the realisation of a dream which started when Ray was a ten-year-old boy, watching sitcoms such as Only Fools And Horses and Fawlty Towers.
“Every comedy writer says Fawlty Towers is an inspiration because it is the pinnacle of British comedy, it’s an institution,” he says.
“And Only Fools And Horses was a great one. Everything the late John Sullivan (Only Fools And Horses creator) did had a lot of heart. It didn’t matter what the characters did, you always felt for them.”
There’s something of Del Boy’s Peckham high-rise about the Khans’ Sparkhill semi, packed out as is it with mountains of cash-and-carry toilet roll, and the sitcom’s title is a nod not only to the film Citizen Kane but also to Sullivan’s Citizen Smith.
“You can’t possibly try to emulate these comedies, but you can be inspired by them,” notes Ray.
As with most inhabitants of sitcom-land, Mr Khan manages to land himself in various predicaments in each episode.
So far, we’ve seen him nearly ruin his daughter’s wedding by forgetting to book the mosque, upsetting his mother-in-law, and continually harassing the new mosque leader, a Muslim convert played by Kris Marshall.
“To have a white Muslim convert on a BBC show is fantastic, it’s quite progressive in many ways,” says Ray.
“He’s probably a better Muslim than Mr Khan and everyone likes him. He finds himself mopping up the mess that Mr Khan’s left behind and I love that. He’s the straight role but Kris is very giving, and we’re always very thankful for that.”
• Citizen Khan continues on BBC One on Mondays