The Real McCoy burst onto our screens in 1991 and became the first all-Black sketch show on British television. But since coming off air in 1996 it hasn't been screened since – until now.
In the wake of Black Lives Matter, is this a cynical bit of PR, or just a smart move to give its fans what they want?
Every now and again, The Real McCoy's sketch about a typical Jamaican takeaway does the rounds on social media, despite being over 20 years old. Highlighting the terse yet comical interactions that often go on in such places, it captured the experience perfectly, from the slow, clipped flap of the owner's flip-flops, reluctantly going to take an order, to the inevitable news that your food of choice – no matter what – is unavailable.
It was one of the many sketches that made The Real McCoy what it was: a ground-breaking, BBC Two comedy show that became the first to show Black comedians writing the punchlines instead of being them.
It launched in 1991 and stood out immediately. After years of only having Lenny Henry for company, it offered Black and Brown faces a whole hour's worth of screen time, talking in accents and acting out experiences that had never seen the light of day on British TV.
In the land before BAME, it brought new Black, Asian and minority-ethnicity faces to an overwhelmingly white comedy landscape. Comedians and comic actors from Leo Chester and Robbie Gee to Llewella Gideon and Meera Syal created characters and spoofs which managed to speak to everyone while remaining unapologetically Black.
The show ran for five years before being dropped, but even in its absence fans were reluctant to let go. Driven by The Voice newspaper, a 2012 campaign set out to get the BBC to re-run the show even though they didn't feel that there was a "big enough market to justify the investment." And rumour had it that all the tapes had been lost anyway.
But in early July 2020, word spread that the show was coming to BBC iPlayer and for many it was the news they'd been waiting for, although some were more sceptical than others. For years the BBC had shown little interest in re-running the show and had ploughed more money into white comedians in blackface rather than employing actual Black comedians.
But then Black Lives Matter happened and as the corporation nervously cast around for a PR spin, shows like Little Britain and Come Fly With Me got cut from the archives. In the shadow of all this, The Real McCoy's resurrection seems more than coincidental.
That aside, it's good to have The Real McCoy back, even if it is a show of its time. Like other shows of a bygone era, there are dance interludes (a guy dressed as a clown, anyone?), musical performances from the likes of Soul II Soul, stand-up routines lasting five minutes and bits which just wouldn't cut it today. In fact: 'The Real McCoy is a classic comedy reflecting the broadcast standards and attitudes of its time,' says its disclaimer on iPlayer.
None of this distracts from its legacy, though. The Real McCoy showed us that, when allowed, Black and Asian comedians could produce comedy that worked across the board. For a time there was a glimmer of hope that it could all lead somewhere, but the BBC failed to capitalise on such talent.
Admittedly, we had Goodness Gracious Me, Three Non Blondes and, more recently, Famalam but that's not much to show for nearly a quarter of a century. Compare it to the success of the predominantly Black American sketch show In Living Colour, and it shows how things could have been. Created by Keenen Ivory Wayans in 1990, cast members such as Jamie Foxx, Jim Carrey, dancer Jennifer Lopez and the rest of the Wayans brothers went on to have big careers of their own.
Unsurprisingly, part of The Real McCoy's charm rests on the fact that is very '90s, from the wonky sets and Salt'n'Pepa hairdos to the garish clothes. But overlook that and many of the sketches still stand alone as funny which, in itself, means that it deserves recognition.
The Real McCoy is available on BBC iPlayer.
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