It’s another sticky evening during The Great British Heatwave of 2018 and I’m in an extremely well-lit but thankfully air-conditioned studio in west London. I’ve walked past a line of close to 1000 people to be here, watching Big Narstie teach David Schwimmer the word ‘bredrin’. Reader, I am at a live taping of what is arguably the funniest – and definitely the realest – terrestrial TV programme right now: The Big Narstie Show. Presented by rapper and Noisey video host Big Narstie and Mo Gilligan AKA Mo The Comedian of “get a coupla cans in Julie” fame (whose unofficial role on the programme seems to be keeping Narstie in check tbh), the show is basically an hour of endless jokes aimed at a young audience, specifically Black British youth.
“This is the only show in the world where you’ll get Giggs and David Schwimmer on a show”, says Mo – and when Giggs indeed comes out of the smoke-filled cupboard and joins the other guests on the sofa, and it’s hard to argue with him. Tonight’s guests also include Afrobeats artist Mr Eazi, homegrown Birmingham honey Lady Leshurr, and actor-comedian Jamie Demetriou. Both hosts have found audiences by being unapologetically themselves – Narstie so much so as to double Channel 4’s slot average for 16- to 34-year-old viewers when he appeared on both Gogglebox and The Big Fat Quiz of the Year 2017. Gilligan’s also enjoyed a stratospheric rise to success: despite having been a comedian for about five years, within the past year he has gone from working in retail to a sold-out UK tour and co-hosting a show on national TV (with a co-sign from the UK’s biggest begfriend, Drake, along the way).
Despite Britain’s popular culture debt to blackness, you still don’t see as many black faces on major television, particularly ones that are given complete agency. The problem is well-documented in our creative version of the ‘Brain Drain’ phenomenon, where a high percentage of Black British actors find themselves having to go abroad to America for roles due to lack of opportunity at home. Yes, I know that black people make up about 4 percent of the national population, but it’s harder to quantify the cultural impact of everything from sound system culture and street style to music and the slang now adopted by kids from the Home Counties.
Astoundingly, representation of black or “urban” culture on mainstream broadcasting can still come in the form of spoofs and parodies. Last year’s Red Nose Day saw French & Saunders do an embarrassing rendition of Skepta’s “Shutdown” while wearing track suits, gold chains and throwing up ‘gang signs’ (the video has now been taken down). Bo’ Selecta!’s Leigh Francis spent years doing various types of mask-aided blackface on his wildly popular programme, and Honey G exists.
As such, this show seems both well aware of its audience and also how rare and special it is. Comedian and host Mr Cee jokes about the show’s blackness during breaks between filming, taking the piss out of any white people who’ve found themselves in the studio audience and might be thinking “It’s a bit like carnival here innit”. He also references other black shows on national TV such as The Desmonds and The Real McCoy. They’re pretty few and far between and serve as a reminder to how revolutionary and important this show is right now.
This week’s episode begins with a segment in which Narstie and Mo read out some tweets from people who can’t understand what’s being said on the show. “Does anyone outside of Brixton understand a word spoken?” goes one example. Maybe they don’t, and that’s why the show is worth celebrating – it’s literally the only thing on national TV right now that is specifically geared towards and showcases the talents of the long-overlooked Black British community. For every negative comment about the show (mostly from white people who are used to the whole world being made for and by them and have a difficult time processing this one hour of TV a week that isn’t) there are ten from British youth gassed to finally have someone who speaks like them on screen.
Instead of rap music and black culture being The Other, it is whiteness and white culture that are seen as the butt of the joke. During another episode's conversation on the show with comedian Richard Ayoade Narstie doesn’t know who Ben Stiller is until he’s referred to as Zoolander; David Schwimmer tonight is ‘Ross from Friends’ no matter how hard he tries to prove he has a whole life and career outside of the show. “What’s going on with you and Rachel?” Narstie asks at least four times.
For those of us who grew up with cultural figures seen as outside the mainstream – constantly asked incredulously by white friends how we don’t know who David Baddiel is (sorry I wasn’t raised singing “Three Lions”) – it’s hard to convey how satisfying this is. It’s testament to the unique power of Friends that everyone here has seen it, and Giggs is genuinely starstruck by Schwimmer: “them man there got me through jail blud… I’ve seen every episode of Friends”. For his part, Schwimmer held his own really well, attempting to use “paigon” in a sentence, and even pre-writing his bars for the end of the show where all the guests are asked to spit a quick however-many-they-can-manage over a beat provided by the shows’ resident DJ.
Over the course of the next three hours – that’s how long it takes to make an hour of TV with Big Narstie, who spends at least 15 minutes laughing breathlessly because of Mo’s tight jeans – we see: a south London version of Friends set in “Central Jerk:” footage of someone’s wig flying in the air at Wireless; a cameo from Narstie’s barber Bubbla, the Guinness World Record Holder of ‘Fastest time to cornrow braid a person’s hair’ (which raises an impressed murmur from the predominantly Afro-Caribbean studio audience); a live performance from Mr Eazi and Giggs.
The taping I attend is the fourth in a six-episode series, and despite a chuckled comment from Mo that it won’t get a second series due to Narstie’s behaviour, something tells me it will. Or it better. Narstie is aware enough of his own behaviour that he incorporates a joke about Ofcom wanting to take him down on every episode, and I will personally lead a protest if the show is cancelled.
The Big Narstie Show is a genuinely joyous experience; my face hurts from laughing by the end of filming. As an ethnic minority Londoner who grew up with this humour, it provides a level of representation previously unimaginable – I’m sure this experience was undoubtedly tenfold for black members of the audience who have spent far too long waiting for someone to accurately, unreservedly and unashamedly showcase Black British life and humour in a way their white counterparts have had access to for years.
At the end of the show’s taping, Mr Cee implores the audience to use social media to “make their voice heard” and to balance out the negative responses it has elicited from certain demographics. It’s embarrassing that such a programme is genuinely subversive in Britain in 2018, but it is. And it’s so great is because the people at its centre have refused to compromise their integrity to an idea of what they ‘should’ be doing or saying. When asked to read a link off the screen by the visibly stressed floor manager, Narstie looked at him and replied, “Yeah but I’m not saying it you lot’s way, that’s dead” – and that is exactly where the magic of this show lies. Long may it live.
'The Big Narstie Show' is next broadcast on Channel 4 on Friday 27 July at 11.05PM. You can watch it on-demand on All4 if you're not the sort of person who does appointment television.
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