“THEY’RE gonna have to make some mention of The Real McCoy on my tombstone, innit?”
I think this was down to Leo Muhammad. He wasn’t about making white people feel comfortable – he encouraged us to be authentic
That’s what I jokingly said to a friend and former Voice colleague recently when I told her I was planning on writing yet another article about the celebrated BBC series. (More on the backstory later).
But after hearing rumours that the beloved black-British sketch show is set to return to our screens via BBC iPlayer this month – 24 years after it came off air – I felt compelled to explore this news.
Moreover, I wanted to find out what those involved with the show think about the potential of it returning to our screens in 2020 – the year that has seen countless companies fall over themselves to demonstrate how pro-diversity they are, in light of the racial tensions that erupted worldwide, following the murder of George Floyd in May.
While many on social media expressed excitement at the rumours of a re-run of The Real McCoy – which featured the talents of comedic heroes including Leo Muhammad, Llewella Gideon, Eddie Nestor and the late Felix Dexter – others were more sceptical.
One Twitter user wrote, “The timing is interesting. We’re not impressed.” Another wrote: “Shame on The BBC.”
I myself was somewhat bemused, given that The Voice had previously driven an entire campaign, calling for the show’s return.
The backstory: In 2012, when I was serving as The Voice’s arts editor, I decided to launch a Voice campaign, titled, ‘Bring Back The Real McCoy’. After attending an event that year held at BBC Radio Theatre to mark the 21stanniversary of the show first hitting our screens – and as a personal fan of the series – I found it bewildering that the BBC had never re-aired the series on their own network, or licensed it to be aired elsewhere.
Running on BBC2 from 1991-1996, The Real McCoy was a classic, ground-breaking series that used comedy to reflect black British experiences of the time. With the sketches being written by predominantly black talents, who also starred in the show, the series successfully tackled an array of topics, relatable to the black experience, both in Britain and abroad.
Whether it was the romantic endeavours of ‘bruk-toothed’ bachelor, Mr Frazier; the bad attitudes of the staff in Misery’s West Indian Restaurant; or a sketch that portrayed Mary and her baby Jesus as a black mother and child, The Real McCoy delivered both social commentary and sheer hilarity in equal measure. And as the show’s 21stanniversary had been celebrated by the BBC, I wondered why they wouldn’t go one further and re-air the series.
I soon discovered I wasn’t alone in my desire for the show to be re-run. Upon launching the campaign, countless readers sent their support by way of emails, former cast members added their voices to the campaign, and as a result, I went on to write numerous articles, calling for the BBC to re-run the show or release it on DVD.
Sadly, despite the demand, a BBC spokesperson told The Voice in 2013 that they wouldn’t be releasing the show on DVD, as “we do not feel there is a big enough market to justify the investment.”
However, in 2017, it was announced that the BBC would be releasing series one of The Real McCoy via their now defunct platform, BBC Store – a service that allowed viewers to buy and download episodes of shows from the BBC’s archive.
It felt like a semi-victory. Yes, it was great that fans could now access episodes of the show. But it also felt as though those fans had been cheated by being given an option they had to pay for, when the BBC has numerous channels on which they could have re-aired the show at no cost to the viewers. (Except for the licence fee, of course).
Now, here we are in 2020, and The Real McCoy is apparently set to be aired – for free – on BBC iPlayer. Why now? Leo Muhammad, one of the show’s original cast members and writers, has his suspicions.
“I think it’s more game playing from the BBC,” Muhammad tells The Voice.“Because of the upheaval that has stemmed from the murder of George Floyd, I think they’re jumping on the bandwagon and delivering a token gesture to make [black people] think they genuinely care about us. But I suspect it’s a smokescreen to try and pacify us and then it will be back to business as usual.
“For there to be real change, it goes way beyond re-airing The Real McCoyon BBC iPlayer. They would need to do a lot more than that before I would be convinced that there is any genuine attempt to demonstrate that black lives actually matter to them. Because historically, everything they’ve done so far has proved the opposite.”
The Real McCoy’sproducer, Charlie Hanson, is pleased that the show will be re-aired, but also urges the BBC to develop more black-led programming.
“I’d like to thank Davina and The Voice for their lengthy campaign to get the BBC to repeat The Real McCoy,” Hanson says. “Now, it seems the BBC have finally relented, and whatever their motives might be, I welcome the fact that loyal fans of the original series, along with a new, younger audience, will be able to revisit the shows.
“After all these years, I suspect some of the sketches and production values will seem dated,” Hanson continues. “But I believe the series was a landmark on British TV and deserves to be seen.
“It’s equally important that the BBC step up and develop more black writing and performing talent, as well as provide better opportunities for black producers, directors and executives. There’s plenty of improvement needed.”
Upon learning of The Real McCoy’s potential re-run, original cast member Llewella Gideon told us: “I am delighted for the fans.” Fellow cast member, Judith Jacob, mirrors this sentiment, as she is often asked by fans if the show will ever be re-aired.
“Now, when I’m asked the question, ‘When are they going to re-run The Real McCoy?’ I’ll hopefully be able to say it’s coming back this month,” Jacob says.
“Politically, this is an excellent time to show The Real McCoy. No new programmes were being made because of Covid-19, and most of the traditional comedies have already been re-run at least five times!
“Directly or indirectly, by re-airing The Real McCoy, it ‘looks like’ the people have been heard. Personally, I’m very happy – it’s about time.”
Another Real McCoy talent who also attests to being repeatedly asked over the years whether the show will ever return, is Eddie Nestor.
“If I had a pound for every time somebody asked me when The Real McCoy was coming back, I wouldn’t have a mortgage,” says the comedian and radio broadcaster. “But [fans wanting it back] it is an indictment on the state of terrestrial TV now.”
Reflecting on the creative control the performers had on the show, Nestor believes that the enduring love for the series comes from the fact that the sketches were “authentic” and not created to appease white audiences.
He credits this largely to Leo Muhammad’s vision for the show, but also recognises how black performers can be sidelined in the industry if they’re deemed too politically radical for a mainstream white audience.
“We did – in the main – what we wanted on that show,” Nestor recalls. “It must have been terrifying for the BBC, but the numbers and the response from the audience was amazing. Still, despite the show’s success, all the cast members have done pilots since then and not one of us got a series.
“I think this was down to Leo Muhammad. He wasn’t about making white people feel comfortable – he encouraged us to be authentic. Had we done some of the typical foolishness [to make white audiences comfortable], one of us might have got a series – but nobody would be asking for The Real McCoy a quarter of a century after it ended.”
Indeed, the demand for the show has been undeniable. And now, it would seem that audiences will finally get what The Voice called for back in 2012 – the return of The Real McCoy.
It feels like a pyrrhic victory. Ultimately, it’s wonderful to think that audiences old and new will get to enjoy this ground-breaking slice of black British comedy history.
And with the current social climate regarding race relations, many of the sketches – specifically the skit that highlighted police brutality against black people, or the sketch that highlighted issues of immigration and the ethos of the British National Party (BNP) – still hold relevance today.
But the apparent disregard shown for this series over the last two decades should also serve as a call to black British creatives of how important it is to have control over the content we create. Leo Muhammad firmly believes that now is the time for the black community to unite and start doing things for ourselves.
“There’s never been a time like now, and a lot of our people have now – finally – come to that realisation,” he says.
“Things got so bad in recent times, that even a lot of white people came to the realisation, where they were like, ‘Wow – black people are really suffering!’
“Since the murder of George Floyd, it’s like a switch got clicked in so many of our people, allowing them to realise the importance of us doing things for ourselves.
“Right now, there is a tremendous window of opportunity for us to start doing for ourselves, and the fact that so many of our people are doing that, is a beautiful thing.”