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Contributor: Brother A Nonymous
Illustrator: Femi Adetunji
The Coffeys

As a boy, one of my favourite comedy radio programmes was ?Take It from Here?, written by Frank Muir and Dennis Norden. The part I liked best was ?The Glums?, a skit on sitcoms of warmhearted working class family life. Everything ghastly about working class life found its way into ?The Glums?. Rascally Mr. Glum and his idiot son Ron, with fianc?e Eth trying desperately to be genteel, later found their way onto television as a ?period piece?, firmly set in the 1950s.
Today, ?Black life? in the `90s seems just as fascinating or titillating to viewers and listeners as working class life ever was. There have been ?Black sitcoms? on television - The Fosters, Desmond?s and others - and all err on the side of warm-hearted family life, just like old radio shows. A ?Black Glums? is sorely needed as a comic-ghastly counterbalance, showing Black or British- Jamaican life as it really can be, something very glum indeed. Lively, outgoing, kind- hearted and flamboyant Black people have become a stereotype. So far, the only attempt at hitting back against this falsely attractive portrait has been a small sketch on ?The Real McCoy? about ?Misery?s West Indian Restaurant.? Something more is needed.
And so I now proudly present The Coffeys, a typically gruesome family story of London Jamaican life:

Instead of living in the same house, the Coffeys live in flats scattered around the Winnie Mandela estate in South London. Mrs. Evadne Coffey and her shrivelled, evasive husband (never seen, but heard `off? whining piteously) live in one flat, while others nearby are occupied by her three sons, Ronbert, Tedbert and Philbert. One daughter, Ethelbert, lives across the way on the ldi Amin estate, with her two girls Shantell and Shernice. Another daughter, Germaine, lives on the ground floor with her small son, Jermain Junior.
Ronbert and Tedbert came to England six years ago, when they were in their twenties, both on holiday visas. Their various attempts at gaining British citizenship form most of the show?s plots and sub-plots. Eventually Ronbert effects a marriage of convenience with a white Lesbian who, to his horror, later claims conjugal rights. Tedbert finally convinces the Home Office that he is a refugee from a Yardie vengeance-squad, and so gains political asylum. Between them, Ronbert and Tedbert have fathered twenty seven children, some in England, some in Jamaica. Old Granny Coffey, who is one hundred and four years old, and lives ?back home? near Kingston, chuckles with glee every time she hears of a new ?great-grand-pickney?. She keeps careful count, and informs all the neighbours of each new addition to the London family. Ronbert and Tedbert are equally proud of the sheer amount of children they have, but make no attempt to support them, see them or keep in touch with the mothers. When in difficulties of any kind, they move in with their own mother.
Mrs. Evadne Coffey is a huge, slow-moving, slow-thinking woman with enormous arms and legs. Her reaction to any remark or startling situation, if it occurs at all, occurs one hour afterwards. Her small asymmetrical eyes. set in a heavily fleshy face, blink and twitch slightly, her mouth opens and in an absurdly small squeaky voice she enquires ?Wey Ronbert dey?? or ?Is something the matter with the pickney dem?? She subsists entirely on gnawed chicken-legs, rice and coleslaw, washed down with Dr. Pepper. The only time she ever shows any emotion is when she testifies of her spiritual life at meetings of the Latter- Day Rain Outpouring Revival Church of God, when she screams at the top of her voice, ?You must beat your children in the Name of Jee-sus!?
Conversation in all and any of the Coffey households, if it takes place at all, takes place in grunts. When someone comes in the room, nobody speaks. Mrs. Coffey and her brood sometimes sit slumped staring at a television with its sound on full volume. If the electric meter runs out, they go on staring at the blank screen. More often than not, they just sit slumped, staring at the wall, on which are hung misshapen brightly-painted plaster decorations declaring ?Who Do I Love Above All Other - No one But My Own Dear Mother? or ?Jamaica Irie?. Loud taped music takes the place of conversation. Visitors come in and say ?hello? in desperate gaiety, then leave, calling out ?goodbye? to equal lack of response. No one in the family even looks up. If Ronbert or Tedbert go out to look for a new woman, they do so in stolid silence without a backward glance. Ronbert and Tedbert speak only in ?patois.? They regard the Queen?s English with scorn, and cannot read or write. Strangely enough, both work for London Transport as pay-as-you-enter bus drivers. How they passed their Heavy Vehicle test, no one can imagine. Philbert, however, came to London as a child and speaks in a precise, precious sweetly-ingratiating accent. He is a Treasurer at the local ?Loony Left? Town Hall, and is active in local politics, speaking at protest meetings whenever grants are cancelled. However, he can speak fluent patois as well. Like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, he has two personalities: his unctuous clerk-like English self and his shouting rufty-tufty Patois Personality.
Germaine Coffey lived for a time with a Ghanaian student. When their son Jermain Asante Junior was born, the father made a passionate speech at the post-natal drinks party. ?By the God of Africa, I swear that I will stand forever at my son?s side, guiding him, instructing him and leading him to the pinnacles of life in accordance with the sacred tradition of my African ancestors!? he declared, as bespectacled Germaine looked on goofily and ratings soared.
Next day, ?the African?, as he was known, tired of family life, left Germaine and baby, and returned to his old bachelor flat on the Emperor Bokassa estate. Wildly excited, Ronbert and Tedbert vowed to avenge themselves on the unnatural father. They burst in on Philbert as the latter was speaking, with a slight lisp, to somebody on the `phone about council business. Quickly dropping the `phone, Philbert allowed his patois personality to take over. Shouting along with the rest, he pulled his machet? out from under his bed and rushed off in search of vengeance. Although terror-stricken when the three young men broke down his door, ?the African? managed to get onto the fire escape and make his getaway. After chopping up his flat a bit, the 'Three Just Men' proudly took a music system and a mobile `phone back to Germaine as compensation (Viewers wrote in to congratulate them).
Although subtitles are necessary when Ronbert and Tedbert talk in patois, the Coffey daughters both speak standard London English, rebuking their children harshly and ending every outdoor conversation with the phrase, ?Take care, yeah?? Ethelbert, who is even more bespectacled than Germaine if possible, is the intellectual of the family. She is a ?fully-trained? social worker, employed by the Family Service Unit to find ?Black homes for Black foster children.? Her task is made easier by the fact that she has registered her own mother, slow-moving Mrs. Coffey, as an official foster parent. This was good news for Mrs. C., who at once gave up her job as a Care Attendant at a Home for the Fragile Elderly, and now stays at home contentedly living on the huge allowance per child doled out by the Welfare. As the series opens, she is seen taking care of no less than eight children in a three room flat. This she can do because she has two television sets. While she watches one, and perpetually cooks rice and chicken, the assorted Black children are locked in the back room in front of the other set. There they stay for hours at a time, their routine of stunned open-mouthed rocking sometimes interrupted by the door opening and a tray of food being shoved inside or a heavy-handed beating administered. Some of the older, brighter children escape the fate of Pavlov puppies by climbing out of the window and defying death on ledges as they work their way down to the courtyard below in search of Adventure. At night they climb back and Mrs. Coffey never notices.
Comic relief in the sitcom is provided by Fabian the Nubian, a cheerful fat young man with glasses who sometimes calls round to help the Coffeys eat their enormous meals. A very talkative young man, Fabian never waits for an answer or comment, and is quite encouraged by Coffey taciturnity, which he sees as respectful lack of interruption. Fabian believes that all Black people are descended from the Egyptian god Thot and possessed of a magic substance called Mystic Melanin. There are plenty of books to substantiate such claims, and Fabian is forever going to and from the ?Black Writing? row of shelves that occupy most of the Michael de Freitas Memorial Library (formerly the Passmore-Edwards Reading Room for Working Men). Whenever the beaming figure of Fabian the Nubian appears, African tom-tom music is heard in the background.
Favourite Fabian catchphrases are ?You, being of an inferior race may not realise - ? (spoken to the only white character in the sitcom, a postman with a nice line in double-takes) and ?The expression `Uncle Tom? derives from a Lower Egyptian tribe known as the Tomuiai who denied their African heritage.? He begins every sentence with the words ?As an African - ? spoken in a Barbadian accent. Sometimes he falls in love, always unrequited, and burbles to Shantell or Shernice, ?Sister, don?t you realise that you are an Ethiopian princess??
?You wha??? they reply. ?Don?t be so dark!?
Viewers will love this show, and if Muir and Norden are still around, I will sell them the idea, take the money and go and live in Jamaica (Apologies Mr Grant).
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