Tuesday, January 03, 2006

the english harem

The premise of the drama “The English Harem” sounds potentially salacious. A young English woman Tracy, who works as a cashier at a supermarket, and constantly retreats into dreams of Oriental romance, fails to detect shoplifters and is sacked. She persuades the prosperous Persian owner of a restaurant in the Kensington area of London to take her on as a waitress, and the two fall in love. The Persian, Sami, already has two wives, but she agrees to become his third wife and to move into the palatial family house – hence the title of the drama.

In fact in the ITV drama, which was a highlight of the intensive TV viewing season over Christmas, Tracy only agrees to marry Sam after he assures her that he has no marital relations with his two wives whom he married only out of duty.

The first wife had been married to Sam’s brother, and when his brother died he married her and took on her four children. His second wife was his first wife’s best friend, and married him after her husband too died. The wives work in Sam’s restaurant and egg their husband on to form a relationship with Tracy, to whom they have given their seal of approval.

“The English Harem” was adapted by New Zealand-born writer Anthony McCarten from his novel of the same title. A major draw for viewers was the presence of two of Britain’s most popular actors, Melanie McCutcheon and Art Malik, in the lead roles.

McCutcheon first made her name in the soap opera EastEnders, playing the character of Tiffany Mitchell. She is known internationally for her role in the film “Love, Actually” as 10 Downing Street tea-girl Natalie who becomes the subject of the affections of the prime minister, played by Hugh Grant.

The Pakistani-born actor Art Malik had his major breakthrough in 1984 when he starred as ill-fated young Indian Hari Kumar in the TV series “The Jewel in the Crown”. Most recently he has been playing doctor Zubin Khan in the medical series “Holby City”.

The major obstacles to Tracy and Sam’s marriage come from Tracy’s father and her racist ex-boyfriend Ricky. Tracy dumped thuggish Ricky when she caught him with another woman, but he desperately wants her back and is ready to do anything to sabotage her relationship with Sam.

Thanks to the efforts of Tracy’s father and Ricky, social services remove the children of Sam’s first wife. A masked Ricky then assaults Sam so violently that he suffers a life-threatening brain aneurysm.

The tone of “The English Harem” is an at times awkward mixture of romantic comedy and harsh reality, but the strong cast carries the drama off and the twists in the plot sustain interest. However, it can’t be said that the drama sheds much light on Muslim life in Britain, nor is it a serious exploration of the polygamy that does occur to some extent.

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