“I try to love you, but sometimes, it’s so hard,” Vasos exclaims in anguish, fulminating at yet another display of his son’s ineptitude.
Welcome to the world of ‘Stath Lets Flats’ a British sitcom recently screened on the ABC. Written by gifted British-Cypriot comedian Jamie Demetriou, it concerns a stupid, incompetent, socially inept Greek property manager in North London who only retains his job because his father is the owner-manager.
Stath, artfully played to a creepy crescendo by Demetriou, is blissfully unaware of his immense shortcomings and constantly badgers his father to afford him an expanded role in the management of the business, something that the beleaguered father, Vasos, played by Greek actor, Christos Stergioglou, refuses to do.
Comedies about being part of an ethnic minority within the Anglo-sphere are legion. For the most part, they focus upon attempts by younger members of a given minority to navigate their way through their local environment, balancing what are portrayed to be the bizarre, incoherent, illogical and often regressive demands or strictures of their parents’ culture with the social norms and aspirations of the country in which they live. Such sitcoms have historically generally stereotyped the migrant parent’s generation as quaint and irrelevant, inept and unrelatable, backward and derisory, isolated and marginal, unreasonable, and clamorous, petulant and pushy and in the extreme case of the disquietingly racist ‘Superwog’ hysterical, aggressive, violent and psychologically disturbed.
For the most part this generation is cast as figures of fun, to provoke laughter and to be used as a foil for the exploration of their offsprings’ ‘plight’: caught between two cultures. ‘Acropolis Now’ cleverly solved this problem by relocating the parental generation to Greece, so that the drama largely unfolded within a generational vacuum. In the cases of ‘Fat Pizza’, ‘Here Come the Habibs’, and even older sitcoms such as ‘Home Sweet Home’, (where the Italian father was played by a British actor and the Italian children, by Australian actors), where parents are not portrayed as constantly screaming, gibbering in broken, pidgin English and affecting ‘ethnic attitudes’, they are cast in roles where they are unassimilated and have no bearing or relation to the reality of the society in which they live. Most plot arcs involve the children compelling their parents through persuasion, negotiation or rebellion to submit to the values of the dominant culture and it is through them as medium that ‘outsiders’ ie. members of the dominant culture can communicate with them and it is through those same children, that the migrant generation thus gains limited entry into the broader mainstream.
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Herein lies the brilliance and the uniqueness of ‘Stath Lets Flats.’ Unlike the vast majority of ethnic comedies, here it is the assimilated generation that is repellant. In ‘Stath Lets Flats’, it is the migrant father who pulls the strings. Vasos, the father, speaks with an accent and is often portrayed breaking off into Greek when speaking to his son or to friends, but his English is functional, whereas his son’s colloquial street English inhabits a plane a few social registers below that of his father. There is no stereotypification of the migrant patois here. Instead, Jamie Demetriou presents the father as most migrant fathers who have inhabited in their new country for a while actually are: able to converse perfectly and without hindrance on a social and business level in English, albeit with a trace of accent denoting their place of origin.
At no stage does Vasos rely on his inept son Stath for entry into British society or as a means of interaction with Britons. We are introduced to him as the owner of a small but successful property management company. Jamie Demetriou casts him as the employer of a number of staff, most of whom are mainstream Britons and none of these seem to have a problem relating to Vasos as a boss or as a migrant. Quite the contrary, they manifestly look up to him and on numerous occasions Vasos is shown to be possessed of acute interpersonal skills that allow him to motivate his staff and maintain their trust in him. In short, this dignified, subtle and personable character, is loved and accepted by all.
The outsider in ‘Stath Lets Flats,’ is not the father but the repellant Stath, a creepy individual who is completely unlikable and so self-absorbed that he cannot register the scorn of all of whom come into contact with him. Such clashes as are evidenced between father and son do not transpire because of a discontinuity in values arising from a cultural divide but rather, because Stath is incompetent and immature and his father needs to protect him and his business from his presumption.
In many ways, this is a true and rather affectionate portrayal of many a migrant father-son relationship. Vasos, for all his frustration with the manner in which his son has turned out, is infinitely patient and indulgent with him. While resignation and exasperation abound in his dealings with the appallingly ridiculous Stath, there is not a trace of the psychotic aggression to be found in ‘Superwog’. Instead, this infinitely kind widower, finds a place for his son within his business, guiding him and supporting him, and hoping against hope that he will one day miraculously be able to stand up on his own feet, even though Stath by his gormless antics and misplaced confidence confounds his father’s expectations time and time again.
Vasos also supports his prospectless daughter, Sophie, played by Jamie Demetriou’s sister, Natasia. More likeable than Stath, she too appears to be incapable of supporting herself in the real world and is carried by her indulgent father. Rather than her role being cast from the perspective of a “migrant” enforcement of gender stereotypes, or as sexual object, Sophie’s pointless and talentless forays into music and acting are financed and indulged by her father. Significantly, the only person the completely egotistical Stath displays affection and tact towards, is his equally inept sister. Both of them exist as satellites of a father who, despite his kindness, infinite forbearance and unconditional love, has not quite figured out how to get them to emancipate themselves.
This then is the central conundrum of ‘Stath Lets Flats’ one of the most sensitive and affectionate portrayals of the migrant-parent relationship ever conceived for screen. If your children have no concept of emancipation, how can such an emancipation be achieved unilaterally from the parental perspective? Similarly, in a situation that arises in many migrant families where self-made businessmen have acquired status and property owing to a work ethos and a sharpness they don’t identify in their children, what are the implications of such an emancipation where the parent believes that its offspring is far from ready to spread its wings without doing harm to itself and the family? Vasos would love to retire but in Stath and Sophie, he sees not continuity, but the destruction of everything he has ever worked for. When, in those circumstances, can one ‘let go?’
Perhaps the most poignant scene in the series is where Stath, incensed that his father will not hand over the reins of the business to him, obtains a job with a rival agency and is physically bullied. The quiet, affable elderly Vasos cannot accept seeing his child coming to harm. Breaking convention, dismissing his son’s ‘betrayal’ as an inconsequential youthful folly of no importance, he instinctively swoops upon his son’s youthful assailant and dispatches him with a succession of short, sharp blows, expertly landed. The lesson: our migrant dads are softly spoken and infinitely resourceful but they carry a big stick. Always, forever, they have our backs, forgiving us our youthful indiscretions and indulging our flights of fancy. Jamie Demetriou thus presents a Greek migrant father in the form most intelligible to migrant offspring: that of an Olympian, or a Superman.
“We grew up in north London and there are so many multicultural communities,” Jamie Demetriou explains. “I hope it’s a story showing that type of inner-city situation where there are people from all walks of life. They’re all idiots in the same way but in different ways, too.”
What he has achieved, is the holy grail of ethnic comedy: the ability to portray migrants and their communities as themselves, without resorting to crass stereotypes, or pandering to dominant cultural prejudices which ultimately demand that the cultures of those communities be portrayed as a burden or a source of psychological torment. And in his tender portrayal of the Greek migrant father, in all his majestic complexity and ambiguity, he restores much deserved dignity to a maligned and unfairly denigrated media type, in a manner yet to be achieved in Australia, proving that true comedy arises not from the despised, but from the redemptive qualities of the frail but glorious human condition.