Meera Syal's Funny Valentine
The Times, 5 April 2010
Goodness Gracious Me and The Kumars at No 42 have made her one of the most famous performers in the land. John Lewis meets her in rehearsals for Shirley Valentine
When Meera Syal graduated from drama school 25 years ago, the notion of colour-blind casting was still in its infancy.
“Asians would get a huge range of roles,” she groans, with heavy irony. “You’d be the victim of an arranged marriage, the sister of a victim of an arranged marriage, a nurse worrying about her sister’s arranged marriage, a caring barrister defending someone who’s escaped from an arranged marriage... You get the picture. That’s why I stopped acting and started writing.
“But, thankfully, things have improved quite a lot. Theatre companies have really embraced colour-blind casting. And it’s a relief, and an honour, to land a part like Shirley Valentine. But it is terrifying: I’m being directed by the same woman, Glen Walford, who first directed it when it opened in Liverpool, so there’s a big legacy.”
Willy Russell’s stage play – about an unfulfilled fortysomething housewife who rediscovers herself on a holiday in Greece – is a famously demanding role. Unlike the film adaptation, it is a one-woman monologue, with Shirley telling her story and introducing her co-stars through role-playing and impersonations. It proved a hit on the West End and Broadway, with Pauline Collins even earning an Oscar nomination and a BAFTA award for the 1989 film.
“I loved the film when it came out,” says Syal, “and me and Willy spent a lot of time discussing how we were going to approach this production, especially given that Pauline’s version is so brilliant and so definitive. I initially suggested making Joe, Shirley’s husband, Indian. But Willy argued that we couldn’t just cosmetically tweak one bit, we’d have to do a complete rewrite. And I agreed. So we’re doing it pretty straight, in Scouse. In fact, the only change we made was that I spend the entire first act frying chips – on a real cooker – while delivering the monologue!
“The fact that I’m in the role is enough of a statement. What makes it a triumph of colour-blind casting is proving that Asian women can be every bit as dowdy as anyone else – there’s equal opportunity in frumpiness!”
In a weird way, this captures a key appeal of Meera Syal’s success. If so much post-colonial literature has been a celebration of the exotic and magical, Syal’s books, screenplays, comedy sketches and theatre shows have often provided a bathetic rejoinder to such tropes. Her characters are second-generation immigrants, desperate to be as mundane and unexotic as everyone else. They are the little Asian girls who prefer fish fingers and chips to dahl and rice, the teenagers who reject Bollywood heartthrobs to swoon over David Cassidy, the middle-class Indians who are baffled by “Asian chic”. It’s this normalisation of the British Asian experience that has made her both a trailblazer and a household name.
Goodness Gracious Me, the sketch show in which she starred and co-wrote, was an international critical and commercial hit, as was the musical Bombay Dreams, for which she wrote the libretto. Her semi-autobiographical novels – Anita And Me and Life Isn’t All Ha Ha Hee Hee – have sold more than a million copies internationally, while a list of Britain’s “richest and most influential” Asians estimated her as being worth £4million. “That came as a shock to my accountant,” she laughs. “I’ve no idea where they got that figure. I guess Bombay Dreams could have made me a bit, but no one makes much money from a musical that costs that much to stage.”
Meera Syal was born in Wolverhampton 48 years ago, and brought up a few miles away in a village called Essington. Her parents, a Hindu father and a Sikh mother, were educated, liberal Punjabis. “They were intellectuals with no money,” says Syal. “They lost everything during Partition. So I was never sure where we fitted in the British class system. In a way, as an immigrant, you become classless. You’re a perpetual outsider. And that’s actually quite good for developing an artist’s eye.”
Her parents, atypically for first-generation Asians, encouraged her to study drama. “They knew that I was passionate about it, and, very sensibly, decided that this would mean I’d work hard and do it with dedication.” She arrived at Manchester University to a department that was at the epicentre of the burgeoning alternative comedy scene, with Rik Mayall, Ade Edmondson and Ben Elton just leaving to be replaced by the likes of Steve Coogan, Caroline Aherne and John Thompson.
“There was a buzz about the place. It was an incredibly creative department, filled with academic drop outs who had a huge passion for theatre and drama. It’s depressing that you now need straight A's at A-level to study drama. That would have cut out most of the interesting people off the course.
“If there’s one piece of advice I’d give to anyone wanting to study drama – and that includes my teenage daughter – it’s that you should only do it if you feel there’s nothing else in your life that you could ever possibly want to do. You need that drive, that belief.”
In the last few years, Syal seems to have returned to the theatre after a lengthy furlough, recently starring in the critically acclaimed drama Rafta, Rafta at the National Theatre (a role which she’s reprising for a film remake). It’s ironic that her return comes at an age when theatrical roles are traditionally thin on the ground for women.
“As they say, women’s parts dry up at a certain age,” she cackles. “But that shouldn’t be the case. I think it reflects how the media are obsessed with age. Every time you read mention of someone’s name in a news story, they have to clarify that person’s age. ‘Fred Smith, 58.’ It’s because we all hear someone’s age and we place what we think they should be doing. But in this increasingly fluid society, a lot of those stereotypes are redundant.”
This idea of defying age stereotypes certainly defines Syal’s best known comic creation – the flirtatious, fearsomely intellectual grandmother, Ummi, on the comedy chat show, The Kumars At No 42. Syal explains how Ummi was based Asian women who’d been liberated by being widowed, in that they were no longer defined by their husbands.
“I certainly see parallels between Ummi and Shirley Valentine. I think the bit of Shirley that particularly resonates with my upbringing is this whole idea of women who don’t fulfil their potential. I saw my parents and their friends, the artistic dreams they had in India, and how they had to pack them away when they came over to Britain to drive buses and work in factories. And I felt their disappointment.
“My dad would have these musical evenings, and suddenly you’d see the uncle who was a bus driver reciting poetry, or the auntie who was a nurse singing Punjabi folk songs. You’d watch them transform. Their hearts were elsewhere. And I always found that incredibly moving. What happened to that little bit of them? What I like about Shirley Valentine is that, by the end of the play, the liberated Shirley ends up a bit like Ummi in the Kumars!”
Wasn’t there talk of various international networks adapting The Kumars? “There were several. There was an American version with a Mexican family, an Australian one with a Greek family, there was talk of Moroccan family for French TV, and an Indonesian – or was it Turkish? – family in Holland. But none of them worked. The problem was that all those broadcasters just bought the format but didn’t bring over the originators to walk them through it. We spent years working on that show – finding the right people, writing backstories for all the characters, improvising with them. We’d done our homework. I don't think the other broadcasters did. That's why our shows still get shown around the world.”
Since 2005, Syal has been married to Sanjeev Bhaskar, her co-star in the Kumars and Goodness Gracious Me, with whom she has a son (she also has a daughter from her previous marriage). The transition from friends to lovers – which came when they were on a promotional tour of Australia – was something that both have described as “entirely natural” and “inevitable” (“although that sounds a bit unromantic”). Ironically, although they worked closely together in the writing of both TV shows, they’ve rarely collaborated since marrying. “We have separate offices, me at the front of the house, him at the back. We take breaks and meet in the kitchen.”
Syal is still astonished that Goodness Gracious Me wasn’t recommissioned in 2001 for a fourth series. “We couldn’t have won any more awards or got better ratings. We were genuinely bewildered when we didn’t get another series. But perhaps it comes back to age – there’s a perception that you can’t really do sketch show comedy when you’re in your forties. It’s a young man’s game.
“Also, Goodness Gracious Me was of its time. It was only 10, 15 years ago, but a lot of the material we did is no longer relevant. For my children, race and culture issues are rather more fluid and complicated. I’d love to see what comedy the next generation can make with that.”
Shirley Valentine is in rep as part of a Willy Russell season at the Menier Chocolate Theatre until May 8 (box office 020 7907 7060).