Interview: Meera Syal - MEERA'S IMAGE
Meera Syal, actress and novelist, is funny, fashionable and widely feted. But the star of `Goodness Gracious Me' still feels limited in her role as a principally Asian role model. Gareth Rubin meets her
Sunday 19 December 1999
So am I. Only the day before, a straw poll conducted at my behest in the office of the entertainment magazine Heat revealed that few of the showbiz journalists there even recognised her name. "Maybe it's the sort of work she does," said one of them sniffily in explanation. "She does a lot of low impact stuff. Also, I don't think people read new novels as much as people like to believe."
But Meera Syal is not just an award-winning novelist. She's also one of the most unexpectedly successful comedy actor-writers since the prime of the Monty Python team. And here at Britain's biggest festival of Asian culture - the Mega Mela at the Birmingham NEC - no one seems in any doubt that she is a superstar of almost mystical significance. When I set eyes upon her, she is being herded towards the stand for a book-signing. Everywhere I look, people are straining to see or touch her, and mouthing the three words which have gained an almost magical status in the Asian community over the past three years: "Goodness... Gracious... Me."
When the signing is over, I ask if we can take photos of her on one of the stands devoted to wedding furniture. We move slowly. A tall, pretty girl pushes through the crowd.
"Meera, I just want say `Thank you'. Finally someone has portrayed Asians in a positive light," she says.
Syal thanks her back, then casts an embarrassed glance my way. I ask her if that sort of thing happens a lot. "Well, er... no. Perhaps in Southall or Brick Lane. I don't tend to get bothered in Soho, if you know what I mean. But it's nice to know you've got the support of the people you're supposed to be representing.
"It's lovely that people want to say thank you," she adds. "But also it's kind of... odd."
EVEN BEFORE Goodness Gracious Me, Syal was almost famous. She had gained a name for herself as an actress working at the Royal Court and on television with high-profile roles such as Cathy Tyson's social worker in the critically- acclaimed ITV series Band Of Gold. Then her first novel, Anita and Me, was a runner-up for the prestigious Betty Trask Prize in 1996, and she was pretty much a member of the arts establishment. But Goodness Gracious Me took her into a different dimension of stardom.
"What the show made me realise was how starved people were of seeing something that they could identify with. I mean, it was such a long time coming."
Goodness Gracious Me - now filming its third series for television - was recently singled out in a Broadcasting Standards Commission report as more or less the only show on mainstream television to deal with ethnic minorites in a constructive way. But one remarkable thing about the last series - which drew audiences of up to 4 million - was that 80 per cent of those watching were white. Without this racial crossover, it is doubtful that Syal would have been awarded the MBE (in 1997) or that the show would have won the award for Best Comedy at last year's ITV Comedy Awards. Even now, however, where Syal is concerned, the words "actress" and "writer" rarely appear in print unaccompanied by the word "Asian". Does this make her feel uncomfortable?
"Yeah, and I think that has held up my acting career. Because I was put in that Venn diagram area of `Spokesperson' - not `Actress' - `Role model', `Mouthpiece'. It's nothing I sought. But having been one of the first, and it's happened to everybody who was one of the first - you know, it happened to Lenny Henry - it will happen. And it's a double-edged sword, because in the end it's what your difference is - what made you noticeable in the first place. You have to tread that line. Maybe it's stuck me with the label `rent-a-quote Asian' and I hate being that."
Among her peers in television comedy, she has long been accepted as a significant creative force in her own right. Ben Elton described her last novel as "wonderful", while Mark Thomas has called her "Channel 4's answer to Che Guevara" and says today that she is "just someone you really want to be with - someone who works incredibly hard, who has achieved so-fucking- much. She really is monumental. Her one flaw is that she undervalues herself."
But acceptance in the wider public consciousness remains a tiny bit more elusive. Talking about the future of the Goodness Gracious Me team, Syal says: "The real test is what happens to us afterwards. Will we be plucked out like the Not The Nine O'Clock News team, who were all given stuff to do individually? Or will it be like: `Oh. They were in that Asian show once. They did well.' That to me is the test of how far all this liberalism really goes."
Robert Hanks, television critic of The Independent, says there's "no doubt" that she has achieved mainstream acceptance but adds: "I think she's playing an extremely clever game, getting very good write-ups. I think she's promoted things very cleverly, I have a sense of her using being Asian - using it to get on Woman's Hour and so forth. I think there are people out there who are as talented who are doing a lot less well. A smart cookie. A smooth operator."
"Everyone thinks it's now hip to be Asian, but Meera really started the ripple," says Ayub Khan-Din, writer of the film East is East and a long- time fan. "People forget that she has been around and working for years. I remember seeing her doing stand-up when I was at drama school and thinking it was great that not only was an Asian face doing stand-up, but an Asian woman! Meera has always been at the forefront. She's certainly in the mainstream now."
"I don't think I've got a lot of choice," says Syal, when I ask if she is happy be an establishment figure. "I could do the Greta Garbo thing and say: `I vont to be alone' but in the end you have to publicise what you do. But I'm still really at the stage that I can't believe I get paid for doing this - I mean I'm just one generation away from mayhem and Partition and the very hard graft that my parents went through. I can't be blase about the benefits I have.
"People find it completely bloody odd that you can be supposedly mainstream, hold your own with the white establishment, and the day after be speaking Punjabi with a load of mates," she continues, as we enter the bar of Birmingham's Stakis Metropole hotel, where the rest of the Goodness Gracious Me team are waiting in the bar. "It's not a question of denying who you are, it's a question of accessing both cultures. All I want in life is to be able to access both fully - I think that's what all of us want really."
Both her novels are full of this duality. Their raw materials are culture clashes and generation gaps widened by geographical dislocation. But they are also full of warmth and depth. Are they autobiographical?
"I think the first one, Anita and Me, was. I really did grow up in a small mining village in the Midlands. Someone once described it as Crossroads meets Twin Peaks. But I had a wonderful childhood, very close family; great working-class white people that most other people would class as racist fodder, but they weren't - we were all at the bottom of the heap together. When there was racism - and there was, of course - it came from outside the village. So, I really did have the best of both worlds - a white working-class background outside the home; and inside all my Asian aunties and uncles."
The village in question is Essington, near Wolverhampton, where Syal's parents arrived from New Delhi in 1961. Meera was born two years later. She went on to study English and Drama at the University of Manchester. Today she lives in a semi in Leytonstone, a relatively unfashionable but up-and-coming part of east London.
In her latest novel, Life Isn't All Ha Ha Hee Hee, the character of Tania, who now lives in the white world of the media, finds it hard to go home to the family and Asian neighbourhoods where she grew up. I ask her if this is born of her own experiences.
"No, because I've always felt safest amongst my family. The dislocation has been there, but it has never been insurmountable. But certainly, Tania's place in the media - constantly having to explain herself - has been my experience. And the disappointment at constantly being asked `Who is this for?' about her work - that part of her is in me.
"I think the writer's in everything really. All the women in the book are in me - I have been the idealistic sweet bride, I have been the media babe in pockets, I probably still am the harassed mother with sick down her leggings."
Syal, who is 36, has been married since her mid-twenties, to a journalist; but she says she's "wary of becoming a media couple". Their daughter, Chameli, is now seven. I am told they also have a telephone that looks like Elvis and gyrates when it rings, but I forget to ask. What I can confirm is that the comfort of her own domestic life has not blinded her to the difficulties faced by many of her contemporaries.
"I think relationships in general are fraught now, and it's especially difficult for my generation in the Asian community - we have jumped from what was mainly an assisted marriage system to the Dating Game, and that's a very rapid pace of change. There is this chasm between the sexes that all of us have to try and bridge somehow."
Of more pressing concern to her at the moment is her professional future. This includes trying to get Anita and Me off the ground as a film, and a screen version of Life Isn't All Ha Ha Hee Hee, which has been bought by Hat-Trick productions. She intends to act in Life..., probably as the "idealistic sweet bride" that she says she once was.
"But I want to avoid the Ken Branagh thing where you're perceived to be doing everything yourself and people - critics especially - think you're being a smart-arse."
This reminds me of Robert Hanks's remark. Reasoning that the interview is about to end anyway, I repeat it to her.
"`A smart operator?'" she says through gritted teeth. "That's interesting. The fact is, when journalists come and talk to me, I don't say `come and talk to me because I'm Asian' - that's what they ask me about. I don't think I've ever approached anyone for an interview.
"As for `operating', people ask me for interviews, and some I do and some I don't. Neither do I ever give journalists a brief, other than `Don't ask me about my sex life or what colour knickers I wear'. If you had come and talked to me and not mentioned the word `Asian' once, it would have been a very refreshing change, but the fact is that's what people ask me about. Now, I can't sit here and go: `I'm not going to talk about being Asian, I'm a performer', because clearly it is part of what I do.
"It is interesting, because I have had nice press over the years, and it is the tall poppy syndrome that someone will say: `Waaaiiit a minute! She's been getting interviews for a while and people like her. And I'm going to find something that I don't like!' Recently, over the book, I've had two reviews which have been grudgingly nice about the book, but a little bit iffy about me, like: `You're a bit fucking clever, aren't you? You're a bit fucking smart. A bit ambitious.' They've also been women journalists and I don't know if that is anything to do with anything, but I recognise it - I thought: `Yeah. I know what this is about: I've been exposed, I've been around a bit. I seem to have things going for me and I've come across as a bit of a smart-arse.' It's not something you create. I guess it was just my turn."
And with that, it is somehow made plain to me that it is time for me to leave. On my way out, I pause to watch Syal sitting down with the rest of the GGM team. She relaxes perceptibly as she does so. For what may be the first time today, she will be with people who won't ask her what it is like to be Asian, or thank or criticise her for doing her job. She has the opportunity to speak Punjabi with a load of mates in as western a setting as you get - remaining an outsider, but still getting the best of both worlds.
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