TV EYE: NO MORE MRS PATEL FOR MEERA

Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
Meera Syal has had it up to here with racial typecasting. So she is delighted to have been cast in a "colour-blind" role as the snooty wife of a dentist (David Haig) in Keeping Mum, a broad new BBC1 sitcom. She reveals that "It was great to have the chance to play a mainstream comedy character where I wouldn't have to make jokes about arranged marriages."

Tina, her character, is in the Hyancinth Bucket league of snobbery - she gets a headache merely by driving past a council estate. Taking a break between rehearsals in a Kensington church hall, Syal is a sparky presence. "It's nice to play a nasty piece of work," she laughs. "I've often been cast as a cool, noble woman. In the 1980s, I was rent-a-social- worker. In this I get to wear loads of designer gear. No more beige suits. Get me the Armani leather shorts now!"

Despite being an accomplished performer, Syal has not found it easy to break into mainstream comedy. "There's a perception that Asians aren't funny," she sighs. "People have talked about a black movement in comedy, and they have had role models in Lenny Henry and Eddie Murphy. But who are they for Asians? Just by virtue of being seen, I might make youngsters think, 'That weird-looking woman with strange hair is in a BBC1 series, maybe I can do it too'."

She is reluctant, however, to be seen purely as a standard-bearer. "You're given representative responsibility," she concedes, "but I don't claim to speak for anyone. It's crass to think you can speak for a whole community. The version of the truth I present can only be mine. Woody Allen said, 'Actually I'm good at my job and just happen to be Jewish'. It would be nice not to have the prefix 'Asian' all the time. You can batter doors, but the only thing that speaks eloquently is the work you do."

Although she has never encountered overt racial prejudice in showbusiness - "Liberals are too polite for that," she reckons - Syal does feel limited by the fact that "people are worried about not being PC. There's this fear of casting ethnic actors in so-called negative roles. I was offered a social worker rather than a prostitute in Band of Gold, because they were concerned that the inference would be that all Asian girls are prostitutes. It's a curse when people can't cast you for your strengths. There's a lack of imagination, but it is changing. Twenty years ago we had Love Thy Neighbour and The Black and White Minstrel Show, so things have changed."

To emphasise the point, Syal declares that "People don't have to do us favours. The most interesting voices in drama are coming from people on the so-called fringe because they haven't been heard before. I'm not going to whinge about equal opportunities; I'm going to get off my arse and do things. Somebody really clever said, 'Autonomy is the first stage of revolution'."

Syal's bid for autonomy has come through writing - with great success. She has penned Channel 4's Tandoori Nights, a six-part series, Masala FM for Radio 4, and two award-winning films, My Sister Wife and Bhaji on the Beach. "For women of a certain age, there aren't that many roles," she has said. "That's exactly why I started writing. It wasn't ever part of a grand plan, but if I get offered one more victim of an arranged marriage or a woman called Mrs Patel in a shop, I shall scream. I want to do funny stuff that reflects the women I know who have a sense of fun and irony. Actors have very little power so it has to come from creating your own work."

Syal's first novel, Anita and Me, won the Betty Trask Award and was shortlisted for the Guardian Fiction Award, and she is now adapting the novel into a screenplay, "Ben Elton described it as 'Cider With Rosie meets Tom Sawyer via Wolverhampton'. In the end, unless you're writing something that resonates on a universal scale, it's not going to work. I've had letters from old white women saying, 'This is exactly my childhood'. If there is a downside, I'm now described as 'Meera Syal, a writer who also acts'. Can't I do two things like Emma Thompson?"

Like the energetic Emma, Syal now fancies a bit of Jane Austen. "That's my next part," she smiles. "I'm determined to wear a bustle soon."

'Keeping Mum' starts on 17 Apr at 8.30pm on BBC1

Comments