Later this year, Meera Syal will return to our screens in a new comedy – but viewers should not expect a sitcom involving an Asian character. Syal's part in the BBC2 show was originally written for a white woman.
This kind of colour-blind casting, Syal believes, is the solution to the problem identified by Lenny Henry when he lambasted broadcasters in a speech to the Royal Television Society for failing to do enough to encourage ethnic diversity. The actress, comedian and writer is anxious not to be seen as whingeing, but she contacted The Independent because she wanted to speak out in support of Henry.
"I was at the Edinburgh Festival 20 years ago talking about this, and I could get the same speech out and read it again. That's depressing," she says. "There's been a certain amount of progress, but the change has been incredibly slow [and] a lot of it seems to be cosmetic."
The problem, she says, is even more acute behind the cameras. "There are more black and Asian faces on screen, but for 2008 probably not enough. More worrying is that backstage, and in the boardrooms and the commissioning editors' seats, where decisions are made, I don't think that's really changed in 30 years."
Syal wants a more imaginative approach to casting, getting away from the Asian stereotypes of arranged marriages and suicide bombers, for example, and opening up more roles to actors of all ethnic backgrounds.
She is not suggesting that black and Asian actors should never play ethnic-minority characters, but she wants to see greater creative freedom in devising these roles. She points to ITV's forthcoming adaptation of the Jacobean tragedy The Changeling, starring Parminder Nagra as a Cambridge graduate whose Indian father wants her to marry the son of a business associate, opposite Ray Winstone as her father's chauffeur, who offers her a way out if she agrees to spend the night with him.
"That's a really imaginative way of trying to tell stories, when you include a snapshot of British society. It's a better way of doing it than saying, 'Out of 10 actors, four have to be Asian.' Otherwise you end up as the guy in Ironside who is just pushing Ironside around," she says, referring to the African American actor Don Mitchell, the sidekick to Raymond Burr's wheelchair-using detective in the Seventies series.
Part of the problem, Syal believes, lies with casting directors, who fear for their jobs in a competitive TV market and don't want to risk putting forward ethnic minority actors when the part doesn't call for it.
She was hired for the BBC2 comedy because she happened to bump into the writer, Jonathan Harvey, the creator of Gimme Gimme Gimme, and the project came up in conversation. "It took somebody with a bit of imagination and courage, and who also knew my body of work, to put that to the people making decisions. It shouldn't only happen if you've got friends who are doing stuff," she insists. Celebrity culture is also to blame: "There are very few black and Asian celebrities who can be considered big enough names to lead a series or to bring in viewers."
The current vogue for historical dramas leaves ethnic minority actors at a further disadvantage despite the opportunities it should offer, Syal says. "There has been a black and Asian presence in Britain since the 1600s. It's extraordinary how many Asians there were here in the 18th century – Bengalis who came over on the curry boats, set up curry houses; it's a great story, not to mention all the Asian royalty who were coming to hobnob with royalty over here."
She's also keen to see the story of mass immigration told. "I would love to do something about what it was like for Asians in the 1960s, the juxtaposition of living in a boarding house with 20 people and swinging Britain happening outside the door. It would be a fantastic period piece."
The reason Syal started writing was the lack of decent parts for her. "I didn't look Indian enough to play the parts that were for girls my age, the victim of an arranged marriage or some such thing; I just looked too weird, the hair and the gob, and too tall. The pretty girls with dimples and long straight hair tended to get those parts."
Her creative spark has its roots in an untypical childhood for a British Asian growing up in the 1960s and 1970s in a former mining village near Wolverhampton. "My mum was a village girl, although she met my dad in Delhi. The really depressing thing she found about Britain was its concrete and its greyness. They went to see these houses, which were very cheap because they were ex-miners' cottages, and there was this expanse of fields and sky. She said, 'If we're going to live in Britain, I want to see nature.'
"From a child, I had to cope with being a fish out of water, and that old cliché of juggling two cultures. My childhood was Indian inside the home, white working-class British outside the house. I think it's the best possible childhood I could have had. All artists have that weird third eye: your friend's sitting there sobbing and you think, 'I must remember this for a scene, the way that she's dribbling snot into her hanky.'"
Syal went to Manchester University to study English and drama. After graduation, an MA and a teaching certificate beckoned, but the course of her life changed when the National Student Drama Festival took her to the Edinburgh Fringe with a one-woman show. She was spotted by a director from the Royal Court theatre, who hired her as an actor.
The NSDF is one of the almost 200 artistic organisations recently threatened with Arts Council cuts. It has won a reprieve, but Syal is highly critical of the affair: "Badly thought through, badly handled and insulting." Institutions such as Watermans (where her husband Sanjeev Bhaskar cut his teeth) and the Tara Arts Centre, rites of passage for many Asian actors, have had their funding cut or removed altogether, she says.
In 1992, Syal wrote and appeared in the BBC film My Sister Wife, about a Muslim man with a wife from an arranged marriage, who falls in love with another Muslim woman and takes her as his second wife. But it was Goodness Gracious Me that established her as one of television's leading talents in the mid-1990s. Devised as a Radio 4 sketch show, it was popular with the station's audience and was transferred to television.
Starring four British Asian actors – Syal, Bhaskar, Kulvinder Ghir and Nina Wadia – the series featured sketches such as "Going for an English", a parody of the way British people behave in Indian restaurants. Most of the writing was by Richard Pinto, Sharat Sardana, Syal and Bhaskar, who later became her second husband.
"There was a sense of joy and discovery in finding other people who'd had a childhood like yours and were laughing at the same things behind their hands, thinking, 'Does anyone else find this funny?' I think that's why the series took off. People could sense it was original and unapologetic and came from an affectionate place. It's a sense of confidence in a community when they can laugh at themselves."
She and Bhaskar went on to make The Kumars at No 42, a comic chat-show in which he played the son to her grey-haired granny. Her novels – Anita and Me and Life Isn't All Ha Ha Hee Hee – have been adapted for television. Syal appeared in both, playing one of the central characters in Life Isn't..., a 2005 series about the lives and loves of three thirtysomething British Asian women, which attracted between five and six million viewers per episode. "It was amazing how many people that reached. I was stopped by builders in the street, taxi drivers, the most unexpected people. I thought, 'God, you sat and watched a bunch of Asian women going on about their love lives – that's brilliant.'
"That proved audiences are colour-blind. Beyond the first five minutes they don't give a shit, really, as long as the story's good and they're emotionally engaged with the characters."
Syal has written a romcom, which is about to start the rounds of the film studios, and is working on an independent film set in India. Neither has a part for her. This is perhaps an oversight as, contrary to the perception that she is often on our screens, Syal insists that like many actors she struggles to find work. She has not appeared in TV drama since Jekyll with James Nesbitt two years ago. "I've reached a difficult age. Somebody said to me, 'Wrong size, wrong age and wrong colour, sweetie' – a very embittered actress friend of mine, but she was right."
Syal isn't short of work, however. Having starred in the hit play Rafta Rafta at the National Theatre last year, she is soon to appear in Avie Luthra's film Mad, Sad & Bad, about mixed-race relationships in Luton.
While it is clear that Syal's zeal for work is undiminished, her family life is equally important. She lives in east London with Bhaskar, their two-year-old son and her 15-year-old daughter from her first marriage. With Bhaskar away filming, she has run out of babysitting credits and her evenings are spent with her toddler.
Next month, Syal's work is being celebrated by the 10th annual Tongues on Fire film festival, held in conjunction with Bafta, which celebrates the achievements of South Asian women in cinema. "This is, of course, the death knell for my career," she laughs. "People do these things when you're on your way out, so I suspect I shall be in a home in a few years."
Tongues on Fire, 8-25 March, is at various venues, www.tonguesonfire.com). Meera Syal's Q&A with Bonnie Greer is at Bafta, London W1, on 19 March at 7pm.
Are there enough ethnic minority faces on TV?
KRISHNAN GURU-MURTHY, news presenter
"A lot has changed in television with regard to race over the past 20 or 30 years, but putting a few more brown and black faces on screen isn't enough. You've got to have ethnic minority channel controllers and commissioners: without that, you won't get the kind of step change you need. There's a sense at the top of the industry that 'we've done race, now we can move on'. People at the top are still appointing people in their own image, whether they are men or women."
KWAME KWEI-ARMAH, actor and playwright, below
"It would be remiss to ignore the progress that has been made, but if we continue to move at this pace we'll never really address the structural inequalities: we'll pay lip service to notions of equality, while still being monocultural at our centre. The fact that Lenny Henry is the last person of colour in our industry to become a household name is a sad indictment. Black writers suffer because we have no stars to cast in roles."
WIL JOHNSON, actor
"There are a lot more black and Asian actors who the nation knows by name, which is fantastic. But I also think there could be a lot more colour-blind casting. It happens regularly in theatre, but in mainstream television it could be implemented a lot more. I'm tentative to use the word 'stereotyping', because a lot of the black roles emerging on television I wouldn't categorise as stereotypical: my role in Waking the Dead certainly wasn't."
TRISHA GODDARD, chat-show host, below
"It's a complicated issue. In my experience, we don't get enough support from the black press. I've been to workshops aimed at getting more black people into the media, but I found them extremely difficult. I get accused of not covering black people on my show, even though I know it has the most racially diverse guest-list."
Interviews by Chris GreenReuse content