Goodness, Gracious

Meera Syal returns to her Midlands roots this month to tackle her first ever Shakespeare. And she can’t wait, she tells Deirdre Shields

Meera Syal has a great laugh. It’s a rich, throaty chuckle – an old-fashioned laugh that somehow makes you think she would have been brilliant in a ‘Carry On’ film. It is a good laugh for a funny woman, and Meera Syal is certainly that. She has written and performed in some well-loved comedies – ‘Goodness, Gracious Me’, ‘Bhaji on the Beach’, and ‘The Kumars at No 42’, in which Meera aged impressively to play outspoken Granny ‘Ummi’ alongside her real-life husband, Sanjeev Bhaskar.

The ‘Goodness, Gracious’ team’s ‘Going for an English’ sketch – which parodied the drunken currynight- out so brilliantly – is right up there with the comedy greats. And there has been much publicity about the likelihood of a new Kumar series appearing on Sky 1 this autumn. The new show – reportedly called ‘The Kumars at No 42B’ – sees the clan forced by the economic downturn to share a flat in Hounslow.

Meera Syal is laughing right now, because she is thinking about her forthcoming appearance as Beatrice, in Much Ado About Nothing at the RSC this month. ‘Not only is this my first time with the RSC, this is my first Shakespeare,’ she says. ‘It’s just been thatmixture of not being in the right place at the right time before. There is a little bit of fear on my part – the longer you leave something, the harder it seems.’ She laughs again: ‘It was getting to the stage where I thought it would be a shame to die and never have done a Shakespeare!’

Her chance came when she happened to meet Michael Boyd at a First Night. Meera explains: ‘He asked if I’d ever thought of doing any Shakespeare. I said I’d always quite fancied doing Katerina from Taming of the Shrew, and he said ‘You’d be much better as Beatrice.’ And it’s a part that accommodates an older actress – sadly, my days of Juliet are long gone!’

‘I’m excited about it,’ she says. ‘It’s set in modern India, so we’re hoping it will be different, colourful, bold. Much Ado is a wonderful play, and so incredibly modern. Beatrice and Benedick are the beginning of what we recognise as rom-com. They bicker, they pretend, they don’t realise they’re in love with each other – it’s that lack of self-awareness and dawning realisation that runs through everything from Elizabeth Bennett and Darcey, to ‘When Harry Met Sally’. Shakespeare’s view of love is so modern. The dialogue is 70 per cent prose – it’s a joy to play.’

It is very daunting thinking about the brilliant Beatrices who have gone before – so I’m not! That said, I saw Tamsin Greig at Stratford and she was brilliant. And so was Zoe Wanamaker, who I saw at the National. You have to forget about the greats. It’s such great material; it allows everyone the chance to make it their own.’

‘What’s brilliant is being up in Stratford for the summer with my family. When I was a child, we only came to Stratford when we had relatives staying. Everyone wanted to visit, because Shakespeare is held in such reverence in India. I remember coming with my granddad when I was about 18, because he was adamant he ‘wanted to see where The Bard had lived’.

Meera Syal grew up in the Midlands. She was born in Wolverhampton, and lived in the nearby mining village of Essington. She attended Queen Mary’s High School in Walsall, before going on to study English and drama at Manchester University. Although she grew up in a working, mining community, it was a rural pace of life.

‘Mine was an almost feral childhood,’ she recalls. ‘I’d go off on my bike and be found in some field hours later. It was fantastic. I loved the freedom and I’m really sad kids don’t get that freedom and adventure now. Mind you, it’s as well my mother didn’t know what I was up to – nearly drowning, getting impaled on barbed wire.’

She has mined her own childhood experiences, growing up in the only Asian family in a small community, in her writing, most notably in her first novel, ‘Anita and Me’, which tells the story of a young Asian girl, Meena, who grows up in a Midlands mining village, and thinks London only exists on a Monopoly board.

It is a lovely coming-of-age story, and won Meera the coveted Betty Trask award, as well as being shortlisted for the Guardian Fiction Prize. Today, ‘Anita and Me’ is studied on school and university syllabuses, both here and abroad, and has inspired sheaves of scholarly papers, with titles like ‘Meena’s Mockingbird: From Harper Lee to Meera Syal’. But then Meera Syal has a genius for combining the serious and comic, both in her writing and performing.

She has a particular fondness for Midlands humour. ‘Midlands folk have a fantastic sense of humour,’ she says. ‘There’s a sort of dourness, an Eyeore-ish quality that I love. It’s very deadpan, very ironic. It’s a really neglected area when you think of the comic talent that has come fromthe Midlands – JulieWalters, Josie Lawrence, Lenny Henry. Maybe people don’t like the accent.’

‘Actually, that’s one of my bugbears, people not liking the Midlands accent,’ she admits. ‘It’s right up there with the invisibility of women over a certain age on our screens – only that’s not a local thing, that’s right across the board. When we had that business over Miriam O’Reilly and CountryFile, I thought ‘Who was surprised?’

‘I’d love to see a cracking show about women aged between 45 and 60. I think women are so funny, so interesting, so themselves at that age. Just when they feel they become invisible, they become most interesting. It’s hard because you have you have to be featureclever about it commercially. You can’t say ‘I’ve got a show about older women’ and hope to market that, because they’ll just say it’s about the menopause.’ Has she considered writing something herself? She gives a shout of laughter: ‘No! I’m too lazy!’

For someone who says ‘I never thought I’d be able to make a living out of what I’mdoing’, her CV reads like one long success. In her last year at Manchester, she won the National Student Drama Award for a play she co-wrote, ‘OneOf Us’, and landed a job with the experimental theatre company, Joint Stock (‘the ones everyone wanted to work for’). She wrote the screenplay for ‘Bhaji on The Beach’, a lovely, quirky film about a group of Asian women from Birmingham on a day trip to Blackpool.

She has been a busy actress throughout her career, popping up in everything from Holby City to Horrible Histories. She fulfilled a lifetime ambition recently when she appeared in Dr Who. ‘Yes! I got to the Tardis!’ she says.‘And it was wonderful but itwas hard to shoot. It was Wales; it was cold, dark, and raining. They work them very hard on DrWho and the schedule is punishing. It’s not glamorous.’

And she has been at the heart of two huge comedy hits – Goodness Gracious Me, and the Kumars. Like many comedy greats, Goodness Gracious started life on radio. It remains ‘a highlight’ for Meera. ‘It really captured the zeitgeist’, she says. The Kumars started on BBC 1 and ran for seven series between 2001-2006. Between them, Meera and Sanjeev Bhaskar created an endearingly dysfunctional family – the loveable but embarrassing parents, the outspoken granny – that everyone could recognise and relate to. The Queen is said to be a big fan. When she presented Sanjeev Bhaskar with his OBE, she told him: ‘Keep making us laugh.’ (He later quipped ‘As an Asian bloke, it’s another thing I can stick on eBay”).

The Kumars have been a hit around the world, from Canada to New Zealand. There has been a Pakistani version (featuring a Gujarati family living in Karachi), an Indian version (featuring a Parsee family living inMumbai) and even an Australian version called ‘Greeks on the Roof’ (could you make it up?) that featured a Greek Australian family, only that one flopped.

Meera is cautiously waiting on a new series for the Kumars. ‘We shot a pilot but nothing is a shoo-in. You have to keep reinventing yourself. For every one thing I do, ten never see the light of day.’ She shrugs: ‘It’s a business. And it has become much more commercial in the past two years. It’s harder to get on the current channels, but there are other ways of getting work out there, and in a way, its giving control back to the artists. If you’re a comedian you get a huge following on YouTube, then you can go to the channels and say ‘Look, I have X thousand followers. Give me a show.’

For herself, she enjoys the mix of performing and writing. ‘It’s nice to have the choice,’ she says. ‘Being lazy, I try to plan that I do my writing in winter, so I can stay at home and just be a slob in my pyjamas. Writing works more easily around family life – it’s much harder if you have to be off on a film set or touring. But I do find writing really lonely – some people enjoy that, but I wouldn’t want to do it all the time. I really miss that communal creative process – which is why I’m so excited about Beatrice!’ 

Much Ado About Nothing is at the RSC’s Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon from July 26 – September 15. Visit www.rsc.org.uk or telephone 0844 800 1110