Thursday 29 September 2011

Review of Meera Syal in conversation with Bidisha at the Southbank Centre

Meera Syal in conversation with Bidisha

Southbank Centre
28 June 2011

Meera Syal’s repertoire is vast. An actress, comedian, writer and singer, who has won awards across the board, it’s no wonder she was invited to appear at the Southbank Centre as part of the National Treasures series. But, asks Bidisha, her partner in conversation for the evening, how does she feel about being thus described? “Well, that’s the end of my career, isn’t it?! I’m being pensioned off!”

In fact, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Syal’s career is alive and well. She is currently working on her third novel, and, following her successful run in Shirley Valentine last summer, she is also due to return to the theatre in October, taking on the title role in Frank Marcus’ 1964 comedy The Killing of Sister George. “I still hope for Lizzie Bennett though,” says Syal wistfully. Despite being such a household name, 80% of her radio work – a medium where you’d expect to be able to play any role – is still in an Indian role. “I think it’s a lack of imagination. It’s not racism, it’s laziness. You’ve got to be self-determining, really, because this isn’t a business that does you any favours. You’ve got to go out and get them.”

And, despite her modest claim that “I never forget how lucky I am,” Syal has certainly done just this. Brought up in Essington, a tiny mining village in the Black Country, she was used to ‘wearing masks’ from a young age. At home she spoke Punjabi and ate with her fingers, but as soon as she ventured outside, she became a “wench”, taking on the local accent (the twang of which remains apparent to this day). “We were really exotic!” she says of her family, the only Asians in a very tight knit community. “But you can’t have creativity without some sort of dissonance.”

Did her parents support her wish to become an actress? “Well, we did have the doctor conversation quite early on,” laughs Syal. But it was fairly apparent that this was not going to happen, as she failed maths every year up to O-Levels, when her desperate parents hired the local ice cream van driver, a maths graduate, to give her extra tuition. “I still get cold sweat when I hear ‘Teddy Bears’ Picnic’, because I associate it with algebra!” But yes, her parents were supportive, and she went on to study English and Drama in Manchester, graduating with a double first. Nevertheless, in her final year there, convinced she’d never get work as an actress, Syal wrote and appeared in her ‘swansong’, One of Us. After being performed at university, however, it went on to the Edinburgh Festival, and won her not only the National Student Drama Award, but also a nine month contract at the Royal Court, with an Equity card.

This led to a good few years’ solid theatre work, but still no television parts. “I watched TV but saw no-one like me. There were the odd Indians in news clips, being washed away by monsoons, or, you know, the odd English person blacked up…” So Syal decided to write. Her script for Bhaji on the Beach (1993) looks back at childhood memories of day trips to the beach “with 75 Indians crammed into a Datsun,” a familiar cliché, based around the family, and a winning formula for much of her work to come, including Goodness Gracious Me (1996-2001) and The Kumars at Number 42 (2001-2006), which ran for an impressive seven series. “Everyone’s got an embarrassing family, fundamentally. The best comedy is universal. If you can make people laugh, they’re immediately in your world – they get you.”

The rest, really, is history. It wasn’t an easy path, with Syal having to work hard to prove that Asians could be comic, and could appeal to a Middle England audience, but she got there in the end. “After Goodness Gracious Me, I was followed down the street by a group of white kids calling out ‘Kiss my chuddies!... By the way, what are chuddies?!’, to which I took great pleasure in explaining they’re underpants! But now the word is in the dictionary and can even be used in scrabble!” This fame is a long way from the life of the “little brown girl from Wolverhampton” who still has a copy of the first ever autograph she wrote. As well as signing the bus ticket of the woman who approached her, Syal wrote a duplicate for herself to remember the occasion, thinking it highly unlikely to happen again. She couldn’t have been more wrong though. As the evening of lively conversation draws to an end, the 100 strong audience, eyes wet from laughter, moves outside into the Queen Elizabeth Hall foyer to form a queue, everyone waiting, copies of books in hand, for Syal to sign.

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