Meera Syal: ‘It’s a golden age for TV – the streamers have kicked us all up the arse’

Show caption ‘A work ethic is a terrible thing’: Meera Syal. Hair and makeup by Sadaf Ahmad. Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer Meera Syal Meera Syal: ‘It’s a golden age for TV – the streamers have kicked us all up the arse’ Meera Syal talks about the benefits of the new TV landscape for actors of colour, her part in Nicole Kidman’s new series, Roar, and how she is finally learning to slow down (but not really) Barbara Ellen Sun 10 Apr 2022 09.00 BST Share on Facebook

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Meera Syal is arguably the nation’s favourite British-Asian TV comedian. She’s definitely the Queen’s. A few weeks ago, former Radio 2 editor, Phil Jones, revealed that, when introduced to the Queen in 2001, she told him her favourite show was The Kumars at No 42. According to Jones, she even quoted lines from Syal’s grandma character. Syal laughs when I mention this: “If it’s true – fantastic. I can see why she’d respond to a very smart older woman with agency.”

We meet at a London photo studio. Maybe I also have Granny Kumar lodged in my brain because Syal, 60, is slighter, more delicate, than I expect. She is also engaged and easy company, tucking into a veggie burger as we chat. There’s certainly plenty to talk about when it comes to Syal’s decades-spanning career. The groundbreaking British-Asian television comedies – Goodness Gracious Me and The Kumars – are just the tip of it. There’s her extensive work across film, television and theatre, ranging from the RSC to the West End. There are also books, scripts, screenplays, including the adaptation of her debut (semi-autobiographical) novel, Anita and Me. Her awards include an MBE in 1997 and a CBE in 2015.

Meera Syal as Granny Kumar: ‘It’s the gift that keeps on giving.’ Photograph: BBC

Is Syal as driven as it appears? When it comes to work, you sense an effervescent restlessness, like a tablet permanently fizzing in a glass of water. “A work ethic is a terrible thing,” she says. “I’m not very good at doing nothing. I’m getting… better.” She feels her mindset has shifted with time. In 2005, she married her GGM/Kumars collaborator, Sanjeev Bhaskar (who also played Sunny in ITV’s Unforgotten) in what could be a romcom plot – they got together after years of being friends. She has a daughter from her first marriage, and she and Bhaskar have a son. Her mother lives with them in north London, as did her late father. “When you’re young and hungry, it really is…” Syal pulls a “grrr” face. “Ambition has a sharp taste, you’re out there. Now it’s more about job satisfaction, work-life balance. What’s the script like? Who am I working with? Will I learn anything?”

Her new project is Roar, an Apple TV+ anthology series based on the short story collection by Cecelia Ahern. Involving, among others, Alison Brie, Cynthia Erivo and Issa Rae, they are playfully dark, uber-feminine stories suffused with magical realism: women find their bodies disappearing; or they are placed on shelves; or they have disturbing relationships with ducks. Nicole Kidman – also co-executive producer – appears in one episode playing a woman who eats photographs.

There’s still the supportive older women roles, where you’re basically there to say to blokes, ‘Be careful out there!’

Syal stars in The Woman Who Returned Her Husband, a blackly comedic parable (teleplay by Vera Santamaria) about midlife marital ennui. She plays a frustrated housewife who – literally – returns her husband to a shop. It’s a strong, fluid performance: Syal has to first sag like a frump, then convince as a woman taking action. “It’s about two people who’ve forgotten who each other are, and regard each other as invisible,” says Syal. Her character reminds her of playing Shirley Valentine at the Menier Chocolate Factory in 2010. “The life unlived; that feeling of – two-thirds of my life gone, and what have I done with it?” She shudders. “Ah god – unfulfilled potential really gets me.”

Syal’s parents were originally from New Delhi and she grew up in the Midlands, first in a mining area in Staffordshire, then Bloxwich, north Walsall: “We were the only Asians in the village, to coin a phrase.” The family encountered prejudice from outsiders, but not their neighbours: “We were all at the bottom of the social pile together, that’s the thing.” She was surrounded by people – her father, who spent part of his youth as a refugee; Indian “aunties” – who had to sideline their creative impulses. “That’s the immigration journey: artistic skills don’t travel, nobody wants them.” Did that scare her, push her harder? “It totally did. I didn’t want to ever feel like I hadn’t tried. If you try and it doesn’t work out, at least you’ve got the knowledge that you did try.”

Education was her “passport” out, initially to Manchester University to study English and drama, and she worries about young working-class people now. “How would a kid like me have got in without a grant system, and free education?” Once she was working, she didn’t suffer a lot of sexual harassment in the industry – “I was just lucky” – but there were casting couch incidents early on. “One director barefacedly said, ‘I’ll give you the part if you sleep with me’, and it was Aladdin in a panto. It was, like, jeez, if I’m going to do that, I’m not going to do it for fucking Aladdin! Offer me something better.” She didn’t mean it, of course. “I laughed heartily, then he laughed heartily, as if it was a joke, but it wasn’t.” Syal shakes her head wearily: “The gall of it, it’s astonishing. Never underestimate the confidence of a mediocre white man.”

Goodness Gracious Me and The Kumars at No 42 were interesting in purely television terms; as vehicles for long-neglected Indian talent, they were revolutionary. “It was unique because it was very specifically British-Asian humour, and that was new,” says Syal. They represented their community? “It’s a tricky one, this – when there’s so few of you, everything becomes representative, that’s the problem.” Growing up caught between two cultures, Syal was never surprised that so many of her generation were creative. “We had to be. We were shapeshifters… it made us adept at being inventive.” Do young people now view her as an inspiration? “Yes, sometimes, and that’s lovely. I know how few role models there were for me and how important it is.”

In her view: “It’s a golden age of television.” She is delighted to see new comedies such as Channel 4’s We Are Lady Parts, about a Muslim punk band, and she is cautiously optimistic that things are improving for actors of colour. “The streamers kicked everybody up the arse – they’re looking at global audiences not parochial ones.” In Syal’s day, she was driven to write scripts by the lack of roles. “It was, ‘Victim of arranged marriage’, and, as you got older, ‘Mother of victim of arranged marriage’, and you just go, there’s got to be more than this, surely?” She smiles sagely. “This is why you get your Michaela Coels, your Shonda Rhimes, your Mindy Kalings. At some point, if you’re those kinds of women, nothing is being written that’s reflective of who you are.”

Syal once said that female actors had “dog years – one of ours is seven of anybody else’s.” Now she thinks things are slowly improving from the days when older women were “in the wasteland, that terrible middle section where you’re not considered sexy or fertile any more. And you certainly won’t be playing wives of 50-year-old men, because they’ll be played by 30-year-olds.” That’s not to say she doesn’t think there’s a way to go. “There’s still a lot of supportive older women roles, where you’re basically there to say to blokes,” Syal flings out a hand and turns her voice into a coo: “‘Be careful out there!’ But it is changing.”

Meera Syal with Bernard White in The Woman Who Returned Her Husband, part of the series Roar. Photograph: Ali Goldstein/Apple TV

Among projects coming up, Syal will appear alongside Jessica Raine and Peter Capaldi in The Devil’s Hour for Amazon Prime. A certain royal personage may be interested to learn that Syal will also be imminently recording a new series of Gossip and Goddesses With Granny Kumar, the Radio 4 show she conceived during lockdown as “a way of interviewing women you don’t see on the usual chat shows”. “It’s the perfect part,” grins Syal, “I can play this into my 80s. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.”

Her life-advice to her younger self would be: “It’s a marathon not a sprint.” You get the feeling she will stay busy: acting, writing, crafting, shapeshifting. “Sometimes you have to suck it and see, see what works,” says Syal. “Because it’s better than not doing anything. Just trying to keep creative.”

Roar starts on Apple TV+ on 15 April