Meera Syal, star of the new sitcom Beautiful People, tells Michael Deacon that there still arenât enough non-white faces on television
Weâve heard about the credit crunchâs effect on the economy, on housing, on employment. But the actress and writer Meera Syal says there are other, less obvious victims of Britainâs financial instability: non-white actors.
âThe credit crunch has hit our profession,â says the 47-year-old Syal, who is best-known for television comedy series such as The Kumars at No 42, and who stars this week in the new BBC2 sitcom Beautiful People. âIt would be very rare at the moment to get an all-black or all-Asian show on a major channel â because people always assume itâs going to get a low audience, and in the current financial climate, audience figures are becoming increasingly important to people.â
Indeed, she says that when it comes to casting ethnic minorities, television is more conservative today than it was when she made her name with BBC2âs British-Asian sketch show Goodness Gracious Me in the mid-Nineties.
But the problem isnât due solely to the credit crunch, she adds. In 2001, Greg Dyke â then the director-general of the BBC â complained that the Beeb was âhideously whiteâ. Seven years later, the situation is much the same, Syal says.
âIf youâre talking about management levels, it hasnât really changed,â she says. âItâs certainly changed in terms of the male-female balance. The majority of the commissioners are female now. Of course, the womenâs movement is much older in this country than the movement for actors from ethnic minorities.â The BBC and other television companies, she says, need more people who are âsympathetic to casting imaginativelyâ.
By this, she means casting non-white actors in what were perhaps intended as white roles. Beautiful People, she says, is a good example. The series is based loosely on the autobiography of Simon Doonan, the British-born creative director of one of New Yorkâs most influential fashion shops, Barneys. In his book, Doonan describes his teenage years in Reading, where he was bullied and felt out of place because of his love of fashion and his latent homosexuality.
BBC2âs adaptation tells that story, but sets it in the 1990s, rather than the 1950s, the decade in which Doonan actually grew up. The main reason for this was to prevent audiences thinking of Beautiful People as merely a period piece â and the emotional journey the story describes is, after all, very modern.
A consequence of the updating is that the characters are more racially varied. Doonanâs neighbours, who were white in the book, are played by black actors. And Syal â whose family came to Britain from India â plays âAuntieâ Hayley, the best friend of Doonanâs mother.
Syal says she identifies strongly with the young Doonan, who, in the series, yearns to leave his home town. She grew up in a far smaller place: Essington, a village near Wolverhampton. âI think growing up in a small place makes you fiercely creative because it fuels your desire to escape and travel,â she says.
Unlike Doonan, she wasnât bullied much at school, but she says that was only because her mother was one of the teachers: âThe other two or three Indian kids at my junior school were horribly bullied.â She was racially abused by children in the village, though, and got into physical fights because of it. âI was a bit of a scrapper, really,â she says.
Just as, in Beautiful People, Doonan dreams of living the high life in London, Syal dreamed of being an actress. But she thought that she would never make it, because she never saw any actresses who were British Asian. Her role models were black Americans, such as Sidney Poitier and Whoopi Goldberg.
But success did come. She won the National Student Drama Award for a play she wrote. In 1996, she published the first of her three novels, the bestselling Anita a