Beautiful People (Meera Syal Interview)

Meera Syal, star of the new sitcom Beautiful People, tells Michael Deacon that there still aren’t enough non-white faces on television


We’ve heard about the credit crunch’s effect on the economy, on housing, on employment. But the actress and writer Meera Syal says there are other, less obvious victims of Britain’s financial instability: non-white actors.


“The credit crunch has hit our profession,” 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. “It would be very rare at the moment to get an all-black or all-Asian show on a major channel – because people always assume it’s going to get a low audience, and in the current financial climate, audience figures are becoming increasingly important to people.”


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 BBC2’s British-Asian sketch show Goodness Gracious Me in the mid-Nineties.


But the problem isn’t due solely to the credit crunch, she adds. In 2001, Greg Dyke – then the director-general of the BBC – complained that the Beeb was “hideously white”. Seven years later, the situation is much the same, Syal says.


“If you’re talking about management levels, it hasn’t really changed,” she says. “It’s certainly changed in terms of the male-female balance. The majority of the commissioners are female now. Of course, the women’s movement is much older in this country than the movement for actors from ethnic minorities.” The BBC and other television companies, she says, need more people who are “sympathetic to casting imaginatively”.


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 York’s 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.


BBC2’s 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 – 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. Doonan’s neighbours, who were white in the book, are played by black actors. And Syal – whose family came to Britain from India – plays “Auntie” Hayley, the best friend of Doonan’s 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. “I think growing up in a small place makes you fiercely creative because it fuels your desire to escape and travel,” she says.


Unlike Doonan, she wasn’t bullied much at school, but she says that was only because her mother was one of the teachers: “The other two or three Indian kids at my junior school were horribly bullied.” She was racially abused by children in the village, though, and got into physical fights because of it. “I was a bit of a scrapper, really,” 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

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