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Ethnic Minorities, Comedy and British Television. Interview with Sharat Sardana. London, Friday 26 of November 2004

« Minorités ethniques, comédie et télévision britannique » Entretien avec Sharat Sardana. Londres, vendredi 26 novembre 2004
Amandine Ducray et Sharat Sardana

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20th century, XXe siècle
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1This interview is divided into two parts. The first one concentrates on Sharat Sardana’s personal and professional backgrounds, focusing on his work in the ground-breaking Asian sketch show Goodness Gracious Me. The second set of questions has more to do with his point of view – as a member of the hyphenated British-Asian community – on the relationship between the British media and “ethnic minorities” in an ever-growing multicultural environment.

Amandine Ducray: Would you say something first of how you came to work as a scriptwriter and producer?

Sharat Sardana: I was quite lucky actually. Richard Pinto and I were at school together and, as early as the age of eleven, we had set our minds on writing scripts. After college we sent a script off to the BBC which was picked up by Anil Gupta, who then produced Goodness Gracious Me. He liked it, we met, we developed the script; that did not really get anywhere then but I got a job at the BBC. And then we found out that someone was developing a sitcom for an Asian cast. The cast were going to improvise and we were asked to come in and help write the funny bits. We thought that it was a difficult idea and were not very happy that the BBC were paying an independent production company to do it. After all we were in-house at the BBC. And then we thought: “Let’s do a sketch show.” Anil Gupta had worked previously as a script-editor on Spitting Image1 and so we thought we should try that. We looked aroundbasically, went to some shows, saw Sanjeev Bhaskar’s Poppodum Preach. We already knew Meera Syal from The Real McCoy2, which Anil script-edited and on which I had worked myself. I wrote a sketch for the programme about a bunch of Indian people who go for an English meal in India, but they said that it was black show, that they could not get that many Asian characters and that we would have to do our own show3. That’s just what we did! It all started when the BBC gave us some money to put on a one-off performance which Jon Plowman, Head of Comedy Entertainment at the BBC, came to see. He said he liked it and that was it. We did radio for a year because the BBC budget was too tight to do the television programme straight away and we wanted to keep everyone together. Jon Plowman gave us the money; he was the executive producer and let Anil Gupta produce. Basically Anil went to him and said: “We want to do an Asian sketch show”; Jon replied: “What’s that? Don’t know what you’re talking about.”, to which Anil answered: “Neither do I, I haven’t got a clue. But we’ll do something and I promise you’ll laugh.” And then because it costs so relatively little to put on a live show for one night, the money was there to do it.

AD: So would it have been more expensive to do a sitcom than a sketch show?

SS: Sketch shows are supposed to be expensive but the first series of Goodness Gracious Me was very cheap because, if you look at it, we had one generic set that pretended to be anything: an English restaurant or a board-room or whatever; there is not that much location-filming. Everyone was unheard of at the time. God knows whether we got paid or not or what we got paid! But we had money from the BBC as well as a little bit from Equal Opportunities. And in fact sitcom is just difficult. Not many non-ethnic sitcoms work and acting in a sitcom is difficult, I think. In a studio sitcom you need experience, you need that touch and to know whether you are performing to the audience or to the camera. They are notoriously tricky. Sketch shows can be a bit hit and miss and as long as youhave some hit you can get a laugh out of people. And we were young so a sketch show seemed to be more the thing to do!

AD: Did you grow up in Britain?

SS: I was born in East London and, funnily enough, every time I move I move closer to the hospital I was born in. I’ve just lived in London all my life. We went back to India for one year with my parents. My dad was a computer designer but in 1971 there was no call for computer designers in India so we came back.

AD: What was your first experience of ‘black comedy’?

SS: Woody Allen! And Jacquie Mason. Jewish American comedy. I lived in a very comedy-oriented house, I would say. And also my dad would sit down before Steptoe and Son, Dad’s Army, It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum and The Morecambe and Wise Show4. That’s the TV I remember, definitely. And funny, we met David Croft and Jimmy Perry5. In fact we were at some BBC party and this very lovely woman came to our table – I was sitting with Meera Syal and Sanjeev Bhaskar – and she said: “I just wanted to say that your programme is always on in our house and thank you very much, we love it! Oh, and I’m Jimmy Perry’s wife by the way.” And there they were sitting over there, so Sanjeev and I went over and we were talking and then Jimmy said: “Tell me, It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum was it racist? People keep saying it was racist.”, so I told him that it was on every week in my household. You knew the culture, you knew the language, they spoke Urdu for godsake! There’s absolutely nothing racist about it. Now Mind Your Language, which my parents did watch, I would find painfully racist to watch now. And my dad also watched Love Thy Neighbour, which, again, whenever it gets shown, is so painfully racist6.

AD: But what about having Michael Bates as a blacked-up Indian servant in It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum?

SS: We did not mind because he spoke the language and something about him was okay in the way that it was okay for Peter Sellers to do it in The Party7. It was affectionate. Peter Sellers loved India and Michael Bates loved India, he spoke Hindi and I think you can just tell. The blacking-up does not become a prop; it’s not part of the joke, it’s just something they have to do because they happen to be the best actors to play the part. When the blacking-up is a prop, and made to look like a joke, like in Curry and Chips for instance, then yes, I object to it, though I love Spike Milligan8. But it is silly blacking-up really.

AD: Do you think that the style of humour on which Goodness Gracious Me was based was British, Asian, both at the same time?

SS: British. Very old-fashioned British comedy. Purposely. Anil Gupta said we were going to have punch lines and old-fashioned jokes. And when the BBC asked us how we wanted to format Goodness Gracious Me so that it looked different we replied that we did not want any snazzy editing, nothing. The thing that makes it different is that it is an Asian sketch show. And if you look at it, we’ve got songs in it, well you cannot get any more old-fashioned than that! And that is what we wanted to do. It did not occur to me, or to my writing partner Richard Pinto, who is Portuguese, to do something just Asian. It would have to be just funny, it did not matter what culture it came from, just funny.

AD: What about series 2? Series 2 seems to be more “Bollywoodesque”.

SS: I think we allowed ourselves to really be a bit more silly because we were comfortable and I think if you have characters like Indian Bridegroom Detective, you have got to be confident about that! You know the flagship sketch is always ‘Go for an English’, it is the very first sketch Richard Pinto and I ever wrote actually, but it is sort of clearly making a point. It is clearly an allegory whereas Indian Bridegroom Detective or Skippinder the Punjabi Kangaroo, well, ifyou can find a political metaphor for it, then good luck! It’s just us having fun at that point, I think.

AD: The writing team seems to have been quite numerous on Goodness Gracious Me. How did you all work together?

SS: There were Richard Pinto, me, Meera Syal, Sanjeev Bhaskar and Sanjeev Kohli, who was working at Radio Scotland at the time. He is a presenter at the moment; he wrote some sketches. Anil Gupta probably wrote a couple and that was it. Richard and I were the dedicated writers. Meera Syal and Sanjeev Bhaskar had to act in it as well so they were double busy. We would write, say 50%, Meera would write 25, Sanjeev 25. In series 1 he had a glut of material from his stand-up acts, so we used it. The way it started actually was that we all sat down in a pub and just talked about: “Oh, did you have this at home? Did you have that at home?”. It was just common ground and it was incredible how much we had in common, to the point where Anil Gupta said: “Did you guys have old suitcases on top of cupboards?” And we did. They were the suitcases your parents brought over to England and they just never throw them away. They are there, ready, waiting9 . And instead of buying Tupperwares, they have old ice-cream containers with a bit of masking tape on them reading “January 1968 – Lamb”. Everyone of us would have them in our freezers. Asian families also, they never buy a packet of crisps; they buy a box of 150 packets of crisps. Everything is supersize. So we just talked through all that and thought there was a load of common ground there. And I also remember going to sleep one night, thinking that my mum always says: “Oh, I can make that at home, I can make that at home.” When the first pizza joint, Pizza Hut, opened near my parents’ house for instance, I was about 12 and very looking forward to going there but at the end of it, my mum just said: “Oh, I can make this at home.” I hated it, I absolutely loathed that, then it became funny10. Most of Goodness Gracious Me is first-hand experience, some of it I barely changed the names and where they live: the Kappors/Coopers, that’s my uncle and aunt and their friends. They are real people. They quite liked it actually. Danish Kapoor did like it; he told mehow people used to call him Dennis Cooper at college. And also you know, after a few years, thinking about it, what they were doing was amalgamating, fitting in, being part of Britain and doing as best as they could. So in a way, they’re a massive success story.

AD: So you would not call that ‘uncletomism’?

SS: Well, was that the joke?… No. It is the ‘gettingwrongism’ that is the joke, I think. It is the ‘being more English than the English’ and the Indians are far more English than the English because Indians are operating on a system of red tape and admin that died seventy years ago, I think, in this country. If you go and queue up in a bank in India, you’ve got to take a week off! Take this token to that counter and so on. They got that from the British and here, still, in this country, they are more British than the British.

AD: If you were to look back on your work in Goodness Gracious Me, what were you pleased about and what left you disappointed?

SS: The biggest moment for me was when episode 3 of series 1 went out. We heard the next day that it got three point something million audience rating. That really hit me because I thought that it was more than The Sun sells newspapers everyday. And then I was in a bar and there were two white English people talking about our sketch show and I thought that was great. And in fact if I do nothing else, I would be very proud to have been involved in Goodness Gracious Me. As for things I am not happy about… They are more from a personal writing point of view, I think. But the overall experience was pretty good. If I had to express some disappointment then I guess maybe I wish we could have got more out of it. It’s a short shelf-life sketch shows, but then we did three series and a tour, we went to India.

AD: Did the BBC interfere in any way in your work?

SS: No. The only bit of friction we had was the one complaint we had upheld, from the General Synod of the Church of England. The BBC apologised where I wrote the sketch and I don’t apologise. I was a bit miffed about that and surprised at the amount of noise and debate that it raised. On the other hand, I am glad it did because, as Bishop Sainsbury of Barking commented, we clearly have a problemhere and we should start talking about it. But people who were great fans of the show, Middle Englanders, the retired majors and colonels who, so far, had been writing in that it was marvellous show suddenly thought: “Hang on. It’s funny when you are funny about yourselves, but you cannot have a go at our institutions.” We got only one complaint from the Hindu Society on a technicality, which they were right about actually. It was not a big complaint. It was the havan and we should not have referred to meat being used in it. It was a Pundit not knowing what the ceremony was about and an English woman asking him what you do in that pot and he answered that you melt cheese and then you can dip pieces of meat and it turns into a fondue11. We shouldn’t have said “pieces of meat”, we could just have left it with bread. But I thought we took great pains with the Church of England because of the issue of transubstantiation we were saying that the bread is not the body of Christ, that it is representing the body of Christ but still, you know, it was a big turn.

AD: How is your experience with Channel 4, for ‘Bromwell High’, different from the one you had at the BBC?

SS: The BBC really did leave us alone actually. You know it is this great big corporation and once they do trust you, off you go, you’re left to it. And what I love about Channel Four is that rather than censoring you they’ll push you further, saying: “Go on! Go! Offend everyone!”. They really have been consistent in that. Some of the most popular programmes here are so conservative but Channel Four, they still maintain that sort of cutting edge. It’s a good thing.

AD: Would you say something of what you think of the relationship between the British media and so-called “ethnic minorities”?

SS: Ooh, Gosh… Well that’s funny because you’ve got the British-Asian media now. I did not really notice before Goodness Gracious Me, but now they’re a kind of watchdog as well. The relationship must have changed drastically because, as I’ve said, when I was growing up I looked to Woody Allen and Jacquie Mason. They were my ethnic media people. The Asians have arrived in media in this country now! So… it’s a whole different board game. I think it was TonyBlair who called Goodness Gracious Me “the oil that lubricates the wheels of race relations in this country.” That’s a bit much! We don’t want to take that responsibility! But it did change things I guess because I can’t watch the news on British TV without an Asian anchor. There are clearly some very successful journalists, so… we’re in there. That changes everything. It’s a symbiosis now rather than a relationship, I would have thought.

AD: So the ‘ghettoisation’ is over?

SS: Well, you know, in fact the reaction of the more right-wing press, the more Conservative press, to Goodness Gracious Me was warmer than that of the left-wing press. People have to be more aware now of who they are offending and also more sensitive towards Asian culture, I think. But I’m hoping it doesn’t go so far that everyone feels they are so familiar with Asians that they think they can call them what they want and do what they want. There’s a danger of that. There’s a danger of Asians becoming a fashion item rather than an ethnic minority. And I think because, as you say, it is a relationship with the media, this means that we, Asians, have to be careful as well. It’s how we present ourselves and I think there is a danger of going from the seventies’ cliché of the nerdy little guys who smell of curry and stay indoors and work the buses to more contemporary clichés such as that Asians are all rich, successful, underground DJs and doctors and lawyers, etc. That’s equally rubbish. There is still a majority living in poverty. That needs to be brought out. We need to just be aware.

AD: And do you think comedy can do that?

SS: No. I think that’s not comedy’s job to make people aware of the poor conditions that most people are living in. Comedy’s job is to make people laugh. I mean, we were always at great pains to sort of not become THE Voice and it’s difficult because we were THE voice for a time… And probably still if you look at it. Goodness Gracious Me and the Kumars At Number 42 are the only access a lot of Middle England white people have to Asians. They’re probably the biggest most mainstream Asian products in Britain, forget Bend It Like Beckham, forget all the films12. If two million people go and see a filmin this country that’s a huge, huge success. Here we’re talking about programmes that four or five million people watch every week and, you know, that’s a lot of media power. So we were very careful. What we were good at, it seemed, was making people laugh and we decided to do that without offending. Because we didn’t want to do the joke where you just go: “Oh, white people, they’re silly and funny, aren’t they? Ha, ha, ha.”, which you can slip into. I’ve seen programmes do it, like The Real McCoy or black shows in England on the stage. You can just come out and go: “Oh, white people, they can’t dance, can they?” You know, you can have a go at anything, just anything about the white oppressor and you’ll get the audience cheering. But I don’t want to do that. It is not honest for me. I am very middle class, had a very English upbringing. I wasn’t even aware I was Indian actually until I was working at the BBC!

AD: Apparently you have suffered from having to bear the “the burden of representation”?

SS: Well, I don’t think we suffered but there were people thinking that we were THE voice. And I think in particular Meera Syal gets a lot of that baggage. She gets a lot of people viewing her as this sort of political ombudsman or representative in the Houses of Parliament for Asian women in general. That’s going to lead to disappointment at the end of the day! And I’ve been meeting young Asians who found out what I do and what I’ve done and they go: “Oh, this is crap, that was crap.” and I answer: “Well, you know what, go and do your own thing.” This is how TV works. And more and more I hear young people saying that we were just making Asians look stupid and when I ask them to develop all they answer is that we didn’t have any proper positive character. What I tell them is that a well-balanced person, who generally does well by him/herself in society and is generally a decent human being, that’s not a funny character. I mean what show is that person in? Comedy shows are about unbalanced, neurotic, damaged people and I don’t think any skinhead or right-wing activist ever went round saying: “Oh, yeah, those Pakis it’s all like my mum can make it at home for nothing!” or “Everything comes from India, that’s what they think13.” No, theydon’t say that! We are not pandering to any cliché. The good thing that sketches like that have done is that everyone goes: “Yeah. My mum does that as well. My dad does that too, but I’m not Asian.” But the fact that there are young Asians saying that we make Asians look stupid is kind of interesting. It has become almost more partisan since we started, in a crappy way I think sometimes, in a crappy sort of jazzey gang-led way, you know, “I’m Muslim”, like it’s something graffitied on a wall.

AD: You just talked about positiveness. Many critics have underlined the dilemma between giving a positive portrait of ethnic minorities and a realistic one. What is your own position about this?

SS: Positive and realistic… Well, in comedy, there is at the heart of every joke an absolute truth that is accepted by everyone who laughs at that joke because without that truth what are you laughing at? You know, we all have to recognise a truth. So if everyone laughs at a sketch where Indian people go to an English restaurant in India and misbehave, everyone is acknowledging the truth that that is what English people do in Indian restaurants in this country. Comedy is about a central truth.

AD: It can’t be positive then?

SS: It can be very positive. If someone who has never met an Asian before now feels that they have and therefore aren’t scared when they meet one, that’s positive. If when I go out I see Asians in clubs whereas I used to be the only Asian in the club ten years ago, that’s positive. If an Asian goes: “I want to be a comedy writer.” – which I had to say to my parents when I decided I wasn’t going to medical college! – well now, I know that a couple of people from my area have used me as an example to prove their parents that it can be commercially or financially viable, that media can be a career. And people also look at Sanjeev Bhaskar and Meera Syal and the others and think they can do it and even better. That’s positive. Any community that has reached the stage, as the Jewish community did in America years ago, where they can laugh at themselves, that comes from strength, that cannot come from weakness. No weak person laughs at themselves.

AD: It seems that it took longer to Asian actors to access mainstream TV than it took Afro-Caribbean actors. Do you see any reason for this?

SS: Well, it’s a chicken and egg situation. Asian roles require Asian writers. I mean where does it all start? Asian producers, I think that’s what you need. Anil Gupta was at the BBC, we came along as writers with some jokes lined up, there were some actors out there doing jokes. It happened like that. Before, I mean, the occasional time you had an Asian actor on TV, the whole family would gather round the TV set. I remember for instance Lucky Sunil, in which Kulvinder Ghir played14. My entire family collected to watch Lucky Sunil in the 1980s. There just weren’t the roles. They weren’t at a stage there where they would let an Asian play a non-Asian role. And I don’t think it has changed that much… If you take a few people like Anil Gupta or me and four or five other people out of the equation, where’s the Asian stuff? Take Meera Syal or Sanjeev Bhaskar out of it, oh no, there’s nothing! You know, we get a lot of people saying that we really changed things but where are the roles? Unless it’s Bollywood something or Tandoori something rather, where are the roles? And yet there are some great Asian actors now. Sanjeev and Meera I guess have broken through it. They can go onto BBC1 and be loved by everyone; they’ve broken through, so it can be done, clearly.

AD: Do you think that one has to provide the audience with new stereotypes in order to break older ones?

S: Yes. I think that’s how it works. We played off a lot presumptions that people would have about stereotypes. By series 2 or 3 I remember writing a sketch where a mother and father were very upset because their son wanted to be a doctor and they wanted him to be a comedy actor or singer or part of the pop group Corner Shop, you know. And that was just during the time we were writing Goodness Gracious Me so yes, that definitely happens, that is an ongoing process. That’s why I think that someone else who is not me and who is not thirty-six has to pick it up and run with it because I’m sure there’s a whole new type of Asians out there.

Audio Version / Version audio

Sharat Sardana is a British-Asian comedy writer and producer. This interview took place in London on November, 26, 2004. Different topics were raised from his work in the ground-breaking Asian sketch show Goodness Gracious Me to his influences in black comedy and his point of view on the relationship between the British media and “ethnic minorities”. All the themes are shown in the following table which allows you to browse freely through various audio tracks. Please note that a full transcription of the interview is also available.

Sharat Sardana est un scénariste et un producteur britannique d'origine indienne. L'entretien suivant a été mené à Londres, le 26 novembre 2004. Plusieurs sujets ont été abordés, de sa participation à l'innovant sketch show sud-asiatique Goodness Gracious Me à son point de vue sur la "comédie ethnique" et sur la relation entre médias britanniques et minorités ethniques. Les questions soulevées figurent dans le tableau suivant qui permet une écoute thématique et sélective des extraits proposés. Une version rédigée de l'entretien est également disponible.

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Amandine Ducray et Sharat Sardana, « Ethnic Minorities, Comedy and British Television. Interview with Sharat Sardana. London, Friday 26 of November 2004 »Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], Média, culture, histoire, Images et média, mis en ligne le 01 janvier 2005, consulté le 29 novembre 2021. URL :

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Amandine Ducray

(Caen, France)
Amandine Ducray est allocataire normalienne de recherche à l’université de Caen et rédige une thèse sur les « sitcoms ethniques ».

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Sharat Sardana

Sharat Sardana is a British-Asian comedy writer and producer. His works include such popular TV series as Goodness Gracious Me (BBC2; 1998-2000), Small Potatoes (Channel 4; 1999-2001), The Kumars At Number 42 (BBC2; 2001- ) and the cartoon Bromwell High which is to be launched on Channel 4. Together with his long-term writing partner Richard Pinto and with Anil Gupta, the producer of Goodness Gracious Me, Sharat Sardana has recently created his own production company, GASP.

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