Midland’s Meera Syal

West Midlands-born comedian, writer and actress Meera Syal needs little introduction. From her television comedy writing and performing in the iconic BBC comedy Goodness Gracious Me and
The Kumars at No. 42 pathing the way for today’s mainstream comedy heavyweights Romesh Ranganathan and Nish Kumar. An award-winning author, she’s also a prolific stage actress and recently completed a stint as the evil orphan owner Miss Hannigan in the West End production of Annie.

We caught up with Meera as she prepares to return to the West Midlands and puts on her panto pants for the first time as the Magical Mermaid in the Birmingham Hippodrome’s production of Peter Pan

How’s your day going?

Very well! I’m just previewing a Pinter play actually at the Harold Pinter Theatre in the West End. There’s a big Pinter season going on because it’s the tenth anniversary of his death and so there is a sort of festival of his short plays and sketches. I’m in one of those with Tamsin Greig, Lee Evans and Keith Allen so it’s a nice cast.

Yes it sounds it! Your career seems so varied and deep rooted in the cultural world of the last twenty or so years. From your comedy to your writing, stage acting and screen writing – I’ve heard of actors being a triple threat but you’re lethal!

Oh my God! That’s very kind of you!

You really are multifaceted, aren’t you?

Aww! Well do you know what mate, it’s just about getting a job at the end of the day! You know I think if you’re a creative, you just want to keep being creative. I think I realised quite early on that if I wanted to do interesting roles, particularly as an Asian woman, I was going to have to write them, create them or help create them, so it forces you to be multifaceted I suppose.

You look at people like Michaela Coel or Phoebe Waller-Bridge or Emma Thompson, French and Saunders even- there’s a load of women that have been doing that over the years. There’s lots of young women coming up that absolutely don’t think that it’s unusual to write and produce and act.

I recently did a box set binge on the series The Split where you play the character Goldie and one of the things that struck me was that there was no reference made at all to you being an Asian woman. There was none of the usual stereotypical dramatic baggage that TV can heap on. You we’re just a woman and I found that really refreshing.

Absolutely. I think that’s where we all want to head to really. I mean, Goldie wasn’t written for an Asian woman, neither did they change the script at all to reflect that, why should you? It’s just that we’re there, like we are in real life, just getting on with our lives and we laugh and cry and have dreams and have failures and are complex like anybody else, we don’t necessarily have to be on screen with an issue and I think that’s the thing. Of course, you know, I’ve also done stuff that is absolutely about being Asian; there’s Goodness Gracious Me and The Kumars. In those cases, I was in control of the material and it was still in the end universal, I think, all the stuff we were doing about all the stuff we have in common, not the stuff that makes us different.

Exactly. So, back to the West Midlands for Christmas then?

Yeah, a Brummy Christmas! I’m really looking forward to it!

Do you still have family and friends in the Midlands?

Lots of friends yes. Family are all now down in London because you know, parents getting older and my brother’s in London anyway so we’re all there looking after each other. But yes, lots of friends including my best friend from school who I’ve known since I was eleven. She still lives in Bloxwich and I see her quite often but she’ll be
coming so yeah. I’m hoping there will be charabancs of friends coming to see it!

Is there going to be a queue outside the dressing room door? Lots of late-night dinners!

I’m really looking forward to that, it’ll be actually a superb way to catch up with people I haven’t seen properly for a long time, but you know, twelve shows a week, two shows a day, six days a week, I’m going to be taking my vitamins, that’s for sure!

You’re playing the part of the Magical Mermaid. What can you tell us about her?

Well, she’s basically the Good Fairy but because of course as this is Peter Pan, she’s a mermaid which I’m thrilled about because I’ve always had a thing for mermaids and I get to wear a rather lovely, beautiful, shiny tail which looks good, not great for dancing, very bad for going to the toilet but I’m sure we’ll work that out. She basically helps Peter out of a few fixes with his arch enemy Captain Hook, played by the inimitable Jimmy Osmond. She’s really good fun, a good egg, although she has got a terrible memory because she’s half fish! She is generally there to sprinkle a bit of magic and help Peter defeat the villain. I won’t spoil it for you, guess what happens at the end, it’s a panto!

Is this the first pantomime you’ve done, or have you done a few?

No! This is my absolute first and I’ve been asked before, but it was never the right time, or the kids were too little or whatever but Michael Harrison, the Kudos producer hasdone the Hippodrome pantos for years. He was the producer on Annie, which I did in the West End last year and so I worked for him and know they were a lovely team. And then with it being in the West Midlands it
just felt like the right combination really, so yeah, I’m a panto virgin!

Matt Slack is obviously, you know, brilliant and incredibly well loved for his work at the Hippodrome and so is Jimmy so I’m sure they’ll look after me.

The reputation of the Hippodrome pantomime, they put on a good show with some big song and dance numbers. Dancing with that mermaid’s tail will be interesting!

That is going to be very interesting, there is definitely dance numbers and there are some songs, yes! We’ll see how it works out with the tail, I’m sure they’ve thought of something really clever, I don’t what it is, but I’m sure they have.

I’m sure you’ll find a way to wriggle round somehow! Is the singing something that comes quite naturally to you?

I do love singing, I’ve sung for years actually, just not that much on stage. But, many years ago I used to sing a band and I’ve done sort of little fringey musicals. Miss Hannagan in Annie was the first time I actually got to use my singing chops and its joyful, it really is.

What is it about Peter that has made it last so long because it’s quite a sinister tale isn’t it really? Creeping into bedrooms and taking away young children to fantasy lands?

You’re right actually! Do you know what, I think if you analyse fairy tales too much, it all looks a bit sinister doesn’t it. I think there’s all sorts of mythic things that we’ve all grown up with and the best fairy tales are quite dark, there’s danger in them and kids like that. I think kids like being frightened and as long as they know there’s resolution and justice at the end, I think you can get
away with it. I mean, I think Peter Pan is one of the great childhood stories; that whole idea of not wanting to grow up, I think we’ve all been there, then realising you have to, sadly.

Do you feel like a grown up?

Most of the time no, I think I’m still somewhere stuck around fourteen in my head, I get a shock when I look in a mirror. It’s like “who’s the old bird? oh it’s me!” I think most actors don’t ever get rid of the child-like part themselves but that’s a good thing. I think that’s sort of really what Peter Pan’s about; we all have to grow old but if you can hang on to your inner child that’s actually a good thing. And you can let it out at the panto as everyone is just a kid at the panto aren’t they? All the joining in and the throwing sweets and the singalongs. I mean you can just go back to that joy of being a kid again and go with your kids and share that kid time with them. It’s all, yeah, magical is the right word actually- I think that’s the point of panto- it’s joy, that’s what we’re there to do. Pure joy.

Obviously the problem with working at Christmas is very little family time. Will you be rushing back down to London on Christmas Eve matinee and have a big family celebration?

I will, I will. But we’re working all those schedules out now, obviously the fam will come and see me at weekends and they’re all going to be around in various combinations for Christmas and the New Year. We’ll make sure that, you know, there’s not too long between seeing each other because I’m sure I’ll get a bit homesick.

Once we get the festive period out the way, what’s next for you? What have you got lined up? Are we going to see you more on TV or is there more stage work coming through?

I’m in negotiations for various things so can’t say anything yet. I’m juggling writing at the moment I’m doing the Pinter play in the evenings. I’ve got to do a first draft of something for a production so I’ll be writing in the days. That can stretch you a bit sometimes but it’s worth it because the variety of it keeps it interesting. I like the solitude of writing sometimes, especially when you’ve done a long theatre run, it’s very lovely for it to just be you and the inside of your head and your screen, I quite like that.

How much do you borrow from your life for your books now?

Oh, I think all writers do. We all steal, such terrible magpies! I’m always ear-wigging on conversations on the tube and on buses. Also, there’s always a bit of you even when you’re going through the most awful thing, you could be in the middle of grief and there’s still a bit of you that’s standing outside going “No I must remember how this felt when I write a scene about grief”. You’re always borrowing and picking and especially now we have access to so much of the world through the internet, it’s very easy to dip in and out of a million different stories, so I’m never short of inspiration
that’s for sure.

Are there stories out there that you’d love to be telling or you think should be told?

Oh gosh, there are so many. I can think of so many hidden stories, Nora Inayat-Khan for example, was a British heroine of World War II, a spy, I think the first female spy to be executed. She was half Pakistani and was an amazing woman. You dig into history and you come up with the most amazing stuff that still hasn’t seen the light of day. I think we’re just scratching the surface. I think it’s very good to remind people that all of our histories have been braided for many centuries and that different people have been here for many centuries and different people have contributed to British history for many centuries. So, the way that we teach history in schools needs to be looked at. It opens up a whole world of understanding and possibilities to know that we’re so connected and have been for many, many years.

Meera Syall stars in Peter Pan at the Birmingham Hippodrome from 19 Dec- 27 Jan. Tickets start from £16 and are available at www.birminghamhippodrome.com or by calling the box office on 0844338 5000

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