Every night after eating supper and doing her homework, a young Meera Syal would sit down with her dad in the Black Country to watch television.
Despite her father’s best intentions she says the news programmes went a little over her head, but the Goodness Gracious Me actress can still remember lines from classic 1970s comedies like Fawlty Towers, The Likely Lads and Morecambe and Wise.
“I’m one of those people with backward memories. I remember things from my childhood better than things last week. Perhaps it’s because frankly there wasn’t a lot to do back then.”
Wolverhampton-born Meera explains that her father ‘in an Indian dad sort of way’ insisted she stay abreast of current affairs and also loved comedy shows; so the girl who grew up in Walsall on a diet of 1970s jokes and politics. The writer and actor is now hoping her favourite decade of comedy will win UKTV’s search to discover When Were We Funniest on Thursday.
“I think the 1970s was the golden age of sitcom. If you look at the amount they produced and the hit rate – it’s quite extraordinary.”
Without characters like Albert Steptoe, Frank Spencer and Basil Fawlty, Meera says that modern comedy would never have got off the starting blocks.
“Those dysfunctional men gave us Alan Partridge, David Brent and all of those slightly psychotic characters who are very popular now. Comedy has become about very damaged people doing their best in an unfeeling world.”
Syal, 47, believes that the crazy, dark world of 1970s sitcom mirrored the world she grew up in.
“If you look at the 60s comedy it’s very much about two sofas, a sitting room and a nuclear family. But by the end of the Seventies you get the darkness of Steptoe and Son, the neurosis of Basil Fawlty and the surrealism of Monty Python. These comedies reflect the chaos of a previously ordered world.
“You have to remember it was a very turbulent decade. There was the three-day week, the Vietnam war, social unrest, revolution in Europe, feminism and black power. And when you look at something like Monty Python or Fawlty Towers you can see the darkness seeping in.
“It still works in the same way now. Programmes like Nighty Night and Peep Show are explicably from the noughties. They’re all about selfish people trying to find love in a meaningless, chaotic world. The only difference now is that these shows aren’t mainstream and primetime.
“In the 1970s the best writers and performers were doing the sitcom. Nowadays there’s a slight snobbery attached to mainstream audience-led comedy.”
Syal’s performing career began when she won a National Student Drama Award for the play One Of Us while studying at Manchester University. Since then she has appeared in popular comedy shows Goodness Gracious Me and The Kumars at No 42, as well as building an impressive acting and writing CV.
Meera says that while she was growing up there were few women on television, let alone Indian women.
“I don’t think I actually believed I would ever work in this industry until I got offered a job when I was 22. Even up until leaving university I had a different life lined up. I was going to do an MA, then a PGCE and become a teacher. My life was quite mapped out.
“Then in my final year of university, I did a one-woman show that went to the Edinburgh Festival and a director from the Royal Court Theatre in London spotted me and offered me a job with an Equity card. It was only at that point that I thought, ‘All right I’ll have a go’.
“Although it was something I’d always wanted to do, I’d never thought there was a place for me – because there was nobody like me that was doing it.”
Now a firmly established actor she says she still has to fight for interesting roles.
“An actor friend once said to me, ‘Let’s face it, love, we’re too old, too fat and the wrong colour’. She tells it like it is. Happily at the moment I’m disproving her theory but I still think women, especially Asian women, have got a long way to go. Generally it’s a lack of imagination on the part of producers rather than a concerted campaign to discriminate. So you have to reinvent yourself, and do stuff that challenges you and makes people see you in a different light.”
The author of films such as Bhaji On The Beach, Anita & Me - based on her life growing up in Essington, Wolverhampton - and the hit musical Bombay Dreams says that one of the best ways to get a good part is to write one.
“I never set out to become a writer but I ended up writing and performing my own material because there weren’t any parts for me and I do think the 1970s influenced my style. Goodness Gracious Me was audience led and quite an old-fashioned show compared to contemporaries like The Fast Show or The League of Gentleman. It had self-contained characters, mini-stories and a laugh line at the end.”
She adds: “In my opinion the comedy world goes in circles. At the moment the fashion is for no-audience, hand-camera comedies which are a bit edgy. But I wouldn’t be surprised if in five years time, the fashion goes back to audience-led comedy. But whatever happens I’ll still love telly. It might be deeply unfashionable but I do.”
* When Were We Funniest? will be aired on UKTV on Thursday.