Who’d have thought that Sanjeev Bhaskar, the star of ‘The Kumars at No 42’, would end up playing King Arthur in a Monty Python musical?
AS HE makes me a cup of tea in his South Woodford kitchen, Sanjeev Bhaskar apologises for being below par. The 44-year-old British Indian actor, writer and comedian was on stage last night, hoofing it up as King Arthur in Monty Python’s Spamalot. Then this morning he was up at six to look after his two-year-old son, Shaan, because his wife, Meera Syal, is filming Jonathan Harvey’s new BBC2 sitcom, Beautiful People. Actually, Bhaskar is great company – thoughtful, funny and warm.
“Casting me as King Arthur was quite bold of Spamalot’s producers,” he says, adding jokily “although it has been historically proved Arthur was Asian, and that Sunday trading started with Asians in 11th-century Britain. I am playing him a bit like me – I think the word ‘chuddies’ [Punjabi slang for pants] entered Arthurian lingua franca last night during one of the bits where I get to improvise. But I also have to make the audience believe I fit that world. If people leave the theatre still thinking about my ethnicity, I haven’t done my job.”
Bhaskar made his name, and met his wife-to-be, on the comedy shows Goodness Gracious Me and The Kumars at No 42, which mocked and demolished ethnic stereotypes, but believes the entertainment world is still obsessed with skin colour.
As a boy growing up in Hounslow in the 1970s, Bhaskar says he felt as fond of Monty Python as he was of the Bollywood movies his parents showed him, to give him a taste of home. And he has never lost his taste for the humour of Cleese, Idle et al.
“When we created Goodness Gracious Me, it was quoting Python and Woody Allen lines that really bonded the writers,” he says, “and the Spamalot material is so utterly, wonderfully surreal that it hasn’t dated.”
Taking on Arthur was a challenge, though. Bhaskar had only ever done one West End play before, appearing in Art seven years ago, and had never sung or danced on stage. “It’s hard work,” he says. “But I realised about a year ago I quite like to be out of my comfort zone. I like to know I’m learning things. I think becoming a father may be part of an attitudinal change in me. Having Shaan has made it clearer to me why I take jobs, whether it’s for the money or, like this, for the experience and the fun.”
In a sense, he has come full circle. Although Bhaskar and his wife are televisual national treasures, with an MBE and OBE between them to prove it, both got their start in theatre. His was a late start, though. He grew up wanting to be Dr Who or Roger Moore – “this good-looking, debonair, well-spoken leading man” – but there were complications. Although saturninely handsome, at 5ft 6in he was arguably on the short side for a leading man. And the only roles for non-white actors in those days were as the foil for “amusing” racists on Till Death Us Do Part and Love Thy Neighbour.
“You could measure the impact of those shows by the names you got called the day after they aired,” says Bhaskar.
Most importantly his parents, first generation Hindu immigrants who had lost everything in Partition, were vehemently opposed to him treading the boards. His mother once found his father by Sanjeev’s cot, chanting “I want to be a businessman” in his sleeping ear. Later, when Sanjeev announced he wanted to be an actor, his dad replied: “It’s pronounced ‘doctor’.”
Sanjeev the dutiful son took a marketing degree and worked for eight years for IBM. Then at 32, he decided he should give performing a try, first with a theatre group touring schools, then as part of a stand-up act called The Secret Asians with Nitin Sawhney, now a respected musician.
“One of the benefits for me of starting late in this business is I realised that if acting was the only thing I could do, I would struggle,” he says. “So I always wrote as well. Most of the stuff Meera and I have done has been self-penned, because that’s the only way we’re gonna get work.”
Even so, success was slow. Goodness Gracious Me, with its subversive and brilliantly realised sketches of prattling bhangramuffins, haughty Asian girls and Indian lads “going for an English”, was turned down repeatedly by television producers, until it became a hit on radio. The Kumars was also initially turned down, until Caroline Aherne proved with Mrs Merton that a spoof chat show with real guests could work.
Bhaskar still finds it strange that a democratic medium like television should still have problems accurately reflecting the society it serves.
“Theatre has always been better disposed to colourblind casting than telly or film,” Bhaskar says. “Given that most television is contemporary, and it reaches 56 million people, I am disappointed there still isn’t more representation. It’s better now than it used to be, especially in the news media, but if a TV writer creates an ethnic character – this is especially true in soaps – they inevitably come with perceived baggage attached. If it’s an Asian character, arranged marriage will come up, or the problems of having strict parents, or of running a corner shop. It’s a failure of imagination. One of the few shows that doesn’t suffer from it is Dr Who.” Maybe it’s time to revive his dreams of playing the Time Lord. “Ha, yes, I’d do it like a shot. And my father would be so pleased – I’d finally be a doctor.”
Meanwhile, his new series Mumbai Calling, about a British Asian who finds himself running a call centre on the subcontinent, will screen – this autumn or next year – on ITV. Bhaskar plays the lead, co-wrote the pilot with Maurice Gran, and made his directing debut on one of the episodes.
For now, though, he’s concentrating on the acting. “That’s one of the joys of being in Spamalot, not being responsible for anything apart from filling the King Arthur-shaped hole in it,” he says. “But in terms of me doing a drama it’s difficult because people place limitations on me, because I’m from an ethnic minority, and because I’m associated with comedy. Meera gets it too. And of course, now we’re both middle-aged.” He and Meera regularly get invited onto chat shows and “celebrity-based” shows but the offers of serious work are “few and far between”.
Not that Bhaskar is complaining. He’s relishing Spamalot, and he’s got ideas for sitcoms and dramas and documentaries on the back burner. And he is clearly blissed out by his still-newish domestic setup as husband to Meera, stepfather to her daughter Milli, and doting dad to Shaan. The boy has already, apparently, invented a silly walk, perfected an Elvis impression and started asking his dad to play Beatles songs on the guitar. Sounds like performing may be in the genes, I say. “Yeah,” smiles Bhaskar, “I’m already bending over his bed, whispering in his ear: ‘I want to discover a new source of fuel, I want to discover a new source of fuel …”
• Spamalot is at the Palace Theatre, London, visit www.montypythonsspamalot.com