Meera, 61, has spent more than thirty years entertaining the nation through her work as a comedian, actor and writer, and has played many roles including Queen Elizabeth II’s favourite character, Granny Kumar.
She grew up in an Indian Punjabi family in the West Midlands in the 1970s, when offensive and stereotypical depictions of ethnic minorities were commonplace in television programmes such as The Black and White Minstrel Show, Til Death Us Part Love Thy Neighbour . She decided to reject being the butt of jokes when studying English and Drama at The University of Manchester, where she became politicised and empowered after learning more about her history and culture.
Inspired by the likes of comedian Victoria Wood to lift the lid on modern British life through her own lens, she joined the cast of the BBC’s The Real McCoy in 1991, a predominantly Black comedy show featuring the likes of Ian Wright, Linford Christie and Richard Blackwood.
After writing the script for Bhaji on the Beach in 1993 with legendary director Gurinda Chadha and writing her novel Anita and Me in 1996, she then joined the cast of Goodness Gracious Me in 1998, which instantly became one of the BBC’s biggest comedies. The BAFTA-nominated programme featured sketches written by its British Asian stars who cleverly turned stereotypes on their heads, including the classic ’going for an English’ where a group of raucous friends go out for a meal and mock their English waiter.
Fellow cast member and future husband Sanjeev Bhaskar joined Syal on her next venture, The Kumars at No. 42 , where he played television presenter-wannabe Sanjeev and Syal portrayed his blunt grandmother. The comedy was a runaway hit, becoming one of the late Queen Elizabeth II’s favourite shows, as confessed on occasions where she met Syal. "She was really lovely about the show, and she clearly had watched it because she could quote bits of it," she explains. "I think she was drawn to an older woman being the naughtiest person in the room."
The show won an International Emmy for Best Comedy Series in 2003, and at one point the team even went to number one in the music charts after providing vocals to Gareth Gates’ charity cover of Spirit in the Sky . The show also earned five BAFTA nominations, including one each for Syal and Bhaskar for Entertainment Performance in 2003.
In the years since she has continued gaining plaudits for her writing and acting, and she recently appeared in Apple TV’s Roar , an anthology series based on short stories by Cecelia Ahern in which she plays a frustrated housewife who returns her husband to a shop to obtain a refund. She had already been awared both an MBE and a CBE for her services to drama and literature, and now she has received BAFTA’s highest honour, the Fellowship.
I know this represents change and we all know we still have work to do, but we all stand on the shoulders of our ancestors and giants. Thanks to all the casting directors who fought to get me in the room, especially when it didn’t say ’Asian’ in the breakdown!
On a great night for The University of Manchester, as well as Meera’s award and Professor David Olusoga’s BAFTA Special Award win in recognition of his outstanding contribution to television, alumnus Joe Lycett took home the features award for his programme Joe Lycett Vs Beckham: Got Your Back At Xmas which covered the controversy surrounding FIFA’s decision to host the World Cup in Qatar last year.
Study at The University of Manchester opens in new window