Meera Syal and Sanjeev Bhaskar: how we made Goodness Gracious Me

Sanjeev Bhaskar: 'How could a show with more than 100 characters in it be peddling stereotypes?'

Meera Syal, writer and performer

In the mid-1990s, nobody knew what British-Asian comedy was. It had never been seen on TV. I'm not sure we really knew what it was ourselves. But there was a small live comedy scene, and we thought a TV sketch show could be something our community would watch. We had no idea if it could cross over into the mainstream.

I was a performer-writer on [BBC comedy show] The Real McCoy, where Anil Gupta was script editor. I was thrilled to be working on it, but it was an African-Caribbean TV show, very culturally specific. So Anil and I started chatting about doing something similar about British Asians. He went away and got a team together and the BBC producer Jon Plowman helped us to do a live stage show.

This went so well we were asked to do a pilot for Radio 4. They gave us the graveyard slot: 11pm on a summer Friday. We knew British Asians wouldn't be listening then. It would be middle England. And there was an amazing reaction – I think it really made the BBC sit up. We were offered a radio series, then a TV pilot, then a TV series. But it wasn't easy. It was a long, hard slog.

There were five of us at first: me, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Kulvinder Ghir, Nina Wadia and [the musician and composer] Nitin Sawhney. Working together felt like coming home. We'd all grown up thinking, "Am I the only one who finds it funny that everyone covers their sofas in plastic, and has a drawer full of Tupperware?" With these guys, I could just say, "Tupperware" and everyone would go, "Yeah!" Suddenly, I'd found my comedy tribe.Two periods stick out as particularly golden. One was when we did a tour round the country. It was very rock'n'roll: we had the tour bus, the hotel rooms, the people waiting for us at stage door. And filming an episode in India was very special. They definitely get the humour: Goodness Gracious Me still pops up a lot on Indian television. In fact, when the show was first being shown over here, a huge black market cropped up - people were taping it and sending it to their relatives all over the world.

There was a huge groundswell of affection for the show, and it's still there: if If I only I wish I had a quid for every time someone has asked me, "Are you going to do another Goodness Gracious Me?" We have, in fact, just made a new episode – a one-off with characters old and new. One of my favourites, showbiz reporter Smeeta Smitten, hasn't made the cut, I'm afraid. But I like to think she's still out there somewhere in the Bollywood hills, not applying her lipstick properly, and drinking too much gin.

Sanjeev Bhaskar, writer and performer

Goodness Gracious Me changed everything for me. I was doing a standup show at the time with my friend Nitin Sawhney called The Secret Asians. Anil Gupta and another writer from the BBC, the late Sharat Sardana, came to see a gig of ours in a tiny studio in south London. They'd tossed a coin: heads, they'd come to our gig; tails, they'd go to the pub. Afterwards, they told us our act had exactly what they were after for a new sketch show.

I'd spent my 20s in marketing; suddenly I was 32 and working with this amazing group of proper actors. I'd seen Meera perform before, but this was the first time I'd worked with her. That, of course, would later turn out to be important personally as well as professionally. [The pair married in 2005.] We knew we were breaking new ground, but our primary objective was to amuse each other, not to be overtly political.

I was surprised by the degree to which the show was embraced by people outside the British-Asian community. A lot of the sketches were universal, I suppose – about families, greed, ambition, expectation, duty. My guru character was one of my favourites: he was a charlatan who answered any question about eastern culture with a reference to Star Wars or the Queen. I also remember a very funny version of Brief Encounter, set in an Indian railway station: the couple's long goodbye keeps getting interrupted by hawkers.

We did get some negative reactions from the British-Asian community, particularly from the older generation. One guy came up to me in the street and said: "Why are you washing our dirty linen in public?" I said: "Wouldn't you rather your dirty linen was washed?" Someone else told me the show was just peddling stereotypes. I pointed out that we had more than 100 characters: how can you have 100 stereotypes?

I understood where these concerns were coming from, though. As an immigrant culture, part of the unspoken message we were given was to keep our heads down, work hard, and not draw attention to ourselves. Goodness Gracious Me must have seemed as if it was mocking all that. But people seemed to come round when they realised that we weren't coming from a malicious place. We weren't denying who we were: we were targeting British behaviour and attitudes. We were all British Asians, with the "British" coming first.

• A special one-off episode of Goodness Gracious Me will be shown on BBC2 on 26 May.


I can't wait for the special! Post your favourite sketches, ONTD. Mine: