Meera Syal: "The world really does work along tribal lines"
My world was small and sleepy when I was 16. I lived in a small town, in a close family and went to an all-girls’ grammar school. My main worry was O-levels and whether I would be picked for the netball team. No boy ever asked me out and I didn’t expect them to. I was quite overweight and shy. I was very aware that I was surrounded by mad hormones and some of my friends were getting off with each other, but I think I put boy worries away in a box somewhere. It helped that I didn’t go to school with boys and I also had the excuse that my culture didn’t let me go to party or date – phew, that was a handy excuse.
I was relatively happy but there was real frustration inside me too. I had these ambitions about writing and acting but I kept those to myself because girls like me didn’t do things like that. I was waging an inner clash with myself, between all these artistic dreams and the other side of me which was practical and sensible. That used to tear me up quite a bit actually. I wanted to escape my small world but I didn’t know how to do it.
If I met the teenage Meera now, going on first impressions, I’d just see someone rotund and frumpy and might not bother getting to know her any better. But if I got her to open up I think I’d like her. There’s a humour and imagination inside her. I’d tell her to have more faith in herself. And I’d tell her the idea that having a boyfriend is the thing that makes you successful and accepted… what a weird concept that is to me now. And I’d break gently to her that she won’t marry one of the Osmonds. I actually once thought that really could happen.
The fork in the road for me was the one-woman show I did in my final year at Manchester University. It was a dark comedy monologue about an Indian girl who runs away from home to be an actress. Ironically, I wasn’t even very nervous doing it because by then I’d accepted I was never going to fulfil my creative dreams. This was just me getting them out of my system before I settled down. No one knew me – so what if I made a fool of myself? But when I did it and felt the audience’s reaction, I realised the magic of theatre. Then the show won a few awards and I was offered an acting job at the Royal Court.
I’d reassure my younger self that she will meet kindred spirits. But not till her early 30s. That’s when I hooked up with the Goodness Gracious team. It wasn’t easy getting that show on, but the process was so magical. All the secrets we’d all had in our head growing up as the second generation, all the stuff that made us laugh but made no one else laugh around us – we all got it without having to explain it. We approached the show with the same foolhardiness I did my one-woman show with – we didn’t know if anyone else would get it but we knew we had to do it with truth.
I’d tell my younger self that social networking is more important than she thinks. I should have been savvier when I was younger. I’d make friends with the make-up girl and not the director. But the world really does work along tribal lines. People tend to employ their own tribe. I’m still not really in a tribe and it’s probably too late now. I still don’t know what I’m doing after the next job. I’ve accepted my career’s always going to be like that. That occasionally disappoints me, after the body of work I’ve done.
In 1977, the year Meera turned 16... The Queen celebrates her Silver Jubilee... Rocky wins a Best Picture Oscar... Optical fibre carries a telephone call for the first time... Rings are discovered around the planet Uranus... Elvis Presley dies, aged 42...
Meera Syal stars in All in Good Time, out now on DVD and Blu-ray. Meera is also in Much Ado About Nothing at the Noel Coward Theatre, London, until October 27