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Adil Ray is leading the way for diversity in period dramas

After comedy smash Citizen Khan, Adil Ray has turned back the clock for new show Beecham House. It’s period drama with colour and he says it should remind us how far back our multicultural history goes

The Big Issue: How was your experience of making Beecham House?

Adil Ray: I really enjoyed it. For me the big take away was going out to India. A fantastic experience. My father is from Pakistan, which used to be part of India. My grandfather from my maternal side left Lahore when it was still India and went to East Africa, Kenya. So in many ways I feel Indian. It is only because of partition that your national background changes. So I always wanted to go there but I had visa problems. If you have any Pakistani heritage, India make it incredibly difficult. Things like that can actually do more harm than good – I am not political, I have no association with anybody from any fundamentalist background, and to have to go through that can create a real distance.

Beecham House tells a history we haven’t seen before [the show is set before India was colonised, in 1795]– was that one of the reasons you wanted to be involved?

Exactly that. Gurinder [Chadha] is an absolute powerhouse. What she has done brilliantly is to depict an era we have not seen before. What was going on with the East India Company at that time, what was the attitude of Indians? I thought that was a really interesting era to be in. And I loved my character, Murad Beg. He has travelled, and is well educated, well read, loves good conversation and loves the mixing of cultures and communities.

It’s almost like an origins story for the British Raj dramas we have seen so often.

Everyone thinks of Gandhi, the days of the Raj and A Passage To India – but this is very different. Gurinder has created, and unashamedly so, this very Upstairs Downstairs or Downton Abbey feel. The people I love the most are the Indian kitchen staff – it is their reactions or side conversations about Beecham or the more well-to-do Indian family members that turn up that I enjoyed most. Gurinder has given them a voice.

You are playing a very wealthy man of business with a white governess – it plays with the expectation a bit?

Even in those times there were Indian people who were more integrated. A lot of the Muslim Mughals would have had a glass of wine. They were very liberal. As a British Muslim I find that very interesting. The character I am well known for playing, Mr Khan [in Citizen Khan], lives in the present day but couldn’t be further away from that.


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Is it important that period dramas represent a broader range of histories?

Really important. It’s been a real loss that one of the most successful genres has been distinctly lacking black or brown faces. Yet we know in Britain there is a long history of race in this country. It doesn’t just go back to the Windrush or the Indians arriving in the Sixties and Seventies. We need young diverse families watching television and a lot of people don’t watch period drama and have this shared experience because they can’t see themselves in it.

Yet there is still a white lead character In Beecham House, which is set entirely in India.

Following the story of John Beecham is an important access point for an ITV viewer. You hope that time is coming, but Beecham House is part of that journey. It introduces us to young British Asian actors who otherwise would not be on ITV, so it helps in all sorts of ways. No disrespect to Tom [Bateman] who is brilliant, but for me, working with people like Roshan Seth – who played Nehru in Gandhi – was huge. And Lara Dutta would not mean very much to a white English mainstream audience, but fans of Bollywood will know her straight away. To see her on ITV is absolutely fantastic. It is a great start and maybe in the future we will see more dramas with Asian leads playing the main protagonists.

It’s two-and-a-half years since Citizen Khan ended – what do you see as its most important contribution?

I have realised the magnitude of the fact we were on BBC One in a peak-time slot. When we were filming Beecham House I had a chat with the Comedy Central guys and they said it is the second most watched English language comedy in the whole of India – the only show that beats it is Friends. Wow! You feel very lucky to have had that impact.

What is your political big issue?

Brexit is a real concern. The disappointing thing is that there have been lies. We are waiting for a mainstream politician to come out with the line that immigration is absolutely vital to this country, that most industries – manufacturing, farming, hospitality, the NHS – would fall apart without it.

Beecham House is on Sundays on ITV at 9pm