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Romesh Ranganathan’s teenage struggle with poverty was ‘insane’

As a teenager, top comic Romesh Ranganathan's father went to prison, their house was repossessed and his family spent 18 months in a B&B awaiting a council house – in his Letter To My Younger Self, he explains how his fight with poverty turned him from lazy teen to the hardest working person on television…

As a kid I was very overweight and very lazy. All my school reports said I wasn’t meeting my potential, which my parents found frustrating because my mum was desperate for me to be a doctor, those traditional Asian expectations. There was no youthful rebellion because I didn’t have anything in me to be anything other than lazy.

Hip-hop and comedy were the two things I got into really young. A mate of mine left the Public Enemy album, It Takes a Nation Of Millions to Hold Us Back at my house when I was about 12. I couldn’t believe this music. It blew me away. It didn’t sound like anything I had heard before and the lyrics… On that album, there is a lot of black empowerment. I am not black, but at school I was one of the only kids of colour, so I related to the identity politics.

My parents came over from Sri Lanka for my dad to finish his accountancy exams and to give their kids a great start. We were comfortable, living in a nice semi-detached house and my brother and I were spoilt. My mum and dad got us the latest of everything. But then it all went a bit wrong.

It was insane, going from super comfortable to everything falling away

My parents’ marriage broke up, our house got repossessed and my dad ended up going to prison. This all happened very, very quickly. It was a struggle. My mum found out my dad had been messing around. He fell into financial difficulty so we ended up getting our house taken away. We were supposed to go into a council flat but they didn’t have enough so we were in a bed and breakfast for a year-and-a-half. And my dad was in prison. It was insane, going from super comfortable to everything falling away.

I had a scholarship to private school but had to leave because my dad was in arrears with the fees. So I just left. I didn’t say goodbye; I didn’t want anyone to know. Looking back, moving to the local comp gave me a lot of the values I have today. My brother and I often wonder whether we would have been arseholes if it hadn’t happened. We didn’t appreciate what we had got, then all that got taken away. I have kids now, and they are in a better situation than I was, but I want them to appreciate what they have. I might not have been as conscious of that if I hadn’t gone through what I did.

I would tell my younger self, look, you can come back from this. These things are temporary. It might feel horrible now but it will get better and you are always in control of what direction things are heading in. It really felt like the world had fallen apart. We ended up in the council house system and that changed me. I went off the rails, became even lazier. Cars got torched, joyriders would try to nick our car – but I don’t want to make out it was Compton, it was just a typical estate. By 16, we were happy there and life was getting back to normal.

Romesh with his three children, Alex, Charlie and Theo

I hope there is some way of repaying mum for what she has gone through. My dad came out of prison, they reconciled and after that probably had the best period of their marriage. They became very close. But while my dad was away my mum had to work and support us on her own. So I felt I had to find a way to make sure that wasn’t in vain.

In 1994 the year Romesh Ranganathan turns 16…

  • Steven Spielberg wins his first Oscar for Schindler’s List
  • China gets its first internet connection
  • Wet Wet Wet’s cover of The Troggs’ Love Is All Around tops the UK singles chart for 15 weeks

Comedy or fame did not occur to me as a career. I did my first stand-up gig in a talent contest at Pontins when I was 11. I watched loads of comedy as a kid – this is really bad, because I shouldn’t have been watching at that age, but I was really into Eddie Murphy. I watched with my dad. He was shocked at the language but started to enjoy it. He would say, ‘You know this is not all right!’ It is unwatchable now for the homophobia but I loved his stand-up. At Pontins I did about 10 minutes, delivered entirely in a Sri Lankan accent. I thought it would give me an edge.

All my experiences of seeing second-generation Asian immigrants on TV was that they spoke the language and were connected with their culture. But that wasn’t my experience. My mum and dad didn’t speak Tamil to us, they wanted us to speak English. They were paranoid about being bilingual giving us an accent. I felt I knew my parents more after going to Sri Lanka to film Asian Provocateur. But having said all that noble stuff, my mum offered to teach my children Tamil and the idea of my mum and my children being able to communicate in a language I don’t understand – can you imagine how that weakens my position in my own house? I would rather my kids be ignorant and not be able to slag me off to my mum!

Loads of teachers are frustrated musicians who are also in a band – so my ambition was to be a frustrated comedian. Our first kid was on the way when I decided to start gigging. I didn’t know about the comedy scene and was happy teaching. I learnt that you start off doing gigs in pubs to eight people who don’t know there is comedy on – and when someone puts a mic in the corner, they are pissed off. Then I got offered more gigs and eventually paid gigs.

My 16-year-old self would be blown away by the concept of me doing stand-up comedy on television

I quit teaching at Christmas but three days before I was due to finish, my dad died suddenly of a heart attack. It was a real shock. So I didn’t focus on comedy at all. My dad had a pub I was trying to sort out the estate for and I was trying to make sure my mum was all right. I wasn’t getting comedy work and we were broke. The car got taken away. It was bad. But the reason I tell that sob story is that I was really struggling, then Seann Walsh saw me at a gig. He got me Edinburgh shows, tour supports and asked me to do a set at his TV show launch. The producers also made Live At The Apollo and I got a call from them the following week. The panic was over for a bit. My 16-year-old self would be blown away by the concept of me doing stand-up comedy on television. The idea that it is going to happen would cause him to lose his mind.

Romesh with comedy colleague and mentor Seann Walsh in 2014

I always have been and continue to be terrible with women. I am terrible with my wife. I am accidentally very inconsiderate. I give a shit about so little and assume everyone feels the same. But if I don’t care about anniversaries or birthdays it doesn’t mean no one in my life does. And I have always had a fat kid mentality. So I would tell my younger self to take a few more risks. I never talked to girls. Any girlfriends I got were, it sounds weird, but by accident. I never dropped a killer line. For me it was about being in close proximity in a work or school environment, waiting until they’ve gone out with everybody and it has gone to shit, and then and only then was it my time to sidle up.

Why am I so busy now when I was so lazy? Deep-seated insecurity. I was broke as a comic for so long and saw everything fall apart for my parents. That left me with an ongoing fear that it can stop at any moment. And entertainment is so fickle. After all these shows [Judge Romesh, The Misadventures of Romesh Ranganathan, A League Of Their Own, The Reluctant Landlord] go out, it’s highly possible the phone stops ringing. I’m trying to make hay while the sun shines. There will come a point when I am on TV less – I’m not going to be like Bruce Forsyth – and all I really want is to keep touring.

Romesh Ranganathan’s biography Straight Outta Crawley is out now (Penguin, £20); The Reluctant Landlord airs on Sky One from October 30 and can also be watched on Now TV

Image: Rich Hardcastle