ALL IN GOOD TIME
Starring: Meera Syal, Reece Ritchie
Director: Nigel Cole
What’s it about? A culture clash comedy, pitting generations against each other
Verdict: If you liked East Is East, you’ll enjoy this witty and occasionally laugh-out-loud comedy
M eera Syal had one reaction when she heard that an award-winning play she had starred in was to be adapted for the big screen.
“Don’t find someone younger and more glamorous from Bollywood. Let me do it!” says Syal.
Of course, there was never any question that she wouldn’t reprise the character of Lopa Dutt, the matriarch of a dysfunctional but loving family in All In Good Time.
But Syal, who has been working in the industry for almost three decades, remained cautiously realistic.
“You know the world of television and theatre is very different and there are different criteria sometimes when people are casting films.
“For women it’s generally, ‘You’re too old’, but luckily I was playing an older character anyway,” she says in a gentle, controlled voice.
At 50, she is looking great in a black outfit and with a slash of bold, red lipstick.
All In Good Time, directed by Calendar Girls’ Nigel Cole, is centred on a son and his new wife as they begin married life living with his parents and find it increasingly difficult to consummate their marriage.
The film has undergone many incarnations. It started life as a play in 1963 and three years later was adapted for the screen as the film The Family Way.
Then in 2007, it was updated for the theatre, by East Is East’s Ayub Khan Din, where the focus became a British-Asian family living in Bolton.
Showered with rave reviews, the warm-hearted play also won a prestigious Olivier Award for Best New Comedy during its run at The National Theatre.
Syal says: “This story is about family and the sacrifices and compromises we all make, and the fact that keeping a marriage going is really hard work.”
Syal is married to her former Goodness Gracious Me co-star Sanjeev Bhaskar with whom she has a son, Shaan, 6. She also has a 19-year-old daughter Chameli from her first marriage to journalist Shekhar Bhatia.
What really appealed to Syal is the dark secret Lopa has kept to herself for decades.
“You only find out towards the end of the film and it suddenly gives you a window into this woman and you think, ‘Oh my God, there’s this whole generation of women that had dreams, and lost loves and expectations they just had to chuck away for the sake of the family’, and it gave her a real poignancy,” she says.
As the country’s foremost British-Asian comedian and actress, Syal has a legion of fans and is hailed a “national institution” by the film’s producer Andy Harries.
“What – like Big Ben?” says Syal, who grew up in a quiet, mining village in the West Midlands.
“We were the first Asians anybody had ever met, so I was a real fish out of water.
“That’s why I didn’t have that thing of walking out the door and everyone knowing my business the way a lot of my friends who lived in very Asian areas did.”
Looking back, she says the fact she grew up as “an outsider” helped hone her creativity.
“I think it’s a very good thing because you get to see the bigger picture,” says Syal. “You’re always slightly outside all camps and therefore you get a sense of perspective and see the oddities, which you don’t see if you’re totally cosy.”
She might have harboured a dream of becoming an actress but the young Syal considered it a pipe dream.
“I mean, who would employ me? I didn’t see anyone like me out there. Who was my audience? What kind of roles would I play? There was nothing. I just thought there’s no place for me, so I’ll do something sensible,” says Syal.
That included going to university – which in itself was a big ask.
“No one we knew would let their children do that,” says Syal, who credits her parents for being forward-thinking.
“I was going to do an MA at Leeds University in drama and psychotherapy and then do a PGCE and work with children with learning difficulties. I had it all mapped out,” says Syal
Little did she know she was destined for a different route.
In the summer before she was “due to go and live my sensible life”, a director at the Royal Court Theatre saw her in her student one-woman show and offered her a job with an equity card.
“Suddenly, it was one of those real sliding doors moments where you go, ‘I can have this life or I can have this life’ and I had nothing to lose,” says Syal.
She has rarely been off the screen or stage since, rising to prominence as part of the team who created the ground-breaking and award-winning sketch show Goodness Gracious Me and later playing Bhaskar’s grandmother Ummi in The Kumar’s At No. 42.
“Some people think ‘character actress’ is a demeaning term but I think it’s brilliant because you’ve got a much longer life,” says Syal.
“You’re not hung up about the way you look because that’s not what you’re marketed for and it leaves you free to do so many brilliant roles.”
Her personal career highlight is playing Shirley Valentine in a one-woman stage show in 2010.
“It’s such an iconic role and to play a part that wasn’t written for someone like me, and that I did with no one at all commenting about the fact I was, said so much for how far we’ve come,” says Syal.
“That makes me very happy.”