Wednesday 24 Sep 2014
Sanjeev Bhaskar talks to BBC Prorgramme Information's Tony Matthews about his role in BBC One Daytime's new drama The Indian Doctor
As Dr Prem Sharma and his wife Kamini walk into their South Wales mining village pushing their suitcases on a hand cart, the children playing in the main street stop and stare.
The adult villagers are in the village hall watching Peter Sellers's comic interpretation of an Indian doctor in the movie The Millionairess, after being told that they are about to get an Indian Doctor of their very own as part of then health minister Enoch Powell's plans to address a staffing crisis in the National Health Service by recruiting 18,000 doctors from the Indian sub-continent – it's the precursor to a life-changing moment for all.
"The irony was not lost on me that Enoch Powell, of all people, had sent out requests to the Commonwealth for doctors to come over and bolster the NHS, and then, within six or seven years, was telling them to clear off home," says Sanjeev Bhaskar, who plays the lead role in BBC One Daytime's new drama The Indian Doctor.
Set in Wales in the early Sixties, Bill Armstrong's five-part story tells the remarkable and somewhat forgotten story of the "first wave" of often highly qualified doctors, many of whom found themselves not with prestigious posts in London but pushed by the medical establishment into socially deprived areas or remote communities.
"The story sounded an excellent idea," says Sanjeev, "I'm always interested in drama which has an element of social history to it and the fact that it was set in the Sixties was appealing. It was an incredible decade in terms of social history for Britain."
Was it a story he knew much about? "My dad's uncle was a doctor in London in the Sixties and we had friends of the family who were doctors, but it wasn't until I saw a Time Shift documentary on BBC Four a few years ago that I realised that it involved thousands of people. At the time there was a real pecking order which saw these doctors sent out to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, but what's interesting is how many of them stayed and became part of those communities – it genuinely became their home and a source of great affection."
While the villagers' emotions range from mild curiosity to outright resentment, the culture shock, says Sanjeev, cut both ways. "Many of those who came over were very educated and middle class and by-and-large ended up living among the working class in Britain, yet in many ways they were embraced more by the working people than the middle class at that time."
Prem's glamorous wife, Kamini, played by Coronation Street's Ayesha Dharker, typifies the surprise at the humble surroundings of South Wales and yearns for London and the higher classes with whom the couple were accustomed to mixing in India. "The view of Britain that people in the Commonwealth had at that time came from Movietone newsreels, which were all about Big Ben, bowler hats and the changing of the guard," says Sanjeev, "old mill towns in the north didn't find their way onto the newsreels being shown abroad."
His character, he says, is drawn from a range of experiences. "I spoke to a couple of doctors in Wales who'd chosen to remain in the villages they served and have since retired. I also drew on my parents' experiences, but the emotions for Prem weren't difficult to find. It's about being a stranger and the strategising you do to build bridges, and I did that myself as a kid."
Growing up in Ealing in west London in the Sixties and Seventies, Sanjeev's experience of prejudice was, he says, of the slightly underplayed variety. "I've always felt I had to prove myself, and now it has become second nature. When I first went to university I took lodgings with a woman who said 'what are the chances of you staining my pans?' He laughs at the thought. "I said, 'I don't think I understand the question' ... and she said 'when you cook your curries'. That kind of naivety never really bothered me, a lot of the time it's just people getting used to you and I can do something to show I don't fit the pattern, but if they're avowed bigots there's nothing I can really do."
Underpinning the drama in The Indian Doctor is the emotive issue at the time of the connections that were being made between mining and lung disease. Prem is thrust into a battle between the Fast Show's Mark Williams, as modernising English colliery manager Richard Sharpe, loftily dismissing the villagers' mix of "mouthy Bolshevism and ignorant superstition" and the tight-knit community and their militant union leaders, while also coping with the more personal difficulty of starting life anew having lost a child in India.
"Coming into the community as an outsider allows Prem to address that whole issue of health and safety versus economy," agrees Sanjeev, "any one who was part of it, had already taken a side making it difficult to express an objective view." The approach to this is reminiscent of an Ealing Comedy. "We were very conscious that it's a daytime drama and thought that whimsy was a good route in," says Sanjeev. "The attention to detail was fabulous – the people working on the look were superb. Mark Williams is absolutely fantastic, as are the Welsh cast. I didn't know them, but they've all worked in Welsh language productions and, as actors, I though they were brilliant. Maybe it's something about the Welsh temperament, but they weren't afraid to express emotion which I think shines through in the performances. They all speak Welsh and are proud of being Welsh, which is great because we wanted that kind of unity. There was a great atmosphere on set, it was really fun to work on."
Did he enjoy the chance to step into a period role? "Yes, the Sixties I suppose is now considered period drama and, let's be honest, I'm not going to get a role in Lark Rise To Candleford! Generally the stuff I've done in my relatively short career has been very diverse – playing King Arthur in Spamalot was unexpected and great fun, the Kumars At No. 42 was very contemporary, but this is probably the first period thing I've done."
Nearly 50 years on since Enoch Powell made his initial appeal to the first wave of Indian doctors, how does Sanjeev feel things have progressed from the initial reactions portrayed in The Indian Doctor? "It has changed certainly – at that time, a curry was something that Vesta made," he says referring to a toe-curlingly comic scene in which the Sharpes host a dinner party with a less-than-knowledgeable approach to Indian cuisine. "People are more educated and having more Asian faces in the media, particularly in broadcast journalism as well as in sport, has helped. I guess Goodness Gracious Me, which I was involved in, also altered preconceptions.
"Where it hasn't changed is when you have any kind of debate about immigration. Then, you're all kind of lobbed into the same bucket and I find myself in the same boat as somebody who arrived last week. There's an emotional reaction that an immigrant is somebody who looks different and has a different name and, in that sense, you still have to prove yourself. It always interested me that Goodness Gracious Me and The Kumars, when shown around the world, were referred to as British comedy. It was only here that they were referred to as Asian comedy, even though I always felt it was very British in its humour and structure."
Certainly, Sanjeev's influences as a writer and comedian are largely British and rooted in the Sixties. "I was greatly influenced by The Goons and Monty Python reconstituting what comedy was – it could come from a funny word not just a set up and a pay-off. I liked the zaniness; they were satirical, slightly saucy and very literary in their references. I also liked the Marx Brothers and Jewish writers like Woody Allen and Neil Simon were big influences because they represented that ability to comment on society while having one foot in it and one foot outside."
And what of Peter Sellers's portrayal of an Indian Doctor in the Millionairess? "I never had a problem with it because he played a character. He wasn't sending up the
culture or the background. There's a film of his called The Party, which I saw when I was 11 and I thought I was going to die laughing, but it was banned in India for a number
of years. It was the same with Michael Bates in It Ain't Half Hot Mum, I've always felt that the criticism of him was too simplistic. Michael Bates was a very funny actor; he'd
served in India, could speak Urdu and had great comic timing. Rather than race it was really about the class differences between the officer toffs and the sergeant major.
[Bates's character] Randhi was like Bilko, he had the quick lines and I never felt that he was taking the mickey out of Indians, whereas something like Love Thy Neighbour, and
even Till Death Us Do Part, always had a much greater effect in the playground the day after because, primarily, the devil was given the best lines."
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