Actor, writer, producer... Meera Syal has done it all and is currently starring as Goldie McKenzie, a woman at the centre of a bitter divorce battle in BBC drama The Split. Here, Meera lifts the lids on the seven things TV has taught her...
The Split actress Meera Syal talks meeting her TV idols and being late for royalty as she reveals the lessons she’s learned from her life on the box…
1. Work with women
“My new drama The Split has very strong women both in front of and behind the camera, which was certainly one of the appeals for me. Being on a set that’s run by just women – the producer, the exec producer, the writer and the director – was just fabulous. It’s not something you can quite put your finger on but you feel this kind of shorthand, your shoulders go down a bit and you know there’s not going to be any kind of sexist nonsense going on.
“As women, we all have this desire to tell the story well because, although things are improving, there have been many years where these stories haven’t been told. And they are all of our stories in one way or another. Also, Nicola Walker [who plays divorce lawyer Hannah Stern] was a joy to work with. She’s an actress who knows how to convey a whole ocean of emotion with the lift of an eyebrow. I learned a lot.”
2. Team up with your husband… occasionally!
“Myself and my husband [Unforgotten’s Sanjeev Bhaskar] worked together on Goodness Gracious Me and The Kumars at No.42 and, for us, it’s so rare that on the odd occasions we’ve done it we’ve really enjoyed it. But I do think the length of the job is important. A project that went on for months or a year might be a bit weird. Do we ever bicker at work? Never on set… but we might have a ‘spirited’ conversation in the car on the way home. A creative spark often comes from differences of opinion and I quite like having the discussion. But obviously I’m always right!”
3. Try new things
“I think it’s important to have lots of strings to your bow. I’ve acted, written and produced, and many actors I know are also going into writing, producing or directing; if you’re a creative person, there are all different ways of telling a story. About 20 years ago, there was this idea that you should only do one thing and there was a real snobbery, even, if you did telly and theatre. These days, you’ve got huge stars doing television because TV’s in a Golden Age; everyone is just a lot more fluid and people aren’t put into little boxes as much. As a performer, you just want to do the most interesting work that stretches you and scares you a bit, so that you hopefully learn something along the way.”
4. Always meet your idols!
“I’ve always felt that comedy is harder to do than serious drama and my absolute hero is someone like Julie Walters who can just effortlessly move from one to the other – she’s just brilliant at everything! Whether she’s being Mrs Overall in Acorn Antiques or playing Robbie Coltrane’s wife [in gritty C4 drama National Treasure], you just believe her. As a fellow Brummie, I adore Julie – it’s a total girl crush! I worked with her on one of my first ever telly jobs, The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, and I had one scene with her. I think I just followed her around with my mouth hanging open in a really embarrassing way!”
5. Control your own destiny
“One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever been given was create your own work and don’t sit by the phone expecting it to ring. If you’re not getting the work you want or a role that challenges you, create it yourself. Write it yourself and, if you don’t write, find a writer or find a producer, or adapt a book, do anything to get your voice out there. Another good piece of advice is just to be kind. You don’t have to be nasty to be successful and, in my experience, the more you get on with people and the more you give out, the more you get back. People will remember that more than any of the awards you bring home.”
6. Don’t be vain!
“There’s something very liberating about dressing up in full costume. When I played Sanjeev’s granny Ummi in The Kumars, it literally was like wearing a mask. It took an hour to put on and by the time we’d finished filming, I genuinely did feel like somebody else. And it sort of ‘frees’ you. One of the greatest things you can have as an actress is a lack of vanity. You should never be afraid of looking stupid or ugly or old because, actually, they’re often the most interesting parts.”
7. NEVER keep royalty waiting
“I can’t remember a lot about the day I collected my CBE [for services to drama and literature]. I was in such a state that morning because we were really late. My mum had lost her passport and to get into Buckingham Palace everybody’s got to have a passport. When we found it, we got in the car and we were like a typical Indian family, all screaming and shouting at each other, driving up to Buckingham Palace. When we got there, I literally ran in, sweating, with my make-up running all down my face. I’ve met Prince Charles a few times because I’m an ambassador for The Prince’s Trust and, as always, he was very funny and charming. I was just so relieved I got there on time, just! You can’t EVER be late to the Palace!”
The Split continues Tuesdays at 9pm on BBC1.