Meera Syal: Watching Top of the Pops with your parents could be uncomfortable

The actor, comedian and star of Radio 4’s Gossip and Goddesses with Granny Kumar on her favourite childhood shows, from chart-topping stars to the show that represented British Asians

As a teenager, I used to love watching Top of the Pops. Growing up in a small, rural, mining village in the Midlands, it plugged me into the world out there – I thought if I went to London, T Rex and The Osmonds would be standing there, waiting for me. At that time, you had to listen to the radio on a Sunday night to find out the Top 20, so watching musicians on TV was a huge thing. My parents would see David Bowie, and say things like, “Is it a boy or a girl? This is music?”, but they also really enjoyed watching it, especially my dad. I was born in 1961 so I was mostly watching it in the 70s – we went through glitter rock, glam rock, androgyny, all the way to emerging acoustic singer-songwriters. My dad really liked Bowie, funk and soul, Al Green, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder. He recognised great voices, and he really appreciated them.

Part of the pleasure of watching the show was seeing all of the excited audience members who had managed to get tickets, and who would be waving at the camera, trying to get into the shot with the DJ or – even better – attempting to dance to songs like Bohemian Rhapsody or Ernie (The Fastest Milkman in the West). That was a huge part of the comic value – watching people who had practised their moves, no doubt, for weeks. Genres such as glam rock were quite male-dominated, so you didn’t always see that many women on the show, apart from Pan’s People, of course, all of these incredibly young women who weren’t wearing very much. Watching that with your mum and dad could be a little uncomfortable.

‘It could be uncomfortable watching them with your mum and dad’ ... Pan’s People on Top of The Pops.
‘It could be uncomfortable watching them with your mum and dad’ ... Pan’s People on Top of The Pops. Photograph: Evening Standard/Getty Images

Another show that left its mark on me was Nai Zindagi, Naya Jeevan, which was made by BBC Birmingham at Pebble Mill. It started airing in 1968 and was the only magazine show for the Asian community in Britain at that time, broadcast predominately in Hindi and Urdu. It aired at half past eight on a Sunday morning – in the “minority slot”, as we were in the minority – and we would be woken up to watch it, because it was the only thing that acknowledged that we were here and we lived in this country. Looking back on clips of it now, it was clearly very low budget and it was very dry, but it was ours. There would be news, and stilted discussions and the highlight – particularly for my dad – was a musical item of some kind, usually a classical singer or a sitar player.

Dilip Kumar in Nai Zindagi, Naya Jeevan.
‘It was very low budget but it was ours’ … Dilip Kumar in Nai Zindagi, Naya Jeevan. Photograph: BBC

I can’t tell you how extraordinary it was as a kid to go, oh my God, we’re on the television where we never see ourselves. In fact, I think my first ever TV appearance was on that show. They had a discussion about young British asians, and there’s a clip of me looking very earnest. I think I was 20 or 21 with a rakish scarf around my neck, because I was a student. I said that I didn’t think women should just be housewives and that I was going to have a career, while the older men in the room gasped. That was thought of as radical. We had a huge amount of affection for it, though. However amateur the show may look now, it was so important that it was there.

Gossip and Goddesses with Granny Kumar airs Wednesdays, 6.30pm, on Radio 4 and BBC Sounds


As told to Hannah J Davies

The GuardianTramp

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