Sanjeev Bhaskar has what he describes as a bizarrely clear memory for anecdotes. Reflecting on the 20th anniversary of the sketch comedy series Goodness Gracious Me last being televised on BBC Two, this skill is coming in handy.
“I remember we did a kind of Asian Top Gear sketch,” he recalls. “I remember standing around thinking, ‘God, what voice can I give this character?’. I ended up doing this kind of weird hybrid accent, between an Indian accent and one from, I dunno, Bolton.”
He launches into the impression as it was heard on the show. “It was as big a surprise to the rest of the cast as it was to me. Everybody cracked up – they said ‘where did that voice come from?’ I had no idea.”
Goodness Gracious Me launched Sanjeev and his co-star, and future wife, Meera Syal into primetime. Running from 1998 until 2001, with a few additional specials in the years that followed, the series parodied ordinary life for British Indians, who at the time had scarce representation on TV – something which regrettably is still the case more than two decades on.
“It’s a weird thing, because when you’re making something, you don’t think about its future, you’re in the moment, doing the thing,” says Sanjeev. “Then it goes out and people respond to it – so it’s taken a long time for me to view Goodness Gracious Me as quite the landmark that it was.
“I can now see why people would think that it was important, in that it was a British-Asian cast and British-Asian writers, it was a very specific viewpoint.
“It was born out of conversations we’d all been having for some years, which was ‘what is out there in entertainment that reflects our experience of being born into Asian families and yet being British?’.”
He continues: “We were all born here, we all watched the same telly and listened to the same music and watched the same comedy as anybody else did.
“Our humour was formed mainly by that – I think that’s one of the reasons it translated well to a broader audience. the sensibilities were the same as everyone else, the viewpoint was new, but it was fairly traditional in many ways.”
Goodness Gracious Me is immortalised by a line from its most famous scene in which an Indian family goes out for “an English”: a gag referring to the British cultural institution of going out for “an Indian”.
As they sit down and open menus, Kulvinder Ghir’s character excitedly asks the waiter: “What’s the blandest thing on the menu?”
It’s testament to the quality of the comedy that the show has aged as well as it has.
“You can watch a lot of telly from 23 years ago and it looks dated,” Sanjeev adds. “I think content-wise in terms of the sketches it holds up quite well. And that’s nice, it’s nice that people are still discovering them.”
While the classic Goodness Gracious Me episodes currently reside on BritBox, and in clips on YouTube, a new generation will have discovered Sanjeev from ITV crime drama series Unforgotten, which returns for a fourth series on 22 February. Sanjeev plays DI Sunny Khan opposite Nicola Walker as DCI Cassie Stuart.
Much like Goodness Gracious Me – and another of Sanjeev’s biggest projects, the celebrity interview show The Kumars At Number 42 – Unforgotten has developed a loyal following.
Crime drama is riding a wave right now, and there’s no end of interest in true crime, the latest incarnation being Netflix’s Crime Scene: The Vanishing At The Cecil Hotel.
Some feel crime series feel like they play to gratuitous shock value, I suggest, rather than focussing on the quality of the drama. Can they ever go too far?
“Yes, they can do, as can fiction,” says Sanjeev. “It’s one of the things I like about Unforgotten – I’ve never felt that the discovery of the body, no matter how gruesome it is, has been sensationalised.”
When they do show gore on Unforgotten, it’s to instigate a conversation as to why humans do messed up things, says Sanjeev, rather than anything designed to shock.
“It’s not about resolving it anymore, it’s about shocking the audience,” he says of the sensationalist end of the genre.
With his ITV show, “it’s not about being horrified – that’s just the kick-off point,” he argues. “It’s always been interesting to kind of understand why someone arrived at that point where they can do something horrific.
“Are people born bad? I don’t think they are. How does someone get to that level of torturous mentality? I’ve always been interested in that.”
Sanjeev now lives in London with his wife and frequent collaborator Meera Syal. The couple married in 2005, having been friends since 1996, when they first worked together on an early version of Goodness Gracious Me.
“We gradually found we had lots in common, but it was on a flight to Australia a few years later that I realised she was the one for me,” he told the Guardian in 2015.
Their decades-long professional and personal union may still bear new fruit, as revivals of Goodness Gracious Me and The Kumars are both seemingly potential projects for the future.
“I think it would work actually,” he says of a potential Kumars reboot, “Because again, I think it was really about an up-himself presenter, brought down to earth by his family… it felt like an exaggerated version of some attitudes that people have.”
On The Kumars, Sanjeev, Meera, Indira Joshi and Vincent Ebrahim played a family who welcomed celebrities into their home for chats. “Those moments where Richard E Grant or Tom Jones or whoever the guest was says something, and then we say something on the back of that... you know, that’s not scripted.
“There’s a certain energy about that kind of spontaneity that still works well.”
It feels “utterly shocking” that two decades have passed since the finale episode aired, says Sanjeev, perhaps because the cast are still so close.
“There are always little things that are bubbling under as ideas,” he says. “You don’t want to revisit everything, but I think it’d certainly be nice to do something with that crowd – maybe Meera’s doing something and I’ve been left out!”