Meera Syal said she sees her Bafta Fellowship as a “really extraordinary moment” of change following the “invisibility” and “misunderstanding” she felt at the beginning of her career.
The comedian, actress, playwright and author – primarily known for comedy shows Goodness Gracious Me and The Kumars At No 42, which saw British Asian actors in prominent roles – has been announced on Thursday as a recipient of the highest accolade the awards organisation can give.
Syal’s naming comes after comedian Sir Billy Connolly last year became a fellow and also follows figures such as actress Dame Joanna Lumley, journalist Jon Snow and presenter Sir Michael Palin, who also have made an “outstanding and exceptional contribution” to TV according to Bafta.
“I mean, of course, it’s utterly thrilling and utterly humbling because honestly, you beaver away for so long, not sure if people have noticed, or if you have changed anything.
“And more than anything, I think I wanted whatever I did over my career to change things because…the invisibility I felt, and that being misunderstood and stories being told about us that weren’t our stories.”
She added: “Of course, on a bigger level, you just hope that anybody that feels the industry is not for them.
“You know, they’re the wrong sex, the wrong race, the wrong class, the wrong gender, especially the wrong class nowadays, that they can look at somebody like me and go, it’s absolutely possible to make a difference.”
The 61-year-old, who grew up in the village of Essington, Staffordshire after her parents moved from India to the UK, said when she began in the industry being a “South Asian woman” that wanted to be “creative” was “really, really unusual”.
She also said that she was “extremely fortunate” as her parents had been “quite rebellious” by eloping to get married and they thought she was going to be okay while moving into acting as she never “bothered them for money”.
Syal added: “I was managing to just about scrape through, there was a period of about 18 months where I was homeless and living on people’s floors and I never told them, because I knew if I told him, it’s like, no, come home.”
The actress, who has written the screenplays Bhaji On The Beach and Anita And Me and was a scriptwriter for the Andrew Lloyd Webber-produced musical Bombay Dreams, played various characters in sketch comedy show Goodness Gracious Me.
Syal also starred in The Kumars At No 42 – reportedly the late Queen’s favourite show – as her now-husband Bhaskar’s on-screen grandmother Ummi, which went on to win an International Emmy and a Peabody Award.
The actress has also had roles in Apple TV+’s anthology series Roar, which also starred Nicole Kidman, that saw her in an episode titled The Woman Who Returned Her Husband along with Mrs Sidhu Investigates that was on radio before being commissioned by Acorn TV.
She also said actresses are “redefining the ageing process” and said her agent used to tell clients that when they reached around the age of 50 it was “going to be very slow” and to wait for “mad granny parts” in their later years.
Syal added: “She said: ‘Just in the last 10 years, 15 years that has changed and a lot of her older female clients and are now working in a way that just wouldn’t have happened then.”
The actress, who is also set to appear in season two of Amazon’s The Wheel of Time and has also been in the BBC’s Beautiful People and Doctor Who, hopes to help “all of those groups that are not usually represented on a stage” along with providing mentorship following her Bafta Fellowship.
Syal also joked that putting her award down during a commissioning meeting could also help her to get the stories she wants told as she needs to “have a bit more power”.
Jane Millichip, chief executive at Bafta, said Syal is an “exceptional storyteller with enormous range, which means she is loved by peers and the public as much as she is critically acclaimed”.
The 2023 Bafta Television Awards with P&O Cruises takes place at the Royal Festival Hall in London on May 14.