Andrew Billen - Essex girls
Television - No glamour or escape for Asian housewives in Chingford. By Andrew Billen
Inexplicably, word has got around that Meera Syal's new drama, Life Isn't All Ha Ha Hee Hee, is an Asian Sex and the City. Nonsense. It's the Asian Desperate Housewives. OK, I'm doing the work a favour, and if the people who do the trailers think that the show needs a fillip, they are welcome to quote me. But in actual fact, if you are looking for Wis-teria Lane's glamour, sophistication and escapism, you won't find it in this three-part serial. It is very Leyton. In a society that remains - despite this past election - much more class-conscious than racist, viewers are likely to look on Syal's three heroines and be more alienated by their taste in kitchenware and wedding photography than by their roots in India.
In fact, I half-pondered when setting out upon this review about being extra cool and not mentioning that its heroines are of Indian extraction, thus letting it pass that this is BBC1's first prime-time (Tuesdays, 9pm) Asian serial. The Syal novel on which it is based is a comedy of matrimonial manners much in the Jane Austen/Bridget Jones vein. Her television adaptation, co-written with Abi Morgan, is, to white British eyes (although not to white ears, given that everyone in it talks Estuary Innit), as mildly exotic yet recognisable as a Victorian period drama. Nevertheless, Syal is celebrating that "finally we are out of the 'Efnic-and-Worthy' slot", so it would be churlish not also to raise a glass.
Two out of her three characters are indeed desperate housewives. There is Sunita, who married her university boyfriend and became a mother young, reducing her career to fit. After another baby two years ago, she and her husband, Akaash, have given up on sex. As she says, it is a terrible thing being the mother of a baby and a teenager, changing nappies with one hand and doing projects on the Bayeaux Tapestry with the other. She is getting fat and has spotted her first grey pubic hair. As if she did not feel ugly enough, she has taken to slicing an upper arm with a razor. Sunita is played by Syal herself and - just to keep it in the family - Akaash is played by her new husband, Sanjeev Bhaskar (Syal's grandson in The Kumars at No 42). Her real-life daughter plays her teenage daughter. Syal gets most of the best lines. The very best may be: "How can I be so big when I'm invisible?"
Chila is the baby of the trio, and even she is 35 - an age when single Asian women are generally not just on the shelf, but in the skip out the back. Yet she has bela-tedly married the most eligible bachelor in Chingford, a handsome property developer called Deepak, who had his "fun" with white girls but decided to "settle" down within the old firm. Chila, a virgin until a few weeks previously, scrubs up well for the traditional Hindu wedding that opens the drama - she even gets Deepak riding a white horse down the street - and is soon enjoying her hus- band's debit card. Ayesha Dharker has the hardest role to play here, because there is little evidence of what we are always being told: that Chila is not as daft as she looks.
The third heroine, Tania (played by Laila Rouass), is a TV producer who has so thoroughly escaped her community that the only Asians she still knows are Sunita and Chila. She has a nice white boyfriend who dresses up as an Asian-Anglo (rather than an Anglo-Asian) at Chila's wedding. He asks Tania to marry him and she is tempted, except for the thought that she'd never hear Punjabi in her bed again. Meanwhile, her boss, a creepy indie producer played convincingly by Jimmy Mulville, makes it clear that her USP is her ethnicity. Before she knows it, her videocam footage of Chila's wedding is the opening shot of a documentary on love Asian-style.
It is a fabulous plot device. The women, as if released from years of silence, speak far too frankly to Tania's camera, as do their husbands. As the film is shown to them at a Soho preview theatre, suddenly their lives become clear to them: Sunita has married a buffoon, a relationships councillor who cannot spot that his own marriage is in trouble, and did not know she had an abortion at college. Chila is a housewife who has actually married the house, not noticing that her husband is a sexist. And so on. Another secret will not go long unrevealed: Deepak once went out with Tania, counting her as one of his "white" girlfriends, and still has the hots for her.
The whole thing moves along like the clappers - a little too fast. It's also too broad. I could have lost the Elvis impressionist Hindu priest, and there was no need, surely, for the cuckolded husband whom Tania films at Akaash's counselling session to tear the place up (though this episode is also in the book). But the programme deals in universal truths about the short straw women get in romance, and specifies them to a race and class for which the stakes are high.
It is just unfortunate that a drama located in relaxed, multicultural Britain - where white people watch with bemused tolerance the Hindu wedding procession come down their street - is being screened after an election in which the British National Party polled far too well. In its own way, the show may be just as aspirational and fantastic as Desperate Housewives.
Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the Times