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16 November 2017

The Boy with the Topknot combines the particular with the universal to brilliant effect

The BBC Two adaptation of Sathnam Sanghera’s memoir tackles questions of identity.

By Rachel Cooke

The other night I attended an event at which a writer railed against the question “Where are you from?” on the grounds that when a white person asks it of a black one, it’s little more than racist. I wasn’t sure how to feel about this: as someone who asks pretty much everyone they meet where they’re from, I carried with me a bead of anxiety for several days afterwards. But then I watched The Boy with the Topknot (13 November, 9pm), Mick Ford’s adaption of the journalist Sathnam Sanghera’s memoir of the same name, and felt better.

For many people, if not all, this is a big and vital question: one they’re as likely to lob at themselves as at a stranger. Only by bridging the distance between where we’re from and where we’ve ended up will some of us ever have a chance of happiness.

Early on in The Boy with the Topknot, Sathnam (Sacha Dhawan) arrived in Wolverhampton from London to see his parents; supposedly, he was about to inform them that he was moving in with his white girlfriend, Laura. “Where are you from?” asked his Sikh taxi driver. “London,” he replied, face like thunder. The driver was frustrated. His question had, as Sanghera knew all too well, nothing to do with Dalston or Dulwich. Rather, he was after knowing about his fare’s familial roots in India.

At this point in the story, however, our cocky young hero’s goal was still furiously to ignore his deracination, a project that had, at least until this point, been going superbly well. A Cambridge education and life in London, where he was employed on the Times, had lent him a veneer that involved both casual snobbery – “They watch Britain’s Got Talent,” he said of his family to Laura – and various slippery forms of repudiation. No sooner was he out of the taxi, than he was denying, yet again, Laura’s very existence.

As you’ll know if you’ve read the book, Sanghera’s bridging of the various parts of his life was sparked initially by a secret that had always been in plain sight: the schizophrenia of his father and his sister. On screen, we saw him discover his father’s medication, and everything that followed stemmed from this moment of truth. I loved it all, and for all sorts of reasons. Dhawan was wonderful as Sanghera: so sexily wry, so good at getting over his character’s self-obsession and the way it slowly shaded into, first, shame and then acceptance and a new humility. For him, this is surely a break-out role, even if there were moments when he was almost out-classed by the wonderful Deepti Naval, who played Sanghera’s mother.

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Mostly, though, I relished the way it combined the particular (a Sikh family in the Black Country) with the universal (aren’t all of us embarrassed by our parents at times?) to such brilliant and purposeful effect. Which only made it seem the more strange that Ford had given it such a glib and sentimental ending. A film as grown-up as this doesn’t need romance to make it complete. He should have left it at the moment when, having finally learned of her son’s secret life, Sanghera’s mother urged a nice Sikh girl on him anyway (“So pretty… she looks like Kylie Minogue!”).

The A Word, (BBC One, 7 November, 9pm) Peter Bowker’s drama about a Lake District family struggling to cope with their autistic son, is still very good (this is series two). Like everyone, I’m in awe of Max Vento, who plays little Joe, though I also note that it is his truly awful smart alec grandfather Maurice (Christopher Eccleston) who gets the best lines: “They settled me in at Keswick Tech with a Chinese burn and a dead leg,” he said, on being told that everyone would be working overtime to help Joe feel at home in his new school.

But where, I wonder, is it going? With its flimsy secondary plots and the increasingly repetitive conversations of Joe’s parents Alison (Morven Christie) and Paul (Lee Ingleby), it feels to me as though it is in danger of drifting. Like Joe’s iPod, it needs some new tunes and fast, the better to remind the commissioners that, in these anxious times, we want more drama about good people who love each other, not less.

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This article appears in the 15 Nov 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The plot to stop Brexit