Keeping it real: life as a "cultural adviser" to EastEnders

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With plot-lines where planes destroy entire villages and wives bury abusive husbands under patios, soap and realism may seem like odd bedfellows. But even viewers who are happy to suspend their disbelief to enjoy far-fetched storylines will have scant regard for characters not rooted in a recognisable reality.

That's why, a year ago, I was asked to be a "cultural adviser" to EastEnders. I help with the accurate portrayal of the cultural and religious aspects of the Masoods, Albert Square's resident Asian Muslim family. Where culture is relevant - as in the current storyline about their gay son, Syed - the depiction needs to be as accurate as a fictional East End square allows.

Even now, British television drama rarely has Asian characters moving far beyond terrorist or shopkeeper. In part, this is due to a lack of Asian talent behind the camera. No amount of googling can help a white writer capture exactly what it's like, for example, to grow up with a pushy Asian mum. Left with the choice of either diluting a culture and religion or getting it wrong, programme-makers often avoid the subject altogether.

It was a bold move to put the gay Muslim storyline centre stage, not least because Asian viewers were unimpressed by the last Asian family on Albert Square. This time, EastEnders has fared better. While not everyone is happy about the storyline, most of the feedback I received from British Asians about the Masoods was positive. This ranged from those pleased to see an Asian family getting a big storyline to gratitude from Muslims - fed up of being represented in the media by women in burqas - that Syed's lavish wedding was shown as contemporary and fun.

Viewers don't always want culture shoved down their throats: Milly's ethnicity in the 1990s hit This Life was referred to only once in two series. There are still strides to make in terms of realism (if we were really in east London, wouldn't the Masoods be from Bangladesh rather than Pakistan?), but still, it's a positive step.

I have no veto over storylines, but perhaps my true value lies far from the scripts, out with the wardrobe department to advise on suitable mosque attire. In the Asian shops of the real East End, I was the only one able to barter for a discount.

This article appears in the 15 February 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Everything you know about Islam is wrong