Meera Syal has had it up to here with racial typecasting. So she is delighted to have been cast in a "colour-blind" role as the snooty wife of a dentist (David Haig) in Keeping Mum, a broad new BBC1 sitcom. She reveals that "It was great to have the chance to play a mainstream comedy character where I wouldn't have to make jokes about arranged marriages."
Tina, her character, is in the Hyancinth Bucket league of snobbery - she gets a headache merely by driving past a council estate. Taking a break between rehearsals in a Kensington church hall, Syal is a sparky presence. "It's nice to play a nasty piece of work," she laughs. "I've often been cast as a cool, noble woman. In the 1980s, I was rent-a-social- worker. In this I get to wear loads of designer gear. No more beige suits. Get me the Armani leather shorts now!"
Despite being an accomplished performer, Syal has not found it easy to break into mainstream comedy. "There's a perception that Asians aren't funny," she sighs. "People have talked about a black movement in comedy, and they have had role models in Lenny Henry and Eddie Murphy. But who are they for Asians? Just by virtue of being seen, I might make youngsters think, 'That weird-looking woman with strange hair is in a BBC1 series, maybe I can do it too'." She is reluctant, however, to be seen purely as a standard-bearer. "You're given representative responsibility," she concedes, "but I don't claim to speak for anyone. It's crass to think you can speak for a whole community. The version of the truth I present can only be mine. Woody Allen said, 'Actually I'm good at my job and just happen to be Jewish'. It would be nice not to have the prefix 'Asian' all the time. You can batter doors, but the only thing that speaks eloquently is the work you do." Although she has never encountered overt racial prejudice in showbusiness - "Liberals are too polite for that," she reckons - Syal does feel limited by the fact that "people are worried about not being PC. There's this fear of casting ethnic actors in so-called negative roles. I was offered a social worker rather than a prostitute in Band of Gold, because they were concerned that the inference would be that all Asian girls are prostitutes. …