On the case with a new cop story
Life is either a comedy drama or a drama comedy, says Kumars star Sanjeev Bhaskar. So which one is his? Keeley Bolger finds out
One of the more memorable questions Sanjeev Bhaskar's been asked in his career cropped up last year, when he was cast in the West End production of Spamalot.
"I played King Arthur and I remember someone asking me, 'How do you think the audiences will react to an Asian King Arthur?" explains the 51-year-old, who started his working life as a marketing executive before switching to comedy, and starring in the likes of Goodness Gracious Me and and The Kumars At No. 42, which he wrote with his comedian wife Meera Syal.
"I said, 'First of all, King Arthur was Asian, naturally. If you needed to get your horse shooed at 3am, the King Arthur Asian shop is the only one that's open!
"But I also said that if people are still thinking about King Arthur being Asian by the end of the show, then I haven't done my job, because they haven't believed in me as the character."
Bhaskar will soon be challenging audiences to change their perceptions of him again when he plays it straight in new ITV drama Unforgotten.
The drama sees him shedding his comedic skin to play overworked single dad DS Sunil 'Sunny' Khan.
Also starring Nicola Walker, Trevor Eve, Tom Courtenay and Ruth Sheen, the six-part crime drama centres around a 'cold' murder case committed 39 years ago, with the investigation prompted by the discovery of the bones of a young man, beneath the footings of a demolished house.
Though many police dramas have a detective with a dodgy past, a gambling addiction or a drink problem, at its core, Unforgotten is very much about the everyday copper.
"What I liked about the police characters in this is they felt a lot more ordinary," explains Bhaskar.
"It was a couple of ordinary detectives for whom this is a job, it's not a calling. They suddenly stumble on this particular case and it leads to doors to knock on and worlds to unravel."
Admittedly, picking over historic murder cases is a long way from The Kumars' homely set, where flirtatious head of the fictional family Grandma Ummi, played by Syal, often posed inappropriate questions to celebrity guests.
But Bhaskar, who is talking on the set of Unforgotten, in a crumbling old building which doubles up as the scene of the crime, doesn't think there's much difference between the two.
"This may seem strange, but I've never approached drama very differently to how I've approached comedy," says the actor, who is smartly dressed in one of Sunny's suits.
"I remember someone said once that drama is just comedy gone wrong. The relationship between the two is pretty close and for me, even with the sketch stuff I did, I always approached my sketch characters as characters, rather than caricatures.
"I think all our lives are essentially comedy dramas or drama comedies; they're never one or the other, we have that mixture on any given day of the week."
And clearly the comedian, who is a step father to Syal's daughter Chameli and dad to the couple's son Shaan, enjoys the challenge of raising his performance so he's not just seen as "the bloke from The Kumars".
"The danger of being within your comfort zone for me is that I can rest on my laurels," says the actor, who previously starred in BBC One daytime drama The Indian Doctor.
"I like being out of my comfort zone because it means I have to focus. I have to work harder, I have to concentrate. I enjoy that. And working on TV is always fun."
Part of that fun comes from meeting lifelong idols. "When I first met Roger Moore, I shook hands with him and said, 'I have to come clean, it's watching you as The Saint when I was a kid that made me want to act'," he says with a smile.
"And he nodded and he said, 'Well, of course, you thought, 'If he can get a job, anybody can''. How great to get that from him!"
While Moore is often asked about the classic Sixties series, so too is Bhaskar about The Kumars and Goodness Gracious Me, which recently returned for a special one-off.
"Goodness Gracious Me was weird because it was the first time in 14 years that we all got together to play some of the same characters again," he says.
"[With The] Kumars, there are no plans at the moment (to reunite), although I do co-habit with the granny, so she's always there at arms' length."
- Unforgotten, ITV Thursday, 9pm