Writer, actor, funny man and presenter Adil Ray talks to Shelley Carter about family, the Beeb and an ambitious vision for his home town
Most of us have a skill or two we’ve mastered over the years – experts in our chosen field perhaps – and we’re happy with that. After interviewing Adil Ray, I’m left wondering if there’s anything this lovely ball of Brummie talent can’t do. Best known for the creation and portrayal of Mr Khan, the hilarious self-appointed Muslim community leader and head of a Pakistani family in BBC One’s Citizen Khan, Adil’s CV goes on and on. For instance, he has nailed radio both in comedic terms – Mr Khan started life as a character on radio – and from a serious broadcaster perspective. On his Radio 5 Live show Adil broke the story the night the UK went to war with Libya, as well as the riots of 2011 and the phone hacking scandal. He’s made landmark TV documentaries such as the ground-breaking and award-winning Exposed: Groomed for Sex for BBC Three which tackled the controversial issue of young girls being groomed by some Pakistani men.
You get the picture. The man’s versatile, talented and clever but he’s not beyond feeling the fear. Recording Citizen Khan in front of a live studio audience is something that still gets the 41-year-old a bit jittery. “There are moments when I think ‘why do I put myself through this?’ but it’s good fun too. The audience seems to enjoy the bits that go wrong almost as much as the bits we get right!” In fact Adil’s own mother, who watches the filming of every show, enjoys the bloopers. “Mum will say ‘oh I love that bit when you made a mistake. Keep it in. That’s funny’.” Growing up in Yardley, Adil’s Pakistani family was unusual for the area and they were the first Asian kids at Yardley Junior Infant School. Adil explained: “Mum and dad wanted us to have a broad British upbringing and chose Yardley for that reason. It was a tricky time and although as a child I was largely unaffected my dad remembers suffering.” Adil has fond memories of his childhood with good neighbours such as Uncle Arthur and Auntie Betty, the couple across the street. After successfully passing the 11+ Adil went off to Handsworth Grammar School where his first day was hardly a dream start. It was the day after the Handsworth riots. “The shops on Grove Lane were boarded up and it was scary. I remember the headmaster trying to reassure us that it wasn’t normally like this.” He learned to relish the journey to school that involved two bus rides and while Adil felt privileged to be enjoying a grammar school education, he felt connected to and excited by the vibrancy of the city warts and all. He said: “Birmingham is unique. It’s fantastically diverse with a rich history of immigration. You see people from every walk of life here and I think the stat is something like 350 nationalities which is phenomenal.”
The BBC was instrumental in Adil’s career taking off. “Without BBC Birmingham and the Asian Network, Citizen Khan wouldn’t have happened,” he says. “However I do think the media here needs to connect more. Over a 10-year period BBC Birmingham provided opportunities, but I didn’t receive one call from any other media outlet in the city. Yet when I spent a short time in Manchester I was contacted by two or three companies.” I’ve interviewed a few Brummie actors/producers for this magazine including Adrian Lester and David Harewood who felt moving to London was the way to get on, but not so for Adil. He explained: “I did stay with a friend in Bayswater once and I thought, ‘this is nice’ but I’ve never been seriously tempted. I need to be in London for certain jobs, filming or casting, but it’s so easy to get there that it’s not an issue.” A big fan of the Beeb and of Birmingham, Adil is thrilled about plans for the BBC Academy. He enthused: “It is hugely exciting. It will be a massive training and networking ground for the best, keenest writers, strategists, technicians, etc. If they see the city, they may well stay or use the city for filming.” Adil would love to see a film studio built here. “Either funded independently or council-backed or a combination of the two. We’ve got the space – perhaps on the NEC plot. We should invest in this and focus on it. Birmingham’s location makes it ideal for crews to travel in, film and go home at the end of the day.”
The next series of Citizen Khan began at the end of October and sees the characters developing and tackling family issues common to all of us regardless of ethnicity. “It doesn’t matter that the Khans are a Pakistani family. The issues they face are the same. People come up to me and say, ‘I recognise my own family’ or ‘Mr Khan is just like my dad’. They’re not Pakistani and that’s great.” Mr Khan tries his hand at entrepreneurship in this series by opening Birmingham’s 300th chicken shop and goes on a fitness drive jogging around Brum. There’s also a Christmas special which sounds like a hoot. About four or five years ago Adil admits he started to fall out with Birmingham a bit, but the love affair is back on track. “There’s so much going on. It’s such a great time for Birmingham. Grand Central, the plans at Brindleyplace, the area around the Old Library and the strip around Temple Row and Bennetts Hill is thriving. A friend of mine has opened Nosh and Quaff and that whole area is fantastic.” He added: “While it’s great that the city is attracting big brands we need to support local independents too. Brummies doing great things – that’s what we need more of.”