Radio, TV, stand-up comedy, music, yoga… is there anything honorary Brummie Noreen Khan can’t turn her hand to?
In 2022, Noreen Khan bounded onto the stage at the opening ceremony of Birmingham’s triumphant Commonwealth Games with the likes of Joe Lycett and Lenny Henry to introduce the world to our great city and launch what turned out to be a joyful few weeks for the Midlands and beyond. She also hosted some of the cricket at Edgbaston, so she was really in the thick of the action. She recalls: “Everything was just brilliant – the weather, the atmosphere – it was just a great few weeks.” Amen.
You probably know Noreen’s voice more than her face as she’s been on the airwaves for 13 years moving to Birmingham from London in 2010 with her show on the Asian Network. She immediately fell in love with the city, so much so that when the broadcaster asked if she’d like to move back to London, she declined. She says: “I was in London for six years, but I just love Birmingham. I lived in Moseley for seven years and now I’m in Edgbaston – the wrong side! I can walk to work from home and the reservoir is just gorgeous.”
Getting into broadcasting is notoriously tough, but Noreen says despite the competitive nature of the business, she never felt in competition with anyone. Driven by a passion for music and radio and inspired by trailblazers like Sara Cox and Zoe Ball, she just got her head down. She volunteered in radio stations and focused on being the best she could be rather than battling with other people and the hard work paid off.
Despite this penchant for hard work and determination, Noreen’s also a qualified yoga instructor which perhaps keeps her grounded. A few years ago, she recognised she was neglecting her physical health, so started practising yoga and put wellness and mindfulness front and centre. She has no plans to teach yoga – the qualification was more for her personal development. And this is the thing about Noreen. Most people, if inclined might do some yoga. Noreen studies it and gets some qualifications. At school, she learned oboe and violin. Lots of people leave the music career at primary school. Noreen later toured Mexico. Nothing’s ordinary, so anything’s possible.
Naturally, Noreen veered towards TV as well as radio and credits include BBC2’s wonderful Back in Time for Birmingham which is part of the hugely successful and inventive Back in Time series. The Brum version is slightly different as not only does it focus on a specific place but a specific group of people, in this case South Asian and their experiences from settling here in the Fifties to present day. The stories from people, some of them just teenagers at the time, who experienced the hardship of arriving in a new world and the barriers they had to overcome is breath-taking – the language, culture, inequality, racism, finding work, missing loved ones, even the climate. It’s a real eye opener and well worth a watch. Noreen is proud of the show and feels it’s important. “It’s relatable, it’s our story. It’s what our parents and grandparents went through and highlights the real struggle of the South Asian community.”
Not content with radio and TV, Noreen loves the stage too and tours with female stand-up group, Ladies of Laughter. They describe themselves as ‘kick ass comics certain to leave you in stitches’. Noreen says: “The shows are unique. The norm in stand-up is still mainly men of a certain age and colour. Ladies of Laughter not only champions women, but women from every background and we’ve had some big names like Judi Love and Shazia Mirza.” I suggest stand-up sounds terrifying and the stuff of nightmares, but Noreen says it’s not dissimilar to hosting. She explains: “When you’re hosting, there can be delays which means you have to fill time and interact with audiences. That’s a great grounding for stand-up so comedy never felt strange or scary. You have to hold the audience’s attention and make them laugh so it’s a natural progression.”
Noreen has no plans to head to the likes of the Edinburgh Festival. Once the pinnacle of the comedy scene, the festival is now generally recognised as less relevant than a time pre-social media. Not the first comic to question the financial investment involved – one of Noreen’s friends has spent upwards of £20,000 on rent and shows at Edinburgh – she feels there are increasing ways to reach audiences and build a following online. The reliance on a talent booker is diminished. Inspired by comics such as Shazia Mirza and Paul Choudhry and back in the day, Good Gracious Me, Noreen says: “Representation matters. Brown people doing comedy such as Goodness Gracious Me was revolutionary.”
Combining TV and comedy would be the ideal scenario – perhaps a panel show or comedy quiz. Noreen says: “I’m hoping my break will come.” But you know Noreen’s doing more than hoping – she’ll be grafting and putting in the hard yards to make it happen and we reckon it’s just a matter of time.