Sanjeev Bhaskar: 'There was a lot of casual racism growing up - I got it from teachers and bus drivers'

As Bhaskar returns in ITV's Unforgotten, he reveals how he learnt to talk his way out of trouble – and why TV's quota system needs to go

'Crime shows are popular because the viewer is intrinsically taking part': Sanjeev Bhaskar returns in ITV's Unforgotten
'Crime shows are popular because the viewer is intrinsically taking part': Sanjeev Bhaskar returns in ITV's Unforgotten

‘Unfortunately, my mind goes straight to Starsky and Hutch,” says Sanjeev Bhaskar, when I ask him about his favourite cop duos. For a teenager of the 1970s, that’s not a surprise, nor is the fact that the former Goodness Gracious Me star used to have on his wall a Charlie’s Angels poster that he’d torn out of a magazine. “I didn’t really rate them as cops,” he confesses.

Of course, these days, Bhaskar is part of a hit cop show himself – ITV’s Unforgotten. Chris Lang’s intensely watchable cold-case drama is back for a fourth series, with the 57-year-old playing DI Sunny Khan opposite Nicola Walker as DCI Cassie Stuart. “I think the reason crime shows are popular is that it’s probably the one kind of show, maybe alongside quiz shows, where the viewer is intrinsically taking part,” says Bhaskar. “So we are the detectives.”

Sunny and Cassie make a fascinating duo. Sunny is normal, understated, droll; Cassie, emotive, penetrating, yet normal too. That shared aspect sets the pair apart from the car-crash cops we’re used to seeing, from Prime Suspect’s Jane Tennison (booze, loneliness) to Line of Duty’s Ted Hastings (porn, loneliness). “There’s a warmth and emotional stability,” he says. “Not many other detective shows have that.”

Bhaskar has it in person, too, and there’s no doubt that it has helped him make the transition from comic to straight actor. We catch up via video call; he’s dressed in black and tucked away in a book-filled corner of the north London home he shares with wife Meera Syal and their son, Shaan, who’s 15. Home schooling has not been the challenge it is for parents of younger children but, Bhaskar protests, it has involved him making lunch. He also has a stepdaughter, Chameli, who’s 26.

His parents, who were famously the models for Madhuri and Ashwin Kumar in his 1990s comedy/chat show The Kumars at No 42, are both in their 80s. They’ve been part of the same support bubble; he’s seen them regularly, and reports that both have now been ­vaccinated against Covid-19. I have a soft spot for Bhaskar’s father’s response when he first told him he wanted to be an actor – “It’s pronounced doc-tor.”

Inderjit and Janak Bhaskar arrived in Britain in the 1950s from the Indian Punjab, after the bloodshed and upheaval of Partition. Sanjeev was born in 1963, his sister Sangeeta four and a half years later. They grew up in Hounslow, west London, above the family launderette, next door to the fish and chip shop run by “working-class, funny, polite” Phyllis and Gordon Fullagar, who first formed Bhaskar’s sense of Englishness, along with Roger Moore in The Saint.

There was little of that wit or warmth in evidence when the Bhaskars had “NF” painted on their door by the National Front. He wasn’t afraid, he says: “At that age you take your cue from your parents, and they just went and painted over it.

“There was a lot of casual racism and casual sexism in society and on television,” he notes. “I still find it amazing now, thinking about some of the jokes that were in Benny Hill at prime time. As a kid growing up, to a certain extent you get inured to it, you get immune from it, because you hear it every day in school. I mean, I got it from teachers, I got it from bus drivers. As an 11-year-old, I remember this guy talking about ‘Pakis’, and people looking at me, just me and about 10 pensioners on the bus.”

As he got older, nearby Southall became a focus for far-Right skinheads, and his anxieties shifted: “I was afraid more for my parents than for myself. Because from early on, I thought, I could probably talk my way out of most situations. But I knew my parents couldn’t.”

Bhaskar was too young to attend the Anti-Nazi League demonstration in Southall in 1979 – at which the teacher Blair Peach was killed by a member of the Met’s Special Patrol Group – but he can recall the “frightening” morning after. On the way to school that day, he says, “I remember thinking about that phrase, ‘You could cut the atmosphere with a knife’; it was the first time I’d experienced it, the air felt heavy.” Does he think there should be a historic prosecution, as there was with Hillsborough? “There shouldn’t be a moratorium on criminal activity,” he says. “Blair Peach had family, and may still have family, and for them, there’s no closure.”

He extends that thought to the sins of the British Empire. “If we want an honest society, then I think we have to explore all of that stuff. The difficulty is that that’s seen as somehow not being patriotic… Atrocities are atrocities. If you just shut the door on it, then you learn nothing from it.”

I wonder what he makes of the way TV treats vintage comedy now, in which certain scenes are excised or labelled with trigger warnings. “I think it’s fair enough to put up a warning to contextualise it, like this was made in the 1940s, 1950s, 1970s,” he says. But, for instance, “the whole issue of blacking up didn’t feel right to me even as a child… I’m not saying that simply blacking up in a programme now is grounds to dismiss it, because you go, ‘What’s the context?’ Context is the thing that gets lost in all the noise in every argument.”

We chat about why there have been so few successors to Goodness Gracious Me in the 20 years since it aired. The sketch show, with its brilliant takes on everything from going out for an English – “What’s the blandest thing on the menu?” – to the difficulty of pronouncing “complicated” English names, still feels like an outlier. “There’s plenty of people out there who are good,” Bhaskar says. “It’s very difficult for me to shake the notion that channels have a quota. When I took ideas into the BBC, they basically said to me, ‘Well, we’ve got an Asian show at the moment.’ Once there’s a quota system up, then you know that the idea of having a qualitative discussion as to whether the show is any good or not doesn’t even happen. I think that’s part of the problem. That’s why stand-up, I think, becomes a more accessible route.”

Bhaskar’s own route included a failed attempt at a career in marketing that left him in debt, depressed, and living with his parents in his 20s, before he joined forces with college friend Nitin Sawhney, the future musician and ­composer, to form an act called The Secret Asians, which attracted the attention of the BBC.

As for many actors, the pandemic has had an effect on his work and income, but he did appear online in a fantastic reading of Noël Coward’s Private Lives alongside Emma Thompson, Emilia Clarke and Robert Lindsay. Does he think the time is ripe for more diversity in productions of Coward? Would he like to do more? “It’s good writing, so yes, I’d enjoy it,” he says, pointing out that more diverse casts didn’t make The Personal History of David Copperfield or Bridgerton less enjoyable. “If historical accuracy is the point of the film, then I think you have to be historically accurate,” he adds. “But that also means you don’t cast Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra.”

I can’t resist asking who he’s supporting in the Test series between England and India – not, I insist, as a rerun of Norman Tebbit’s “cricket test”. He runs with it anyway. “As a kid, cricket was the only game that India played at a world-class level, so much like inheriting your dad’s football team, I started rooting for India,” he says. “I didn’t find it a dichotomy at all, supporting England in football. By the time I got to university, I met plenty of people who had mixed parentage and supported England in football and Ireland or Wales in rugby.

“Tebbit’s cricket test seemed to me as daft as one of my uncles,” he adds, “who suggested if you couldn’t take really spicy food, you couldn’t be Indian.”

Unforgotten returns to ITV on Monday, February 22 at 9pm