SITTING back on a sofa in the dimly lit bar of the Menier Chocolate Factory theatre in south London, Sanjeev Bhaskar is talking about his role in the new play Dinner with Saddam.
“I’d forgotten how much work goes into theatre, I’ve mainly done telly. The rehearsal periods are quite intense. We’ve got to the stage now where you are just trying to remember your lines, remember your moves. But it’s great; there’s nothing quite like it,” he explains.
Written by Anthony Horowitz, the play is based on the notion that Saddam Hussein, one of the most brutal dictators in history, lived in fear of being assassinated – so he would turn up unannounced on the doorstep of people’s homes for the night.
Bhaskar, 51, plays a member of the unsuspecting Iraqi family who is forced to host the despot in his home as the 2003 Allied bombing campaign begins.
It’s only the fourth play for the actor, known as the creator of The Kumars at No 42, which enjoyed a successful run on British TV. He also recently revived Goodness Gracious Me for a one-off, India special which aired last week.
“In Britain there’s a history of satirising terrible people and events. It’s something one has to tread carefully with though,” the actor tells Eastern Eye while on his lunch break between rehearsals just two weeks before the production opens.
“The play is based on true events; Saddam would just drop in on a family and say: (putting on an Iraqi accent) ‘I’ve come for dinner, I will be staying tonight’, and they had to deal with it. That did happen, so Anthony Horowitz has taken that as its core.
“It’s very fast and funny. There’s lots of one liners, things like mistaken identities and people hiding, so timing is incredibly important. To have those elements and attach them to Saddam Hussein and the Iraq war is kind of unusual; so it’s a farce that has a political edge to it.”
Horowitz is the author of over 40 books, including the best-selling Alex Rider series of adventure novels. Writing in The Spectator last year, he said he could not see any way to write about the horror of Iraq except through comedy.
Cast members, including Steven Berkoff as Hussein, who starred in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, did research by watching footage of the leader and spoke to Baghdad residents about the impact of the invasion.
Bhaskar reveals: “There’s lots of footage of Saddam dropping in on ordinary people. It was for the cameras, but I’ve ended up learning quite a lot.
“Everyone knows he was not a nice man and a terrible dictator, but when you read up on quite how horrible he was, and his sons were as well, it makes for frightening reading.
“I’m playing a member of a family within this. Families all over the world chase the same thing – that you want your family to be secure, able to work and pay for food. They are your immediate concerns.
“That notion of family is fairly easy to get into if you can empathise with them. Then you place that into a crazy situation and they are going: ‘What the hell is going on?’
“They can’t get food because it was rationed, everything was expensive and there was hardly anything there because there were sanctions from the West.
“They were dealing with that; it was day-to-day life. Then in the middle of the night they get a knock on the door, Saddam Hussein’s there, and they have to deal with that as well.”
In recent years, Bhaskar says he had tried to focus on drama and television, and hasn’t played Asian specific roles.
He will soon star in upcoming ITV drama Unforgotten, where he plays a detective investigating a cold murder case.
But the fact that his character is Asian has not been overplayed, the actor says, which is a change from 18 years ago.
“But there isn’t that breadth of representation (for Asian actors). Until you get that, as a community, we won’t be completely satisfied.”
However he believes there is a lot more colour-blind casting in theatre than in TV or film.
“I’ve been really lucky, I haven’t done much theatre, but the theatre I have done has been good. With Spamalot I never would have dreamed of doing a musical, but the fact it was a musical and it was Monty Python was extraordinary to me.
“This will be the fourth time I’ll be on stage and in none of them my character has been Indian.”
Bhaskar, who is married to Meera Syal, was one of the creators behind Goodness Gracious Me, along with his wife and Anil Gupta, which first aired on television in 1998.
Following a successful reunion last year, the cast, featuring Nina Wadia, Kulvinder Ghir and Dave Lamb, returned with a specially commissioned programme as part of the BBC’s India Season, breathing new life into a host of well-loved characters including the Kapoors (pronounced ‘Cooper’).
Syal and Bhaskar, who also star in the sketch show which originally aired on BBC Radio 4 from 1996 to 1998, worked together for 10 years before they married.
However despite the success of the comedy, featuring Asians satirising Indian immigrants in the UK (it was given a prime-time slot on the BBC), Bhaskar admits progress has been slow and it is still hard for British Asians to get TV roles.
“It’s still quite difficult. Because of the projects I’ve done, I’m in a certain position of prominence because people have heard of me in the industry. But it’s just as hard to get work as it was when we did Goodness Gracious Me the first time round in 1998,” he says.
“I remember thinking at the time when it was regarded as successful, this will mean that other Asian writers, producers, directors and projects will come along, and it kind of didn’t.
“The Kumars was an idea I had five years before we did it. Everyone said ‘no’ and then ‘maybe’ because of Goodness Gracious Me. Somebody gave it another look and it ran for quite a few years. Until Citizen Khan, I don’t think there was any other British Asian comedy that was on.”
Dinner with Saddam, directed by Lindsay Posner, opens on September 22, with previews from September 10. It runs until November 14. Goodness Gracious Me India Special is available on the BBC iPlayer until September 24.