Please Note: I (Bilal) was initially planning to put up the transcript of the interview alongside my personal observations on some of the points that were mentioned. However, due to the sheer length of the transcript in and of itself, I have decided to pen down my personal observations in a separate blog article that will be released next week.
Before reading the transcript, it is important to provide some context in relation to why I decided to do this interview. My PhD Thesis investigated the Construction of Identities in the BBC sitcom Citizen Khan. For the readers who are outside of the UK or have not heard of this sitcom before, it aired on a prime-time slot on BBC One and was dubbed as the ‘UK’s first Muslim sitcom’, as the sitcom centred around the lives of a British Pakistani Muslim family.
Adil Ray is the creator of Citizen Khan, as well as being a being a co-writer and central character in the show through his portrayal of ‘Mr Khan’. There were many instances in the thesis, where certain assumptions were made in relation to the scriptwriters and their reasoning behind making certain decisions during the writing process. Therefore, in order to triangulate my findings, I decided to seek the input of the content creator (Adil Ray) and ascertain from him the significance behind some of what I observed, without providing him much information in relation to my own analysis. Consequently, my role in the interview, was to be impartial and as best as possible, not impose any of my own opinions onto him.
In relation, to my observations on the interview from an Academic perspective, namely the usefulness of the interview in triangulating my initial findings. This will be discussed in a blog article that will be published on Lancaster University’s CASS (centre for Corpus Approaches to Social Sciences) website in the near future.
Transcript of Adil Ray Interview:
(started with a brief exchange of salutations, etc)
Bilal Kadiri (BK): In terms of the writing process, I know there is you and two other people. Do you have the final say in terms of all that is written, or how does it work?
Adil Ray (AR): No, no. I don’t have the final say. I created the character, and created the idea and obviously, everyone you are working with, writers and producers, they want you to be happy, so to an extent you do get a final say, but you know it’s not like that, it’s very much a team effort. I listen to my co-writers, what suggestions they have. I listen to my executive producers, to see what they have to say. And sometimes even the cast, you know, it really is a team effort, but generally I’d have to say Citizen Khan is exactly the show that I wanted to make, so I’m very happy with it.
BK: In terms of Mr Khan’s character, there seems to be some confusion in his head, where he is very clearly Muslim and Pakistani, but he also has a lot of Britishness in his characterisation. Where did you pick that up from, was it from somebody else, maybe from your own background or experience?
AR: I think that’s all of us, isn’t it. For me there is no confusion, I think it is very clear that for every single British Muslim in this country. We are Muslim and British to a degree and that degree is to how much you want. Essentially we are British, being British means exactly that. In my view, any view, there is no definition as to what exactly it is to be British. It encompasses everything, so Mr Khan is very much British, you and I are British. Somebody who is very white and Atheist is British, somebody who is very white and Catholic is British and somebody who is Muslim is British. So I think for me there is never a confusion, I think that is exactly who he is. And for me, my parents and my family, we’ve lived an identity of being British and Muslim for our entire lives and Mr Khan is very much the same.
BK: What I meant by that, he (Mr Khan) would use some British phrases like ‘all snugly buggly’ and attribute it to Pakistan.
AR: But that’s… I don’t know what you mean. He talks English. I just think, I don’t know. Cutting to the chase, I think what we have to remember is that people look at it and expect it to be their Pakistani character or somehow it needs to represent what they perceive as being Pakistani. Now, one thing I have learnt from my 43 years in this country is that there are many different ways of being British Pakistani. And sometimes I think the viewers say, ‘well he is saying something that perhaps my father wouldn’t say’. Well, Mr Khan is not your father. And I think that’s a real misconception from the audience. You know, there will be a father somewhere who probably does say ‘snugly buggly’. My dad used to love saying ‘luvvly jubbly’, as we were ‘Only Fools and Horses’ fans. So he would always say ‘luvvly jubbly’. I think, he’s talking English for a start. I think, you could argue that he could be speaking Punjabi or Urdu, the whole series, because lots of Pakistanis do. But you know, that’s not going to work on BBC One. You know, I think there is lots of ifs, buts and maybes, I think.
BK: Going onto Urdu, the character of Naani (Mrs Khan’s mother), she would use Urdu more than a lot of the other characters. Considering it was on BBC One, what made you decide to have her speak Urdu more than the other characters?
AR: I think it’s a generation thing, she is older. So she’s probably more likely to speak more Urdu, but that doesn’t mean she can’t speak English. And we just thought it was funny, funny sometimes when she would say things in Urdu and then sometimes you would hear an odd English word, it was just a funny dynamic really.
BK: That is what I had picked up on. Like, she would say some of the sentence in Urdu, then call him an ‘idiot’ in English.
AR: It was funny, that any English words she knew were curse words for Mr Khan, which was quite funny.
BK: I think generally, when most people learn a new language, they learn the curse words first. Maybe you guys were trying to signify that?
AR: Yes, maybe. Yes.
BK: Speaking about Urdu, when they would call each other mum or dad or whatever, I noticed that Alia would refer to him as papaji and shazia would refer to him as dad, was that to signify who was closer to him?
AR: Alia as a character was always somebody who would try and suck up to her dad and try to be the prim and proper daughter. When we knew quite clearly, she was anything but that. She was living her own independent life, but wanted to be daddy’s girl. So we felt like ‘papaji’ was a good greeting for her, whereas Shazia was more honest and upfront, and this is who I am and I felt like ‘dad’ was the right greeting for her really.
BK: In terms of Mr and Mrs Khan, I don’t know about the later series, but the ones I had looked at, their names were never mentioned, have their names been mentioned since?
AR: We did identify in series three I think it was, if you look closely on her name badge, when she was working in the supermarket, Mrs Khan’s first name was ‘Razia’. To this day, we haven’t yet announced what Mr Khan’s first name was, that is something that may or may not be revealed in the future.
BK: Their names being concealed, did that signify anything? As they would even call each other Mr and Mrs Khan.
AR: They might refer to them as Mr and Mrs Khan in the third party, but to each other they had sort of pet names.
BK: In terms of the Islamic aspect, in the media you normally get some sort of reference to terrorism or the veil or whatever else. There was nothing like that in Citizen Khan, as it was a comedy at the end of the day, but was there any temptation to address some of those issues, or not really?
AR: We discussed it at some point I think, but my view was that we first made the show back in 2010. The issue of terrorism and fundamentalism wasn’t really discussed I feel, certainly in my household, wasn’t really discussed so much at the dinner table. I think that’s changed quite a lot actually in the last five years. But back then I don’t think it was discussed very much, so we just felt that it’s not something that the Khan’s would be talking about. They are more likely to be talking about holidays or mortgages, or school, you know everyday things. I think actually we were making a bigger statement by universalising this family, you know humanising them as a Muslim family. And you make more of a statement in that way rather than talking about issues of terrorism , extremism, radicalisation. That doesn’t mean you can’t. I think actually if I was writing something now, which we are writing a few new ideas and things, I think maybe you would and could tackle some of those areas or subjects, that’s probably absolutely fine to do.
BK: I agree with you that Citizen Khan helped normalise Muslims to the general British public. After viewing Citizen Khan, do you think it helped the wider British public empathise with Muslims more or think they are normal, just as we are?
AR: Yeah, I think more importantly what comedy can do. Comedy can humanise a community and what’s really important with comedy is that you need to show weaknesses as well, you need to show vulnerability in a character. That’s why Mr Khan, he can be quite selfish, he can be quite self-centred, he can be quite rude and all of those things are all kind of weak traits. But that humanises a character, as he goes on a journey and in the end he doesn’t succeed with his selfishness and in the end he has to in the traditional sitcom kind-of writing he has to do the right thing by his family. That’s a good universal message and I think for the broader community. Yes, it does show that the Muslim family is just like us and what we found more and more is that a lot of the White public watch Mr Khan and think ‘Yeah, he’s just like my dad or husband’. And that can only be a good thing really.
BK: In the show you use some references, which were outdated, some which I had never heard of, like the YTS scheme or the Captain Mainwaring stuff. Is that something that was used to show Mr Khan is outdated?
AR: Yes absolutely. The whole premise of Mr Khan in his old suit and the house that needed upgrading and a car that was great but very old, it was an extreme example of him being in a time warp, which was very different to his family. There is an element of truth in that, there is a big generational gap between some parents and their young kids now in terms of what they all want in life. If you live in some areas of the country where people don’t have a huge amount of disposable income they haven’t managed to upgrade certain parts of their life, their house and car. Khan is slightly tight-fisted also, so it was just a comedy thing. It was just a funny comedy trait for Mr Khan.
BK: In terms of his interactions with both Daves, whenever they would say salaam to him, he would respond with ‘hello’. From your perspective, what was that trying to signify?
AR: I think from my point of view, it’s just one of those things you can take it how you like. I think from my point of view, Mr Khan always had a thing with Dave, but it was one of those things that signified Mr Khan not being comfortable with this white chap coming in and being the manager of the mosque and being a Muslim. I don’t think it was the fact that he was uncomfortable necessarily with his race, it’s not that, but he was uncomfortable that there was somebody who was a manager and probably had more authority than Khan and in a way he was better than Khan at managing and doing things. And that was the thing that riled Khan, Khan probably thought he would be that person, he would have that job. But then what Mr Khan does, for most people who are vulnerable and weak, and don’t have the proper emotional intelligence to navigate these situations, would call him names and try to find differences. Find ways that he can bully him like a school kid and that’s why I think his gingerness and his whiteness became an easy target for Khan. But I don’t think it comes from an element of necessarily being racist, but comes from an element of ‘you are better than me and I want to be better than you’, because Khan’s ultimate goal is to be of a high status.
BK: My reading of that, from a Quranic aspect, was that when somebody gives Salaam, you should greet with something (equivalent or) better, such as ‘walaikum as salaam’ or something better, so I thought that maybe he was trying to signify that he doesn’t see him (Dave) to be a proper or full Muslim like he has mentioned in other places.
AR: Yeah, I think that’s right. But, I think deep down Mr Khan would be there for Dave and he’s had some great moments in the series where he’s stood by his bisexual niece or he’s allowed his daughter to be with a white boyfriend. So I think he’s not in anyway, when it actually comes down to it, the sort of traditional Muslim’s who will stand in the way of progress and deep down he would love the fact that someone like Dave is the manager of the mosque. But, like I said, on a personal level, when he’s dealing with his own aspirations and his desire to have a higher status, Dave can get in the way.
BK: In terms of some of the stuff you were saying with Dave and him being ginger, that ‘if you let one in, they take over’. Was this a slight reference to what people may say about Muslims?
AR: Yeah, absolutely. Mr Khan was using Dave ….Mr Khan has organised a hierarchy in his life and he has probably faced jokes and ribs himself and what we often do, we find someone else to pick on in the room. Pick on the minority and Khan has probably been picked on in the past, or at least feels the world is against him. So he finds it easy to have a go at Indians, who are probably the minority in Sparkhill and have a go at ginger-white Dave, who is definitely the minority in Sparkhill.
BK: With the Indians, there were a lot of references to it, for example saying ‘it’s a toilet’, ‘it’s a dump’, ‘they have poo-breath’ and a lot of references to things associated with the bathroom. So I wanted to know, in comedy they have something called ‘scatological humour’, which is humour associated with the toilet, is that what was being done?
AR: Erm, I don’t know. I think, it seems like to me that toilet humour or a toilet-gag from a character point of view is kind of route one, it’s not very advanced. It’s not very thought through, it’s rash, it’s brash, it’s not the smartest joke in the book and I think we felt that if Khan was going to do something about Indians, it should have no real weight to it. It should have no baggage to it, it’s just a silly thing you say to somebody as you just want to say something horrible. I think if he had anything of any real weight or baggage, it would probably be worse. If he had any reasoned argument against Indians, you might think ‘Oh god, he’s actually thought about this’ and that is has got weight to it. But, the fact he is just coming out with a toilet joke, you just think ‘oh god, you idiot’.
BK: Was it also to show him as childish, as there was one scene where he was saying ‘Men are Kings of the Castle, women are dirty rascals’, like a children’s nursery rhyme kind of thing.
AR: Yeah, exactly. His reference points are the things that he read to his kids. He’s not read very much, so his reference points are Lion King and children’s nursery rhymes. It gives you a bit more depth as to who this guy is, he has never picked up a novel or anything, probably Imran Khan’s autobiography at a push.
BK: As you need to go, the last thing I want to touch on, in terms of the complaints, most of the complaints, they came in the first season, after the first episode. Did that influence anything in terms of the second episode (I meant season), in terms of your writing? Did you think you need to reconsider some things, did it have any impact at all?
AR: No, not one little bit. The BBC were great to us, they gave us lots of support at the time and I knew that 3.5million people had watched the first episode and we had 700 complaints, so you’re really not going to worry about 700 complaints. And they were very mixed and varied, and we knew that because it was a new show, it was going to get a mixed reaction, so were kind of wary. But what we found out, there has been no complaints for the last few series, and now when I meet Muslim families, you hear from time to time people say, ‘you know, I didn’t quite understood it first time around, I didn’t quite like it, but now we love it’. If you have not been brought up on a British comedy diet, you could possibly think that the intention is to mock a faith. But I think if you have watched a lot of comedy over the years. For those same people, if they go watch, I don’t know, Will Smith for the Afro-Caribbean community, or The Cosby Show, or any white English comedy, why is it okay for us to laugh at a situation where a show is laughing at the white working class community or the Christian community or the Black community? I think what people have figured out over time, is that this is okay. It’s okay for people to laugh at this and it’s fine, because it’s well intended. Comedians always say, ‘you can actually make a joke about anything, as long as the intention is right’. The intention is right, that’s what is important.
BK: If you could go back to the first two seasons, would there be anything you would do differently? As I have seen in the last few seasons, even though I haven’t watched many of the episodes, I have seen there has been a shift towards the character’s, going deeper into their personalities, rather than just looking at the Khan’s and their interaction with the mosque. The mosque has been kind of backgrounded in the past few seasons.
AR: I think that was right though. We had to make our USP quite clear in terms of the mosque and what Mr Khan was about. We wouldn’t change anything. I think just as you start to explore the characters more and some of the subsidiary characters like the children (Shazia and Alia), Dave and Naani have become bigger and people start to love them more. It gives the chance to explore it further, I don’t think you could….It had to all be through Khan’s prism for the first two series and then certainly when the wedding had happened and you had the son-in-law and the children, the grandchildren. That gives you a natural new world to explore, so I think we went about it the right way.