BHASKER PATEL: FROM UGANDA TO EMMERDALE
Published 4th August 2014
I was born in Kampala, Uganda, in 1956. Because of the British Raj, a lot of Indians were invited to travel to Africa as well as other places in the British Empire to establish their own businesses.
My father owned a provisions store in a relatively small town called Lugazi, which had a big sugar factory. My father would sell sugar in a big jute bag, and I would dip my tongue in the bag!
At the end of British rule in 1962, a lot of men moved their families back to India. My ancestral home is Gujarat in western India and so I moved back there with my mother and four sisters. I remember going through Mombasa and seeing the giant elephant tusks there. My father stayed behind in Uganda.
Life started again for me. My aunt lived next door with her four sisters, so I was surrounded by women. My father would visit but not every year, as travelling was so difficult. It would take one whole week to reach us from Uganda.
Indian culture is full of festivals and rituals, and when I grew up I would take part in various plays. I used to hang around with my older boys, mainly my cousins, and when it came to plays I would show an interest. The older boys would say 'he can play the son's role.' I would just walk on stage really, but those small parts made me realise that I liked acting, although I didn't think about acting professionally.
At that time, Indian films were like social dramas, not like today when they basically copy Hollywood movies. So I would watch a lot of Indian films and I just loved them, as for two hours they would capture you. I would run away from home and go to the city to see them.
I came to England when I was 17 as my father had moved here. I think he felt it was his duty to bring up his only son in a way that he could take responsibility for the family. He wanted me to get a good education, and because we were born under British Raj, we were able to come here. My mum said we would try it for a year and could go back to India if we didn't like it. We were excited, as it was a journey to the unknown, but we had this concept of Britain always being cold, with snow throughout the year. We had no idea what it was like.
We lived in north London, and my father worked in a factory. I could not speak English very well. Unlike many children, the school I went to in India was a Gujarati Medium School. So in my case I studied Gujarati, Hindi, Sanskrit and English. But it was like our children learning French here, so I could count to ten and say 'My name is Bhasker Patel' and that was about it!
I was studying for my CSEs and O' levels, and I would go to evening classes to learn English. But I didn't really know what I wanted to do. I decided to go to Mountview Theatre School as they did classes in speech, movement and drama, on two evenings a week. I found that I enjoyed it, even though I didn't know anything about what we were reading and performing. I thought 'Who is this William Shakespeare?' It was all new to me.
Mountview offered to give me a full time grant, but I felt I needed to go to a smaller school where there were fewer people in a class as that would improve my speech and drama. I needed to pay fees for the school I wanted to go to, so for a year I worked in a Wood Green betting shop to save money. After six months, one of the shop'scustomers, an Englishman who I always helped out, heard about what I was doing. He said 'Tell me how much money you want and I'll write a cheque as you have always helped me out.' But that was my job and I could not take his money. I don't think I was insulting him by refusing his offer; I just wanted to do things my way.
Eventually, I went to a theatre school called Studio '68 of Theatre Arts in London. I had barely started when an Egyptian actor approached me and said 'I've just been to the BBC at Pebble Mill and they're looking for an Indian actor and they are finding it difficult. Give them a call!' I gave them a call and told them I was in London, but they said they were looking for people from Birmingham. I told them I was visiting my aunt there, which was a total lie!
I met the director and read the part, which was all new to me. It was a part for a BBC1 drama series called Play for Today. On the train back to London, I sat next to the director, and we started talking and I must have told him my life story! The next thing I know, I had the role. I had to tell my principal at drama school that I had been offered a role. He was an American former actor and he said 'Gee, that's fantastic! You have to take this opportunity. Go and get experience and then come back to us.' So I did.
I went back to drama school, and three weeks later, just as we were starting rehearsals for A Midsummer Night's Dream, someone recommended me for a play at the Tricycle theatre. The lead actor in Play for Today, Lyndam Gregory, who recently passed away, had recommended me for the role in Mr Robinson's Party as it required an actor to speak Punjabi. I went back to my principal and said 'I have another role!' Again, they said 'That's fantastic!' But I became the envy of everyone else, as they were studying hard, they knew all of the classics, yet here I was getting the opportunities.
After we had taken the play on tour, I returned to school but after no time at all, Polka children's theatre in Wimbledon wanted me to try out for the lead role of Mowgli. I tried out and they offered me the part, but it required signing a two year contract as the show was to go on tour. For the third time, I asked permission from my school and this time the principal said 'Just go!'
I felt that I needed to finish my training, but after speaking to other actors I realised I was learning all the time just by watching and being around other people.
The Inter-British Cultural Exchange (IBCE) were presenting a dance drama on Ramayana, which is the story of Lord Rama, and were putting on a Royal charity premiere at Wembley Conference Centre. Prince Charles attended, but Princess Diana could not, as she was pregnant with William. They wanted me to act several characters in the play, as by then I was well known for playing Gujarati and Hindi parts in plays for the Indian community. So I was allowed to leave Mowgli before it went on tour.
Gradually, more work came in TV, theatre and even voiceover work. I'm always proactive, and always approached directors and production companies. A lot of it is down to word of mouth too.
I took a part in the James Bond film Octopussy in 1983. I was Kamal Khan's (played by Louis Jourdan) houseboy. It was on TV recently and I said to my girls 'I think daddy is in this scene!'
Then I took a small part in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. At the time, I was acting in David Hare's Map of the World, which is a play set in a Mumbai hotel. The casting director came to see the play because there was a part in the film for a man chasing Harrison Ford across a swing bridge. It is the scene where Indiana Jones hacks at the rope with a sword. My scenes were filmed at Elstree Studios, with a polystyrene mock-up of the rocks. I screamed and was eaten by crocodiles!
My dressing room was three doors down from Harrison Ford's. I was on set for three or four days. In those days, they would hire you for the week and if they used you, then great! So you would just turn up each day ready, with make-up. But every morning, he would walk down the corridor as Indiana Jones and say 'Hi' and you can't forget that. To watch Steven Spielberg, and the scale of the operation and the amount of people working on one movie, was just incredible. I had really only just left drama school and here I was a few feet from Harrison Ford!
I had a part in My Beautiful Launderette, and in 1987 the casting director was approached by two young German writers who had written a film about an asylum seeker from Pakistan who opens a restaurant in Germany. They had come to London looking for someone to play the lead in this film, called Drachenfutter.
I worked hard and got the part. They said 'There is one catch. The character speaks broken German. You'll come to Hamburg, stay with Pakistanis in asylum houses, and learn about their day to day lives as you learn the language.' There was a scripted dialogue, but the director came from a documentary background and wanted that authenticity. It was a good experience, as we had a lot of publicity and won an award at the Venice Film Festival. The film was talked about a lot in Germany, and it led to more work for me there. It was a great art house movie, and was distributed all over the world.
In those days, there weren't many Indian actors but there were not many Indian parts either. But if you took your job seriously and people liked what you did, the work would come. I never said 'No' as I wanted to learn everything. I did educational plays, children's theatre, voice overs, plays in parks, radio dramas for the BBC – anything, provided it had some substance.
At that time, the BBC was doing a lot of radio broadcasts based on the books by Lieutenant Colonel John Masters, which were all based during the Raj era in India. Because I spoke several Indian languages, I was often involved in these, working with people like Bill Nighy who back then was just a jobbing actor like I was.
Roles for Asian actors were really just small or medium sized parts, so I was rarely a lead actor. In a way, that was good, as you were never a target for the critics. I took a lead role in 1987, as Dr Aziz in A Passage to India which was performed at two venues, in Farnham and then Perth, Scotland. When I was offered the role, I said I needed time to think about it. My agent wondered why, as it was a good role. But I wanted to be sure that I could do it. If I got it wrong, it could leave a big scar and take my confidence away. So I read the script and thought 'Yes, I can do this' and received good reviews.
People underestimate the skill of acting. They think it is easy, but I don't think so. For me, because I was not from Britain and didn't know the literature, I had to work twice as hard, but did not see that as a barrier. You have to keep on going.
Not everything worked out. One week, I was offered a role at the National Theatre, as well as a part in a feature film. The Bosnian director, Danis Tanovic, had won an Oscar for his first film 'No Man's Land' and the role was for his second film, Tiger. He offered me a good part, so I had to turn down the National. In the end, the film didn't happen, so I was back at square one.
I worked with Robin Williams in Morocco for a month and a half in 1994, for a Bill Forsythe film called Being Human. Then I did a film with Christopher Walken called A Business Affair. When you work with any actor, big or small, you learn from them. As well as these big films, I worked for a company who did live broadcasts out of Camden, as they always needed actors. That paid the rent as well.
My mother-in-law, who lives in Horsham, used to be annoyed when I told people I was a jobbing actor. She says 'Bhasker, you are not a jobbing actor!' I would say 'Yes I am'. I may have had some small roles in big films and some wonderful lead roles in theatre, but I go from big parts to two lines in a voice over. That is what I do. I'm not a star or a celebrity, but a working actor.'
In 2011, I received a casting brief for a new regular character in Emmerdale. They were initially looking for Asian actors from Yorkshire or from the north of England, so I wasn't called during the early casting sessions. Then my agent rang and told me they wanted to see actors from everywhere. At that time I had a huge beard because it gave me scope to play a lot of character parts. But this was a screen test and they said I would have to shave it off.
About ten Asian actor hopefuls were there for a screen test for the father's role, and ten actresses for the role of the mother. We did the screen test in front of multiple cameras, as they needed to see if, technically, you can take it all on board. You have to be mindful of what camera is picking you up, at what point, and when the
director wants you to move. On a soap opera, speed is of the essence as we have to film six half hours of drama every week; you can't hold things up.
I was given the role of Rishi Sharma, with Trudie Goodwin as Georgia Sharma. Our sons were already established characters, so they introduced the father, mother and daughter to make a family. Three and a half years have gone so fast. I was also in Brookside for about 15 episodes long ago and I had three episodes in Coronation Street as the father of Maya Sharma.
People say soap acting is easy; you just turn up and do your lines. But it requires great discipline. You have to be on your guard all the time, and there is no time to make mistakes so you have to hit the mark as often as possible. Sometimes you are given a different direction, and you take that on board and get on with it. Sometimes the writers take a character in a new direction. With soap, you are on a train, so jump on and go with the flow!
I'm loving being in Emmerdale. You become so accustomed to your soap family and so at ease with each other. We are like a family – we make fun of one another and that helps you in your day to day work.
The role came at a good time for me as I have two daughters, and this to a degree has job security. I live in London where my mum is, then at weekends I come to my family home in Mannings Heath. I'd like to go to school concerts and such things but can't, but the girls understand as they know what daddy does. They like watching the show though!
My wife Julie's great grandfather built the cottage we live in, back in 1908. The first time I came to Mannings Heath, I said 'How can you stand it here, it is so quiet?' Now, I love it. It is a close knit village and we've come to know a lot of people.
I played cricket every day in India until I was 17. My father actually stopped smoking in Uganda so he could save enough money to buy me a proper cricket bat! He sent it to me in India. When I came here, I was too busy and forgot about cricket. When I joined Emmerdale, Chris Chittell, who plays Eric Pollard, asked me if I played cricket. He runs the Emmerdale charity cricket team! I told him I hadn't played since 1972 and he said 'Don't worry, we are all rusty!'
I am recognised daily. You are in people's sitting rooms every day, so on the train people will smile and say 'Rishi Sharma?' and I say 'Yes, that's me!' Sometimes, they look at me and just say 'Emmerdale!' Some ask for photographs or selfies, and I just smile and go with it.
There is no point in being funny about it. People watch you, they like you, and just for a few seconds want to have a photo. It might cost a few minutes a day, but being in the show is a lovely existence. I will stay in Emmerdale until they say 'We don't know what to do with your character!' I hope that doesn't happen soon.
You can't have regrets. I had a wonderful opportunity to go to Hollywood, but you have to do the right thing, and think about the consequences. If you decide 'That's not the job for me' you go along with that decision and move on in life. No regrets.
Interview: Ben Morris