Anuvab Pal’s been poking the British Empire with a stick for a good four or five years now. It started as a one-man show, Empire, which he took to London’s Soho theatre in May 2018 and then to the prestigious Edinburgh Festival Fringe. He also did two episodes with comedian Andy Zaltzman on a radio show called Empire-ical Evidence, which traced the Crown's legacy through its physical remains in London and Kolkata. And earlier this month, a radio comedy written by him—again titled The Empire—premiered on BBC Radio 2, with an eclectic voice cast including Doctor Who’s Michelle Gomez, Mirzapur’s Rasika Dugal and writer and actor Stephen Fry.
Once international travel becomes safe again, a TV series based on Empire might get underway. In the meantime, you can hear the 28-minute episode—in which a greenhorn British administrator assumes his new post as district magistrate in Darjeeling, where he’s both assisted and hindered by the wily Harbans, voiced by Pal—on the BBC website.
Pal, who lives in Mumbai, is known to Indian audiences from his standup, his Amazon Prime special Alive at 40, and his writing and acting in series like Going Viral Pvt. Ltd and Waqalat From Home. Over a video call, he spoke to Lounge about colonial guilt colouring reviews and the time Stephen Fry explained to him how British and American comedy differs.
What was the reaction in England when you performed ‘Empire’?
I've always had difficulty with Empire and British critics. British audiences seem to like it but British critics, understandably, seem to be asking, why isn't he angrier about the empire? This sort of haunted my reviews for the stand-up show I did in Edinburgh. A certain class of British critics finds anything I've done about the empire very tepid. They assume that because I'm a writer from a (former) colony I should be much angrier. But my interest is in minutiae.
Did American audiences respond differently?
I haven't had very much success in the United States. I think it's just because my view of the world is much more miserable than the American view. Somehow, being Bengali, I've found an artistic, comedic mesh in the UK.
While we were rehearsing, I asked Stephen Fry what he thought was the difference between American and British comedy. He was in Los Angeles then, having a lot of difficulty watching the Test match. He said that British comedy was always driven by character, whereas an American comedian is always the winner at the end of the day. He said, ‘Great British comedic characters are always trying to succeed in a world that is letting them down'. Which is true, from Ricky Gervais to Basil Fawlty to Alan Partridge. We used to have that kind of writing—Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi, early Farooq Shaikh—but I don't think we do that kind of comedy anymore.
Did the BBC approach you for the radio show?
They saw the stand-up show, in Edinburgh, in 2018. The script was written over three and a half years—and continues to be written, for a TV show. It's very difficult now to get a bunch of actors to come down to Darjeeling, so they said let's do a radio pilot first, and we'll see what the reception is.
My uncle was a district magistrate. I was fascinated by how he was dealing with the day-to-day problems. I thought, a native Bengali speaker was going crazy, what would an Englishman have had to go through?
Why set it in this particular time period?
There were a few things I needed that I thought would be interesting in 1911. Phones had just started coming in, and the first cars. There was the wealthy Indian class that was joining the civil service. Gandhi was still in South Africa. There was quite a bit of mingling going on.
And the British had been around for a while by then, so local bureaucrats like Harbans knew how to play them.
Exactly. I was very interested in this kind of Yes Prime Minister, Blackadder character. For TV, it would be fun for Harbans to be someone who is far more deliciously nefarious. There are so many good actors in that space now, like Vijay Varma, delightfully deceitful.
What was the writing process like?
The fundamental difference in pitching here and in the west is that there everyone reads every single draft you send. The attention to detail, commentary after reading—much higher. So there's a sense of relief.
I went through maybe 17 drafts for a 30-minute pilot. I've done fewer drafts for things here, but the level of reading is a lot less. There, at each stage, producers, agents, managers, everybody reads. Which as a writer is all you're asking for. Then you want to do the revisions.
How did Stephen Fry come on board?
That was a shot in the dark. Our producers wanted a high-profile name for the viceroy and we thought, why not start at the top? Ed Morrish (the show's producer) knew him very well, and I had a brief connection through (director) Dev Benegal. He liked the script and said yes. We were very lucky.
How was the recording achieved in lockdown?
We were in eight different locations. Michelle Gomez was in New York, Stephen Fry was somewhere in in America, Ed and Alexander Owen were in London, Rasika was shooting in Lucknow, I was in Santa Cruz, and so on. We did two full rehearsals and the final recording was an all-day thing.
Embedded in the comedy are bits of social commentary that Indian listeners at least should respond to.
The entire hope was that it would mirror some of the things that we are living through. And, in a way, some things I can't write about right now—so you put it in history.
'The Empire' is streaming on www.bbc.co.uk till 6 April.