Me and my school photo: Sanjeev Bhaskar remembers race riots and discovering girls

Sanjeev Bhaskar

Sanjeev Bhaskar pictured aged five

This is me, aged five, in my school uniform when I was at Springwell Infants School.

My father came to England from India in 1957 and my mum came in 1960. I grew up with my younger sister Sangeeta  -  now a TV producer  -  in Heston, west London.

We lived above my father's launderette. Both my parents ran the launderette, but my father was also a factory supervisor and my mum worked part-time in an accounts office.

There were only two or three other Asian kids at Springwell, and a couple of teachers weren't quite sure how to approach a child who looked different. 

My mother had been an English teacher in India before she came to the UK, and she taught me to read early on  -  not only in English, but in Hindi too.

My teachers didn't like the fact that I was reading more quickly than they were teaching, and as a consequence I would sometimes get bored in class.

I liked school dinners. The only thing I didn't like was mashed potatoes  -  made from packets of powder.

If I got a lump of potato powder I would instantly throw up, which sadly set off a nuclear reaction.]

The other kids at my table would throw up, too. My headmistress told me, 'You don't have to have it.

When you get to the serving hatch  -  just say no.' But when this lovely dumpling faced dinner lady smiled and said, 'Mashed potato, dear?' I said yes in a very small voice.

I remember thinking, 'You are mashed potato lady. That's what you do and if I say no then that's like I'm rejecting you.' So I found myself agreeing to two scoops and then, of course, I threw up. I didn't touch mashed potato again until I was 22.

My mother says I was two and a half when I first mentioned I wanted to be an actor. My father said, 'The word is pronounced Doctor!' I must have had natural talent because when I was eight we did a school production of Aladdin, played by a boy called Andrew Coxon.

I was his understudy, and during rehearsals the teachers would ask me to go on stage and show Andrew how it was done, but they wouldn't give me the part. I was puzzled, because I was obviously a better actor. But as a child I didn't see it as racism, and it probably wasn't, really.

Going to my secondary school, Cranford Community College, was a totally different experience because around a third of the pupils were Asian. I didn't like the place.

The teaching wasn't up to much, apart from a couple of teachers  -  including my English teacher, Mrs Cooper. She really encouraged my love of English and reading and gave me a fantastic reading list for the summer  -  full of classic books.

At school, the significance of the large Asian minority was really felt at the start of the Eighties, when there were a lot of race riots organised by the National Front. They tried to recruit at our school, but the only person they recruited was a young Sikh boy.

We convinced him to do it. We said, 'They will repatriate you.' When he asked what that meant, we told him they would pay for him to go home, 'What, to Hounslow?' We said yes, so off he went to this skinhead and signed up and then asked for his bus fare. A glorious moment.

Sanjeev Bhaskar

Sanjeev Bhaskar: 'I was two and a half when I first mentioned I wanted to be an actor'

Because of the riots, the racial divisions became very marked at school, and I ended up getting racism from both sides.

I realised I didn't fit in with either camp and felt there was something fundamentally unjust about being forced to take sides.

The Asians told me I could no longer speak to my white friends, which I thought was ridiculous, and I got the jibes anyway from the white kids.

I stood firm and realised that my community were really those people who felt like me rather than looked like me. My beliefs made me no friends.

I left school at 18. I'd been less studious since discovering girls. Did I have any success?

Absolutely none. The girls responded to the heroic, sporty boys  -  while I preferred to be humorous and literate.

Not the right style. Anyway, I screwed up my A-levels in maths, physics and economics, so I went to a sixth-form college, Hounslow Borough College. This time I was determined to see it through.

I passed my exams that year and made a great friend, Parminder, who is still my best mate.

I then went to Hatfield College, did a diploma in business and finance, and then transferred to the degree course, and that's where I first had a chance to do some serious drama. I was in a production every year and loved it.

It was here that I made friends with Nitin Sawhney  -  now a composer for films. We realised that no one was reflecting our experience of being both British and Asian, so we created a sketch show.

Then, when I was 32, I suggested to Nitin that we do it again  -  for a laugh. We created this anarchic show and put it on at the Oval House Theatre in south London.

Not only did two BBC producers come to see the show and tell us it was the material they were looking for, but the playwright Bonnie Greer wrote a rave review.

My life changed, and Goodness Gracious Me kicked off in 1998. My comedy career had finally begun.

It's A Wonderful Afterlife, starring Sanjeev Bhaskar, is in cinemas from 21 April.

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