One of the most versatile, prolific and pioneering actors of his generation, writer and comedian Kulvinder Ghir began his career as a character actor appearing in the BBC’s seminal 1980’s drama series Howard’s Way as Davy Malik. The 1980’s heralded a new era in comedy spearheaded by a generation of non sexist, non prejudiced entertainers who had been inspired by the classic comedies of the past. Suddenly diversity was something that was not just satirised but celebrated and as the wind rush generation were now approaching middle age, a whole new community of Asian fusion was developing. Born in Nairobi, Kenya in 1965, Kulvinder and his family took advantage of free movement and came to Britain during the 1970’s which helped to expand the national collective culture. Britain’s napoleonic image was starting to diversify and Kulvinder was in the perfect place to make the most of it.
Press play, below, to listen to the interview from BFI Southbank
Making his TV debut in the 1981 Yorkshire Television programme The Extraordinary People Show, Kulvinder secured a small part in the sitcom No Problem created by The Black Theatre Co-Operative which made stars of his future collaborators including Meera Syal. Being bred upon sitcoms of the 1970’s which took a satirical glance at the concept of race, there was now a whole generation of British Asian writers and performers who had been influenced by the vicarious relationship between comedy and satire. Irrespective of the attempted subversion in sitcoms like Johnny Speight’s Till Death Us Do Part and ITV’s Love Thy Neighbour, Britain had yet to produce a comedy series surrounding the lives of British Asians who were now a part of our growing cosmopolitan society. First broadcast in 1983 No Problem was one of the pioneering sitcoms of the era and boasted a multicultural cast and crew which was heralded by many as a significant step toward for the British television industry.
Yet in 1987 he landed one of many careers defining roles as Aslan in the coming of age movie Rita, Sue and Bob Too alongside Siobhan Finneran, Michelle Holmes and Lesley Sharp. Cast as the eligible bachelor Aslan, Kulvinder made up the supporting cast in what has since become a cult classic. This film wasn’t just important in giving Kulvinder what was then his most prominent acting role but it also touched upon issues which drama had rarely been brave enough to tread. This film was of it’s time and concentrated on the downtrodden nature in which Asian immigrants had found themselves when coming to the UK. Auditioning for the role, director Alan Clarke was perturbed by Kulvinder’s lack of an Indian accent as a result of being brought up in the heart of Yorkshire and was after an authentic Asian accent. Determined to put his valid point across, Kulvinder asked “Do I sound like a Paki to you?” Such a statement not only resonated with Clarke and forced him to change his perception of British Asians but it also contributed to the perception of diversity within the Arts as a whole. This small shift in attitude together with similar examples of realisation during this crucial period for entertainment helped to move the industry into the twenty first century.
By the early nineties, this part of British culture had now become part of the fabric of the national identity and it wouldn’t be long before TV comedy was required to reflect this. In 1991 the late Felix Dexter united with the talents of Meera Syal, Leo Chester, Robbie Gee and Curtis Walker for the seminal sketch show The Real McCoy. With a fusion of African and Asian culture, this show had a firm finger on the satirical and social zeitgeist of the time and provided the perfect stepping stone to the comedy revolution which was about to occur. Going straight to television, The Real McCoy was solely created for the visual medium and therefore merely worked on one level. As a huge fan of the history of radio comedy, Kulvinder’s next project would embrace and indulge this passion for the wireless.
During the mid nineties BBC producer Anil Gupta had the idea of creating a sitcom based on the trials and tribulations of a British Asian family. Yet very quickly, both writers and performers realised that there were too many elements of the stereotypical fusion family to incorporate into a sitcom. In addition to this, there had never been a British sketch show which had celebrated fusion culture and Gupta was quick to discover the breadth of British Asian comedy talent which the nation now boasted. With this in mind, a sketch show proved the perfect platform to celebrate this which forced Gupta to assemble a cast and crew of some of the sharpest minds in comedy. Unlike The Real McCoy which featured performers from a variety of different ethnic backgrounds, Goodness Gracious Me focused on the similarities between quintessential British culture and values compared to those from an Indian background. Kulvinder believes that by doing this, we realise that people are not very different after all. We might each have different appearances with varying backgrounds but in our hearts there’s not much that separates us.
First broadcast on the 12th January 1998, Goodness Gracious Me subverted traditional British values and put a modern refreshing Asian spin on the sketch show format. Being the only member of the cast to be born in India, Kulvinder offered an unrivalled authenticity which gave the series more of a punch. Cast alongside Sanjeev Bhaskar, Meera Syal and Nina Wadia, Kulvinder was able to flex his comedic talents in a safe environment of likeminded people which greatly benefited the execution of the series.Sketches such as Going Out For an English and Chubblies have since become part of the cultural lexicon and subverted outdated stereotypes which had laid dormant for a whole generation. Over a quarter of a century since the series ended, Goodness Gracious Me is still heralded as a very important and popular show in the development of British comedy which makes Kulvinder and the rest of the cast extremely proud.
In 2014 to celebrate BBC2’s half century, the cast of Goodness Gracious Me reunited for two anniversary specials. Kulvinder compares his relationship with the seminal sketch show to putting on an old suit: it may be slightly tight in areas but it still comfortably fits. Over the years the cast and crew of Goodness Gracious Me have reunited several times to critical acclaim which reminds both audiences and TV management of their unique magic. Whether it’s recording a TV special or taking part in a live question and answer session at the BFI Southbank, it’s obvious to witness the enormous affection which each member of the cast holds for each other. This may help to explain why the show remains so fondly remembered by the British public.
Beyond television comedy, Kulvinder has always maintained his standing as a versatile star of stage and screen. In 2019 he starred in the heartwarming romantic comedy Blinded By The Light based on the music of Bruce Springsteen. Being familiar with Springsteen, Kulvinder had an admiration and understanding of popular music but was in awe of writer Sarfraz Manzoor’s vision which was extremely infectious for the avid fan of storytelling. At the heart of the story was the concept of identity, diversity and acceptance which Kulvinder strongly related to and was honoured to help tell Manzoor’s story. Blinded By The Light is so much more than a romantic comedy based on the back catalogue of The Boss and Ghir is extremely proud to have played a vital part in it.
Despite his many big screen plaudits, Kulvinder’s love for TV comedy has never diminished and when in 2013 he received an opportunity to star in the return of Open All Hours, he jumped at the chance. Having been brought up on Roy Clarke sitcoms in his family home in Leeds throughout the 1970’s, Ghir was familiar with the writer’s gentle observation of characters and situations which had made both Open All Hours and Last of the Summer Wine so endearing. Acting alongside the legendary Sir David Jason left a lasting impression on the esteemed performer and he witnessed firsthand the reason why he’s a master of comedy. Cast alongside original characters interspersed with an all star cast featuring Johnny Vegas, Sally Lindsay and Nina Wadia, Still Open Hours was the perfect tribute to Ronnie Barker’s sitcom legacy and gave Roy Clarke another hit sitcom to add to his formidable collection. Yet for Kulvinder Ghir, this opportunity was worth more than any monetary value could offer and a chance to work alongside Sir David Jason was a real dream come true.
Never one to rest on his laurels, in 2021 Kulvinder secured a role in the American sci-fi series Foundation created by David S. Goyer and Josh Friedman for Apple TV+. Cast as Poly Verisof, High Claric of the Church of the Galactic Spirit.the cantankerous alcoholic who is too stubborn to change, Foundation is a refreshing role for the comedy actor. This is a glowing testimony to his versatility as a performer and dedication to his craft. Whether he’s acting on stage, TV studio or film set or taking part in a live question and answer session at the BFI, his passion for drama and comedy is palpable. It was a great pleasure to interview the great Kulvinder Ghir as my first face to face guest since the pandemic and I can safely say that it was definitely worth the wait!