Adil Ray, actor, presenter and creator of Citizen Khan, chats with Kevin Cooper about Mr Khan, where the character came from, his beloved Aston Villa Football Club, and his forthcoming UK tour They All Know Me!

Adil Ray is a British actor, radio and television presenter.  He stars in the BBC 1 comedy Citizen Khan, which he created and co-writes, as well as presenting on various BBC radio stations.

Ray first performed Citizen Khan at the BBC Salford Sitcom Showcase in October 2011.  It centers on Ray’s comedy creation Mr Khan and his long suffering family.  Commissioned as a BBC 1 primetime series, the Asian Muslim sitcom follows the trials and tribulations of big-hearted, loud-mouthed, tight-fisted, self-appointed community leader Mr Khan (Adil Ray) and his long suffering family

With the programme having now finished its fourth series, a fifth has recently been commissioned which will be aired later this year.  Ray is now taking the fabulous Mr Khan on his travels as he embarks upon a tour of the UK in his They All Know Me! Tour.

Ray is a keen cricket fan and supports local team Warwickshire and the country of his father’s origin, Pakistan.  He is also an avid Aston Villa Football Club fan and attends as many matches as his commitments allow.

Whilst busy preparing for the forthcoming tour, Adil Ray took the time to have a chat with Kevin Cooper and this is what he had to say.

Hi Adil how are you today?

I’m fine thanks Kevin how are you today?

I’m very well thank you, and let me thank you for taking the time to speak to me today.

It’s a pleasure Kevin, no problem at all.

And how is life treating you at this moment in time?

Life is good at the moment.  It’s crazy as it doesn’t seem that long ago that we were being commissioned for our first series of Citizen Khan and here we are currently writing for the fifth series together with the tour that is coming up, so they really are exciting times (laughter).

I will ask you the question early so that we can get it out of the way.  Just who is Citizen Khan based upon?

(Laughter) that’s a good question and to be honest with you Kevin Mr Khan is not based upon one person in particular.  He was certainly inspired by the idea of the community leader which was something which suddenly appeared on our screens after world events some years ago now.  The TV companies would find this guy with the longest beard, put him in front of the local mosque and ask him about something that is happening five thousand miles away (laughter).  This guy has just gone out for a pint of milk (laughter) but he sees the TV cameras and who doesn’t want their fifteen minutes of fame as Andy Warhol once said (laughter).

I imagine that he said something quite interesting and that it was a really good soundbite which has gone back to the editing floor where they all thought that it was really good but who the hell was it (laughter).  He’s not a member of any organisation; he was obviously just going out for his milk but he was speaking on behalf of the community so sod it, we will just call him a community leader (laughter).  He goes home and sees himself on the local TV and sees that they have labelled him as a community leader and that’s it, suddenly he is off and running with this new career (laughter).  It simply made me laugh, the fact that you could fall upon this role.

I just like the idea that community leader gives you that position of status and I think that there is something very British about that and the fact that British comedy characters are always striving to be someone that they are not.  It gives them a sense of achievement together with a class statement that they are looking for.  I think that Mr Khan fits perfectly into that situation.  It felt like an obvious area for me to try to explore.

You have briefly mentioned the fifth TV series.  Could you ever have envisaged that Mr Khan would have been so popular?

I have to say that to get a fifth TV series commissioned is quite rare these days Kevin, particularly now with so many channels and so many shows.  However, I have to say that I had always thought that if we could get Mr Khan going, we would stand a better chance of it being successful if we could get the show onto BBC 1.  I was always confident that we had got a universal character in Mr Khan and I have always thought that it could just run and run.  I have got great co-writers in Anil Gupta and Richard Pinto and I think that the thing that we are not afraid to do is simply to write a sitcom that is full of jokes (laughter).  We all want to write a series that simply makes us laugh.

There is a lot of what people call comedy drama around at the moment but I think that is why maybe shows like ours work well and why in recent years Mrs Brown’s Boys and Miranda have worked well because we are not in the cool territory; we are just in the game of trying to make people laugh.  If you want to join us and have a great time then it’s just thirty minutes where you can forget about everything, and just enjoy yourself.  Everything is open for a laugh in here; it’s all written with good intention, and if that is the sort of thing that you like then you will enjoy it.  In a strange kind of way traditional British laughter is simply a breath of fresh air.

There is a huge demand for tickets for the stage show and you have already added extra dates.  Has that taken you by surprise?

(Laughter) I have to say that it has taken us all by surprise and I personally think that it is all just a little bonkers (laughter).  However I am not making light of the fact and I have to say that it is great that people want to come out and see Mr Khan and that they have a real interest for the show.  We are currently rehearsing the show, refining it, writing new bits and it all seems really crazy.  I am really excited by it, and I feel that it is going to be great Kevin.  It is Mr Khan up on stage giving the audience his lessons in life, his views on immigration, the economy, Britain and family but in a very light way and also inviting a lot of audience interaction.

We are looking into having moments in the show were members of the audience will come up onto the stage, together with lots of visual stuff and live sketches up on stage, then hopefully people will enjoy it because we are certainly having fun writing it.

Is it difficult to transfer the show from the TV onto the live stage?

Everything is a challenge, but I think in a way that this feels totally organic because we film the TV show in front of a live studio audience.  So in a way the live element is already in place.  When I do the live show in front of the live audiences whenever anything goes wrong I will spend a lot of time interacting with the audience and often people will walk away saying that they are the best bits (laughter).  That is the stuff that they love so I am hoping that will be the bit that people will really like on the live tour.

Remember that we are not taking the entire family out on tour, it is on the whole Mr Khan. We may see a glimpse of the family on VT but the challenge for us is to make sure that the show still has an element of fun.  What you have to remember is that it is not a situation where Mr Khan is doing stand-up comedy as such, what the show will build upon is the relationship between Mr Khan and the audience.  The big thing is getting the audience members up onto the stage.  So I would say to those people who find themselves in the first ten or twenty rows, be up for it and willing to come up onto the stage (laughter).

You will be bringing the show to Nottingham on 27th April.  Will this be your first time performing here?

Yes it will be Kevin, it will be the very first time that I have performed in Nottingham.  When I was working for the BBC Asian Network I can recall hosting a few of the Asian Festivals over there in Nottingham which were absolutely fantastic days, but yes in terms of performing in the Concert Hall or Theatre Royal in Nottingham then yes, this will be my first time.

You had carved out a successful career for yourself in both presenting and radio.  What was that one moment which made you want to write?

I was lucky in the fact that when I was working on the radio I was given a fair amount of free reign where I was told that I could pretty much do whatever I wanted to do.  At that time I was already writing comedy and also writing a lot of sketches which we would be playing about with in-between songs.  We were doing lots of funny voices and the usual phone call wind ups and we actually received quite a good response from the Asian audience (laughter).  It was at that point that I realised that I needed to do something with this as it would be a shame if it all was lost at some point.

The thing about radio especially when I first started out there was no such thing as iPlayer or the capability of being able to listen back to the radio.  Once something had been played on the radio it disappeared into the air; you wrote it, performed it and then it was gone.  No one ever recorded it and so you couldn’t go back to it.  I can remember saying to my colleagues that I thought that we were writing some pretty okay stuff.  I knew that it needed some work but I actually thought that it was some okay stuff.  I felt that it was a shame that it wasn’t being viewed or seen or listened to more widely, more readily available.

At that point I started knocking on doors at the BBC saying that I really did think that I had something that we could develop and do something with.  BBC 3 had just started and they were on the lookout for new comedians and stuff so I just decided to push myself there (laughter).  Sometime later I was given a break on a BBC 2 programme called Bellamy’s People, by Paul Whitehouse and Charlie Higson of The Fast Show and it was at that point that I decided to do Mr Khan there and then (laughter).

Did you write the role of Mr Khan for yourself?

Of course Kevin, oh yes (laughter).  I do quite enjoy performing and I really do enjoy the kick and the buzz which you get out of it but the thing that I really do enjoy the most is writing and performing myself.  I find it more of a challenge reading someone else’s script, and inevitable I always end up making it into my own character anyway which isn’t what they want (laughter).  Essentially I think that the best thing for me to do is to write my own characters and I certainly had my own intentions of playing Mr Khan.

I am only forty and I am playing a guy who is in his fifties.  I think that is quite useful really because I can play the sort of youthfulness and playfulness of the older character a lot more.  What will be interesting is that if we can run and run then Mr Khan could be in his sixties or seventies and I could be playing him when I am fifty which could be a fun time really.  I find that you can play the naughtiness of the character really well if you are a little younger.

Could you ever see anyone else playing the role of Mr Khan?

If it was sold to America and suddenly America said look somebody else wants to play the role and you are going to be sat in the background whilst we pay you lots of money, I would probably say that’s fine (laughter).  Of course, why not, I think that it is absolutely possible someone else playing Mr Khan.  If we sell the show abroad then that is very likely that the local channels will take the show but they will want to do their own version of it with their own star actor.  That will be okay Kevin.  In fact it will be quite flattering and it will be quite interesting as to exactly how these people will do their own version of Khan.

You have mentioned selling the show abroad, but Australia, New Zealand and Russia to name three have already bought the show.  Again, has it shocked you at how globally accepted the show is?

To be honest Kevin, yes it really has. I think the reason for that is because Mr Khan is a universal story really and I think that people get that wherever they are.  It’s not about a Muslim family as such, it is about a family who are actually very British.  I think the reason why it works abroad is that people recognise it as being about communities within their own societies.  They see it as being a very positive immigrant story and Mr Khan is for most of the time immensely proud of being British and he always wants to do good by his family.  He wants the best for his daughters and his wife; he just has a very longwinded way of going about it.  I think that his is a story that can be representative of any society in the world really.

Will you take the stage show on tour abroad?

Absolutely Kevin, I have already had enquiries from India who are one of our biggest audiences.  They have already asked us if we go over and do some dates there.  We have also been asked to go over to Australia and do some shows over there so who knows.  I am taking one step at a time Kevin and I will see how this tour goes and if I enjoy it, which I am hoping that I will, then we will take it from there.  I can’t think in the history of British comedy really when we have had a character such as Mr Khan and to have the chance to take a character like this around the world, especially in a time such as this, onto the stage and to play to a mixed family audience, where there is only love, comedy and warmth in the room will be a really special moment for me.  I really do hope that people will come out and support it.

When the first episode aired there were over seven hundred complaints that the show both ridiculed and insulted Islam.  Did those complaints have any effect upon your style of writing?

It didn’t effect it at all Kevin.  We knew that there would be some insensitivity and some criticism towards what we were trying to do.  I think that the main reason for that was that this was the first time that there had ever been a Muslim sitcom.  It had not happened before and there were certain members of the population who thought that we were out to get them.  I think that if someone is not familiar with or used to the comedy form then sometimes comedy can look as though it is poking fun for the wrong intentions.

In Britain we have a great history of good, well-intentioned comedy and I think that is the important thing.  I seriously believe that you can write comedy about absolutely anything providing that the intention of the joke is right.  With us we have never intended to ridicule the faith.  In the early days we certainly did have complaints but only last week I saw a report that showed that Citizen Khan has proportionately a more diverse audience than any other show on TV.  So I think that tells you that actually a large margin of the Muslim population are watching Citizen Khan and that’s great.  I think that’s fantastic.

Whenever I get into cabs or I have met people in the street they all say to me that they didn’t get Citizen Khan when it first came out but they absolutely love it now.  That’s fine, I think that’s great.  I think that’s the way that it should be; people should be able to make their minds up, watch it and take it in.  I think that people are probably sat around their dinner tables with all the members of their family and realise that actually my daughter likes the show (laughter) or that Mr Khan is probably a little like me (laughter) and in the end they just accept that the show is there simply to make them laugh.

I was intending ending on a high but I have to ask you, do you still get the time to go down to Villa Park to watch Aston Villa?

(Hysterical laughter) yes I was down there recently but I have to tell you Kevin that it is not pleasant I’m afraid.  It is a very tough time currently at Villa Park and we have got to accept what is coming to us now and start thinking positively.  Perhaps in a perverse way it could be one of the best things that has happened to the club.  It will give everyone the chance to re-evaluate the situation that we now find ourselves in.  The Championship is going to be tough, but if we buy the right players and we have the right attitude then there is no reason why we cannot get ourselves back into the Premiership which could be something really positive for us to hang on to.

We have been trying to hang on to 1982 for far too long now (laughter).  It will certainly be a new period of history for the club.  And let’s not forget, Villa are a massive club and it’s just a pity that we have relied upon our history for far too long and we have been far too complacent.  Football is a tough game and that is why we love it.  Not everybody can win Kevin and the whole point of the game is that someone has to loose.

Adil on that note let me once again thank you for taking the time to speak to me.

No problem, it’s been a pleasure and I look forward to seeing you in Nottingham.  Thanks Kevin.