As UK election race heats up, ‘immigrant’ comedians tackle hot issues

After a sell out performance last year, the show returns on Friday 24 April to London’s Southbank Centre

Nabila Pathan
Nabila Pathan - Special to Al Arabiya News
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With the subject of immigration dominating this year’s general election campaign in Britain, the hit show “Immigrant Diaries” arrives at a timely moment as politicians battle over matters of integration and British values.

After a sell out performance last year, the show returns on Friday 24 April to London’s Southbank Centre, with a top line-up of comedians and entertainers who will share their stories of immigration.

This year’s “Immigrant Diaries” forms part of the Changing Britain festival that focuses on the past 70 years in British history, inspired by historian David Kynaston’s Tales Of The New Jerusalem books, which according to the Londonist “rely on diaries as a primary source.”

As the show celebrates the contribution of immigrants to British life, culture and the economy, the stories from “Immigrant Diaries” are anchored in a time frame that spans 1979-1997, covering the Thatcher, Major and Blair eras.

It’s an evening of shared stories, with the night being hosted by award winning comedian Sajeela Kershi, who not only is the creator of the show, but also during the show shares her own experiences of being a Muslim immigrant in an ever-changing Britain.

Speaking to Al Arabiya News, Kershi describes the process of creating “Immigrant Diaries” as a “labor of love for the past three years.” She goes on to explain that “it was born out of frustration around the anti-immigration rhetoric.”

“We only ever hear the negative side. I wanted to readdress the balance, to give ‘these bloody immigrants’ a voice. As the strap line states: ‘statistics don’t tell the story of immigrants, people do’ so it’s time we heard from immigrants themselves. I want audiences to walk away talking about the show and about the stories they’ve heard.

“So I sought immigrant guests that I felt have contributed to and are linked to popular culture within that timeframe....there is something for everyone.”

The line-up of guest storytellers includes: “Indo-Anglian” BBC television and radio presenter Nikki Bedi; 90s MTV presenter Kristiane Backer who converted to Islam at the height of her career; Perrier Comedy Award-nominated comedian and “Have I Got News For You” writer Dave Cohen; former Stone Roses and Simply Red guitarist Aziz Ibrahim who is a British-born Pakistani; comedy television actor Daniel Taylor who was born to West Indian parents between the 1980s’ Brixton Riots and Ethnic Multicultural Media Award-winning comedian and writer, Inder Manocha.

Manocha is the only member of the line-up who has performed in the show before. According to Kershi, “he is a very funny talented under-rated comedian in this country. I loved that he starred in Madonna’s film ‘Filth and Wisdom’ about immigrants - Madonna was herself an immigrant who lived here for many years...see where I’m going with this? That said, Inder has a wonderful story which will I’m sure resonate with everyone irrespective of their ethnicity and he’s a voice we need to hear more of.”

Reluctant to provide any spoilers, she insists it’s “deliciously hilarious!”

Since starting the show three years ago, Kershi has curated different sets of guests for each show. Whilst the format has been the same, the themes have changed.

Last year’s Southbank show, which was part of the Alchemy festival, ran with a South Asian theme.

Kershi explains the reason for its all female line-up was because “women can sometimes be absent from discussion about South Asian Culture, I deliberately had an all-female line-up, and with handpicked guests who not only had great stories to tell but were also women I consider to be role models and whose work I had admired.

“From Shobu Kapoor who was part of one of the biggest soaps in the past 30 years, “Eastenders” & now “Citizen Khan,” Shyama Perera, who was probably the only Asian presenter I saw on TV growing up, and Juliet Meyers who’s one of the best female comedy writers we have in the UK. All incredible inspiring talented women!”

The show shattered a lot of stereotypes, added Kershi.

“We also had a comedy section with very diverse funny women like Ayesha Hazrika, Isma Almas, Stella Graham and Bas Rahman. The show shattered a lot of stereotypes and was such a great night with the best audience any performer could wish for. I just hope they love this new version as much.”

As the election campaign heats up, some political commentators have cautioned that the framing of the immigration debate could threaten Britain’s multi-faith and multi-ethnic relations. It was reported in The Guardian that “only a quarter of the electorate believes Britain will come through the 2015 election campaign maintaining good community relations, according to a report by British Future, entitled Year of Uncertainty, State of the Nation.”

With confidence remaining low, Kershi remains hopeful that personal stories can help lead the change.

“I know the impact the show already has had, the stories when they resonate with an audience leaves them wanting a place to share their own stories. Audience members hang around after the show wanting to chat to us, tell us their stories. For some, the word ‘immigrant’ takes on a different meaning, they might have just realized that they too have an immigrant heritage. The ‘other’ suddenly becomes someone just like them.

“Most of all I hope the audience leave having been entertained by the ‘Immigrant Diaries’ team and return to watch the show at either the Brighton Fringe during May or the Edinburgh Fringe in August.”

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