In 2017, Oscar-nominated “Sound of Metal” actor Riz Ahmed gave a rousing speech to the House of Commons warning that the U.K. could lose its Muslim youth to extremism unless they see themselves represented on screen as something other than problematic stereotypes. “We are going to start losing British teenagers to the story that the next chapter in their lives is written with ISIS in Syria,” said Ahmed in the now iconic speech.
Just a year later, the BBC’s Richard Madden-fronted “Bodyguard,” from “Line of Duty” creator Jed Mercurio, became the hottest U.K. export since “Downton Abbey,” scoring a major deal with Netflix that opened the show to a global audience. But underpinning this British success story was a key Muslim female character who, portrayed initially as a victim, turned out to be a terrorist herself.
This confused run of hits and misses have come to define Muslim representation on British television, but in Nida Manzoor’s new comedy, “We Are Lady Parts,” which tells the story of an all-female Muslim punk band in London, many observe a watershed moment for representation from which there’s no turning back. Manzoor, who directed episodes of “Doctor Who” and “Enterprice” before penning “We Are Lady Parts,” created the series with her siblings, drawing from their own personal experiences.
The Working Title-produced comedy, which began life as a 2018 pilot through U.K. broadcaster Channel 4’s “Blaps” comedy program, is centered on Amina Hussain, a nerdy microbiology PhD student and secret guitar legend who’s on the hunt for a husband when she’s reluctantly recruited into a band called Lady Parts as their lead guitarist. Despite herself, the Don McLean superfan is swept up in the band’s joyful, anarchic energy and punk spirit, and must eventually choose between two starkly different worlds.
The co-production between Channel 4 and NBCUniversal-backed streaming player Peacock launched last month in the U.K. and debuted Thursday in the U.S. (A soundtrack has also been released.) Critics on both sides of the pond have heralded the show as daringly original, with the show’s feminism drawing comparisons to the BBC’s “Fleabag” while its nuanced portrayal of Islam has been likened to Hulu’s “Ramy.”
Variety caught up with Manzoor to discuss the show’s origins (and critics) on Channel 4, why diversity isn’t “zeitgeisty” and whether Lady Parts may ever duet with The Linda Lindas.
What do you make of where we’re at with Muslim representation on British television at the moment?
Interestingly, most of my inspiration for even making the show wasn’t necessarily from television; it was from women I was coming across in different sorts of art collectives or poetry readings, or musicians who were expressing the fullness of their identities in those creative spaces. It was really interesting that it was the women who weren’t actually on TV that I wanted to represent and show on TV. Oftentimes, I haven’t been so thrilled with the representation on TV of Muslim women as oppressed and lacking agency, and often lacking joy and humor. For me, the kind of writer I am, I write comedy — that’s my natural space — so I really wanted to lend that thing that I do to the group of people that I really care about representing.
Are you into punk yourself? Where did that element of the story come from?
Music was massive in my household. My dad got me a guitar when I was eight years old so playing guitar and being a musician was part of my identity really early on: making music was my first passion, I think. But I wasn’t really punk; I was much more like Amina, the lead character, who’s into, very specifically, 1960s American folk music. Paul Simon was my hero — I was obsessed. My older sister was much more punk and grunge and she was into that American punk pop scene, with New Found Glory and Green Day and stuff. That was also an influence on me. When I was conceiving the idea for the show, I really wanted it to be music and comedy because I wanted to write the songs with my siblings; I wanted to just have fun.
Thinking of some of the song titles, like “Bashir With The Good Beard” and “Ain’t No One Gonna Honour Kill My Sister But Me,” have you received pushback from the Muslim community at all, either with the pilot or the series?
When we made the pilot, there were some people who didn’t love it, whereas others really loved it. One of the things I realized when I was going into making the show was that I can only speak from my truth and represent the women I know. In a way, having that slightly mixed feedback, of getting messages from people saying, ‘Oh my God, I feel so seen’ while others didn’t, it’s made me realize that I couldn’t possibly represent everyone, and what I have found so much joy in doing is speaking my own truth and connecting with the people who this does speak to.
Is there anything you think people might misconceive about the show, without having watched it?
I don’t worry because I feel like, if they watch the whole show, everything that I wanted to talk about is kind of within the episodes. It was created from a place of love and joy, so there’s nothing I’m excessively worried about. I’m just really excited that I get to make art. It feels like if I was trying to make the show a few years ago, I’m not sure if it would have gone this way. It’s such an exciting time to hear different voices taking up space and I just really hope that more voices from marginalized communities come in and play with all the genres.
Why was Channel 4, home of shows like “Chewing Gum” and “Catastrophe,” the right home for this concept initially?
I had a very clear idea for what I wanted the show to be. I created a pretty dense pitch document that had character breakdowns, tone and visual references. Before going to Channel 4, I took that pitch around to different production companies, and it was really Surian Fletcher-Jones at Working Title who chimed with it. I used that pitch document to see who would be a good partner, because, oftentimes, people wanted me to make it more of a drama or change characters, so it was a good tool to find the right company. Channel 4 felt like the right home given the kinds of comedies they had out. It was a really exciting chat about what the show could be. I’d already written a song with my sisters, and we played them a song and did a whole pitch, but they came on board quite fast.
How much input did Peacock have creatively?
Peacock came on board after we’d done the pilot, around when Channel 4 went for a series. They came on board pretty early and have worked on it the whole way through, from the scripts to the edit. I’ve never worked with American partners before, so I was like, ‘Oh no, there might be cultural differences,’ but actually there was a very supportive and generous environment.
What do you make of the opportunities offered to writers and creatives of color in the U.K. at the moment? There have been a lot of promises in the last year to install schemes and get more POC in the door. Will it pay off?
I think it’s still too early to say if this change is going to be lasting. I would hate for writers who are coming through to be rushed into things. Everyone’s crying out for diversity, but I feel there needs to be a place to be nurtured and work out what you want to say and how you want to say it, rather than being pushed through and almost being set up to fail a little bit. I’m looking to see how the mentoring the nurturing aspect of these schemes play out. I’m just really, really hoping that it isn’t something that’s of the moment, and will just be a fad. I remember someone told me, ‘Oh, you’re really zeitgeisty right now,’ and even though that’s a compliment in a way, it means of a moment, and you kind of want to be like, ‘No, I want to be like [Martin Scorsese] and be into my 70s and keep making stuff.’
What’s the word on season 2?
Nothing as of yet. I think we’re still waiting to see how it how it plays out, but I have lots of ideas so we’ll see.
Are you aware of all-girl Asian-American and Latinx punk rock band The Linda Lindas, who blew up recently for their song “Racist, Sexist Boy”?
Oh, my God, yes! People have been sending me these videos of these girls. They’re amazing. I would love for Lady Parts to play a gig with them.
Do they know of the show?
I don’t know if they’re aware of us, but certainly on our WhatsApp groups with all the actors, those videos are being shared and everyone’s really excited about them.