Mrs Sidhu Investigates’ Suk Pannu

A “cozy crime” enthusiast since his youth, Suk Pannu long dreamed of overturning the Miss Marple trope with a spin rooted in his own upbringing: refashioning the amateur female detective as a nosy British Indian auntie. Having worked with Meera Syal on the groundbreaking comedies Goodness Gracious Me and The Kumars at No. 42, Pannu for years hoped he could cast her as his dream character. In 2017, he succeeded when BBC Radio 4 launched Mrs Sidhu Investigates, and now Pannu has brought the idea to television with the Acorn TV original of the same name that premiered this week. Syal portrays a Slough-based caterer with a knack for solving crimes, putting her into comedic conflict with DCI Burton, played by Line of Duty’s Craig Parkinson. TV Drama caught up with Pannu to talk about adapting a radio show for television and the importance of authenticity in the ongoing quest for greater diversity in the media business.

***Image***TV DRAMA: How did the original idea for Mrs Sidhu Investigates as a radio drama for the BBC come about?
PANNU: Slough, if you know anything about it, makes you laugh. It’s the underdog town. It’s this concrete thing that got laid down and immigrants moved into it, and it’s looked down upon in all sorts of ways. It’s also smack bang in the most expensive real estate in Britain. It’s a few miles from Windsor Castle. It’s down the road from Eton College—all of our prime ministers were educated there. It’s almost like somebody did a concrete poop on a golf course, and everyone is tiptoeing around the finely manicured lawn surrounding it. The way I grew up, we were brought up by our parents, but we were also brought up by our aunties; this distributed parenting. These aunties were incredible parents; full of love and discipline, they provided great food and had this way of working out all your secrets. They knew what you were up to before you did. As I was reading a lot of escapist literature like cozy crime, Miss Marple, I thought, wouldn’t it be great if one of these women was Slough’s answer to Miss Marple? Fast forward a million years—I won’t give you the full Asian sob story!—I got into writing, I wrote some comedy, I got to work with Meera Syal [on Goodness Gracious Me] and thought, wouldn’t it be great to do something else with her? I described it to Meera, and she loved it. Even with a star like that attached, it took many years to realize it as a radio show. We got it away, and it’s only snowballed into more wonderful things since then.

TV DRAMA: I imagine writing for radio is a very different discipline. What was the approach to adapting it for television?
PANNU: There’s a lot of great stuff from radio that doesn’t make it onto television. I feel very privileged and chuffed to have had that. The way it was structured for radio was four half-hours, with one crime across the episodes. It’s really important to get that crime thing right. It’s a murder mystery. It has comedy and great characters, but you have to ensure you have that whodunit and why. In the radio show, she comes in already established with a backstory, which means she’s solved some cases. I said, we have to do something different for telly, so let’s give her an origin story, a first episode where she becomes that. You’re updating the Marple trope. It has to be much more real, especially for television. Radio can be more fantastical. We watch a lot of crime shows; we’re very sophisticated, we know how the police work, so that has to feel more solid. Putting her opposite Craig [Parkinson], who was in Line of Duty, is brilliant. He’s had an excruciating married life, an excruciating divorce and is now living an excruciating single life. Returning to work, having screwed up his last case, he meets the worst woman he wants to meet but probably the woman he needs to meet—his symbiotic other half. I always wanted her to be a super sleuth, right up there with Marple. She has ways of finding out what people are doing. She has all these nephews and nieces, so she’s lived within this culture, finding out people’s secrets. She has a real innate sense of human nature. She observes it and can get into it. She’s charming, has ways of getting under people’s skins and is very annoying, the way aunties are! That package seemed good for television. I wanted 90-minute feature-length episodes. You have time; you can do more. It harkens back to Inspector Morse and all these other great shows. I thought it would be great to do something with the scale of that canvas. It’s hard work because you have to do more; the relationships have to work in different ways; it’s not a traditional procedural show. There’s this whole drama situation that is developed between the characters of the week, as well as [the main characters] finding them and interviewing them. There are the situations she gets into and her ways of charming people into giving up what they know. There are so many layers that go into each episode. It’s a lot of work, but when it comes off, my goodness, is it satisfying.

TV DRAMA: I so appreciated the little details, from her talking to the photos of her deceased parents and husband to having a carrom board at home!
PANNU: There are lots of Easter eggs for my British Asian friends out there. Carrom board is the best one, I think. I fought for that to stay in, and I’m really glad it did.

TV DRAMA: Meera Syal is credited with providing “additional material.” Tell me about working with her to build out the character.
PANNU: You couldn’t ask to work with anyone better. She inhabits that character so naturally, and the way she, Craig and some of the other characters, like her son Tez [played by Gurjeet Singh], play off each other—that combination of characters is so good in the series. It was lovely she could bring things into the writing as well. She brought some of her voice into it.

TV DRAMA: Meera delivered the Alternative MacTaggart this year, discussing the roles she has been typecast into as a British Asian woman. I’m curious to hear your thoughts on how much progress has been made when it comes to diversity and representation in British television.
PANNU: There’s progress—the show wouldn’t be on if there hadn’t been. Growing up, when I had dreamt about this character, I had never seen an Asian female lead character outside of Bollywood. It was an impossible dream. Goodness Gracious Me absolutely transformed that. The Kumars at No. 42 continued that. One of the really important things for me when I wrote this was her agency. Like me, she’s bridging cultures. We grew up in two cultures. I wanted to make sure that she took the wisdom and the hard knocks from her life in Slough outside into the big, glossy, important world, where she could have agency as an Asian character beyond the immigrant story. That is liberating. And it’s subtle. We’re not jumping up and down on it; it’s just there. That it can happen speaks to the progress. I’d love this to be a first, inverting that white savior trope into, well, you have a brown savior. She’s clever, brilliant and a super sleuth, and she can do this. If you do that, you’ve done something just a little bit important with what is a lighthearted show. There are great, strong dramas made about this kind of thing, but if you can do it with a light drama, you can approach it differently and plant the seed differently.