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I TALK TO Guz Khan

Last week I caught up with Guz Khan after binge-watching the entire series (which I loved) to find out more about his new BBC Three sitcom Man Like Mobeen.

For years, Guz Khan was a school teacher but he's now a full-time comedian who after a successful pilot last year, has been given a full series of Man Like Mobeen on BBC Three.

Throughout the four episodes, you are welcomed into the life of Mobeen Deen, a 28 year-old from Small Heath in Birmingham played by Guz Khan. All Mobeen wants to do is follow his faith, lead a good life, and make sure his younger sister fulfils her potential. But can he juggle these when his criminal past and reputation is always chasing him?

Man Like Mobeen started off as a pilot which aired on BBC Three. What was that process like and how have things evolved?

I remember when we were making the pilot, I was still at school (working as a teacher) so my mindset was still fully invested in what I was doing. So by the time we'd made the pilot, I said to myself "This is really not what I want to make." And to be totally fair, Gill Isles who's the producer on this show totally got it and said "OK, let's sit down, let's conceptualise. If we go again. What would this show look like? What show do you want to make?"

That's really how it came to be. The pilot was in very generic sitcom land, whereas Man Like Mobeen has a specific flavour. I think it keeps it real.

Your two best friends are played by Tez Ilyas and Tolu Ogunmefun. Talk to me about that casting.

Tez is someone I met very early on and we just clicked. He's a lad from the rough part of Blackburn so there's lots that we had in common. The more of him doing standup, the more impressed I was with him so I knew from scratch that Tez would be the guy to bring a brilliant vibe to the role. His stand-up is very assured, very politicised and this is a different role for him.

Tolu is someone I'd always respected from his social media and for me that was important as well. I'm not theatrically trained, I was kicked out of drama when I was a kid at school so by no stretch of the imagination do I consider myself an actor. Tolu just turned the phone onto himself and created a huge fanbase which I really respect.

When you have fun working with the people you work with, that should come across on screen so hopefully you can see that in Man Like Mobeen.

Definitely. Did it take long to get that chemistry right?

Having good vibes on set is really really important. It helps that we've all been through the experiences that these characters have been through in one way or another. We can understand the things they're going through. So it just made things very easy from day one.

How similar is Mobeen to yourself?

He's a creation of things I've either experienced or people close to me in my friendship circle have experienced. I think that's really important. When I've seen other sitcoms involving characters from these specific areas, they felt like they were charicatures as opposed to reliving real-life experiences.

I wanted to show the reality of life in the ends really. It can be crazy one minute and totally mundane the next so I really wanted to put that balance into the series. Things that I've experienced in my own life, but also my friends as well.

How important was Birmingham as a location for Man Like Mobeen?

For me, what really got to me in the last 18 months/two years, Small Heath, Sparkhill, these places in Birmingham have all been surrounded by negative press. The media have said that these are areas filled with terrorists and the truth is that these areas are so diverse.

They are full of people who are different demographics, different religious backgrounds. They're just such diverse migrant areas and hopefully we've brought that flavour to it.

Keeping it real and telling the truth, but hopefully we've brought that vibe to the screen. I want people to see that these are areas that have got a lot to offer.

So are you trying to paint a lighter more positive portrayal of Birmingham?

Yes, but sometimes you can do that and sugarcoat things. With Mobeen as the central character, he has got a chequered past so it's fine to say it's a great place to be but you have to get involved with that. These are areas where some people might not live their life like that, but similarly there are people who do live these lifestyles, so telling the truth was really important.

How much of Mobeen's back story did you think up before writing the episodes?

A lot of his back story I wanted to keep ambiguous. I wanted the viewers to be thrown into his world and that's very much reflective of if you were to meet Mobeen and he's got ammunition and he's selling drugs - you get this perception of him.

The interesting thing for me was that Mobeen has been in the prison system but has come out and tried to change things. It's still a time that you can never really leave behind. You can do your best, but sometimes you can't leave the past behind.

Hopefully when people watch it, they can see this guy who doesn't really look like he'd be capable of some of the things he's done. But that's the reality of life. People change, people move on and just as easily as you get out of things, you can be drawn back in to them.

What's Mobeen's home setup like? He lives alone with his younger sister...

Yeah. Again, I've left that ambiguous. In the second episode you learn that his mum and dad have split up when he was very young. His mum's gone to a foreign country and left her teenage daughter with Mobeen - but how bad were things when they were all together if that's the decision that was made?

Racial profiling, arranged marriage, euthanasia - these aren't your typical comedy topics. How important was it to make light of these serious social issues?

For me I was just thinking about my own personal experiences. We didn't want to generalise in any way. Mobeen is a specific character with a specific type. What's nice is that Tez's character Eight, gets drawn into this as a by-product of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

There's a character in the series who's a police officer, played by Salman Akhtar, who actually went to school with Mobeen and Eight. In that moment it's always something funny I've thought of. If I were to get caught by the old bill and it was someone I'd been to school with, who absolutely I used to get on with - what would that dynamic be like in that situation.

So there's a humour in that. But also, would they get carried away? Would they act professional? I think it was important for us to showcase that in a very volatile situation, these three lads that were at school together, can by default very quickly fall straight back into how they once were.

How does the writing process work between yourself and Andy Milligan?

When me and Andy are in a room together, we work quite quickly and some of our best ideas come out. Of course we send things back and forth over email, and get a script written quite quickly. But it would take us to sit down, refine and discuss to make sure that we're alluding to the central themes that we wanted to explore throughout the series.

It was a process that I really enjoyed. Andy is so talented. For the last decade he's produced some of the best material for Ant & Dec which at face value I'd think "That's not necessarily my thing" - but when you're creating a character with so much culture it's so important to have him as part of that process. He's just got it.

The credits mention that additional material is written by the cast. Are you fairly flexible with your script then?

Absolutely. Anything that I've worked on in the couple of years that I've been doing this, I'd always add to a script and I was told early on that you shouldn't do that. But if it makes something better, if it makes it funnier, it's something I embrace.

I would never put limits on any cast members if they had something to add. It can often make the show so much better.

You've appeared in series like Zapped and Borderline. So you've always played characters in other people's sitcoms. What's the difference been like now writing your own series and your own character?

I feel a huge responsibility. As you said, when you go and do somebody else's project, it's very different to the responsibility you feel when you create something yourself.

The ball is in your court. I as a writer and performer have the opportunity to pretty much do what I like, so with that responsibility I just wanted to give these characters a fair shape and make them very different to what we've seen on TV before.

Where do you stand on diversity in television?

I was discussing this with a mate yesterday and I think the most important thing is if I as a performer continue on the track that I'm on. If I'm the guy still telling these kind of stories in five years time, there's a fallacy, because in five years time I would have moved on as a person. I would have had different experiences.

I think the key to the industry constantly looking for diversity is top open up the gates, put people who are new, who are raw on television. And then you'll get stories that are different. You'll get people who bring something new.

If I think about the guy that I was two years ago compared to the person that I am now, just as a stand-up, I'm talking about different things. I'm a different person on stage. If I'm occupying the same space that I am now in five years time, I'm stopping someone else from coming through. I'm stopping new ideas from coming through. I think that's something that the industry as a whole needs tone responsible for, but also as performers and individuals, we need to keep an eye on that.

Did you find it difficult to enter the industry?

It's something that is still surreal to me. I'm still that guy living in the same area, in the same house, with the same family and friends, so for me I haven't really thought about it too much. I've just known that I've got something to say and I know how to make people laugh.

I've not personally struggled, but the one thing that I would say, is that if I hadn't written Man Like Mobeen with more dramatic tones and more serious emotions, I'm not entirely sure I would have been given that opportunity anytime soon to do that. That's something that was conscious in my mind.

Without writing the character of Mobeen I don't think I would have been able to explore that depth as opposed to just turn up and be funny. It's something that I felt I had to write myself. From that perspective, I think it's important.

In general, everyone's been very welcoming and respectful of my own mindset and what I want to do.

I felt a bit short-changed by four episodes. Do you have ideas for more?

Yeah. In terms of the whole arc of what I'd like to happen, Man Like Mobeen is in no ways a fairytale sitcom where everything works out. So in my mind I've already got a way in which it would finish and I think the important thing is to create an arc that is good and people enjoy but also I want to create something that people can look back on and go "Oh yeah, I remember that show." and have fond memories as opposed to stretching it out.

Do you have a favourite scene in the series that we should look out for?

There's a few. But there's an arranged marriage scene with the legend that is Mark Silcox which I couldn't hold my laughter back filming it. It was just showing these characters in this situation in a way that I don't think people would have seen before. That was a particular favourite of mine.

What's next for you?

I did a Live at the Apollo, which is coming out on Boxing Day I think. So I'm just continuing to hone my craft, become more confident on stage but most importantly continue to be myself. It's served me really well so far so I don't want to be pretending to be anyone I'm not.

So if you see man with Dolce & Gabbana loafers on, give man a slap because that's not me bro! (Laughs)

Man Like Mobeen will be available Sunday 17th December from 10am on BBC Three


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