Life

Lata Sharma on her comeback after 20 years: 'It's my time now'

In the theatre, timing is everything – but former TV presenter Lata Sharma doesn't mind waiting a little bit longer to relaunch her career in the arts, she tells Gail Bell

Writer, actor and TV presenter Lata Sharma. Picture by Hugh Russell.
Gail Bell

THE exquisite irony is not lost on Lata Sharma that at the time she chooses to make a comeback to theatre... they all close down.

If she were the superstitious sort, this sort of thing might put her off, but the one-time TV presenter, who two decades ago talked herself into a plum job on the Holiday programme with the late Jill Dando, is not that easily deflected from her path of travel.

Anyone who tuned in online to the Lyric's New Speak Re-imagined production at the beginning of the lockdown might have caught an excerpt from her new, one-woman play, Sausage Sodas and Onion Bhajees, but the play in its entirety is yet to have its full reveal on stage.

"I had just finished writing the play when basically the curtain fell on theatres everywhere, so it hasn't had its full outing yet," she says, half-laughing, half-despairing at the desperate timing of it all.

"But, if it has been disappointing for me, it has been devastating for the whole industry; actors, musicians and everyone involved in the arts have been struggling with how to come out of this pandemic and get the soul back into live performance."

While the timing for its debut might have been unscripted, the content of Sausage Sodas and Onion Bhajees, which looks at Sharma's perplexities in attempting to embrace two different cultures while growing up in Northern Ireland, has been almost portentous in terms of its personal recall of racism incidents.

She could not have known, of course, when writing her one-woman show last summer, of how racism would take centre stage itself, due to the tragedy of George Floyd in the US, but the mother-of-three has always been a cultural activist and is passionate about her work as chair with Ards and North Down Intercultural Forum.

Writing about her own experiences, though, has definitely been a new departure, and it took a long period of reflection and introspection – as well as "lots of well-meaning kicks up the backside" for her to take pen to paper and begin an honest, sometimes painful, appraisal of her past and being that – her own words – "little brown face" in the crowd, whether at school, at folk festivals or on the stage.

"I was in a cover band in the 80s and it was pretty much unheard of, in a community like ours, for girls to be doing something like that," she says.

"But, I was lucky that my father loved music and appreciated lots of different styles, so he sent me to a singing teacher where I was taught folk music and classical music from an early age.

"It was very unusual to see a little brown face singing that kind of music in Northern Ireland, but I would have taken part in Irish folk festivals all over the place. Getting into the arts was also not the norm for girls like me, but my father, who came here in the 50s with my mother after an arranged marriage in India, was probably my greatest champion."

Born in Newtownards, Sharma says she experienced various forms of racism outside the happy home life she enjoyed with her parents and five siblings – her brother, Suneil Sharma, went on to make his own mark, helping introduce the Race Relations Act into Northern Ireland – including being spat at and having dog faeces thrown at her as she walked home from school.

On one terrifying occasion, racial slurs were chanted outside the family's front door which was sprayed in bright red paint with the letters NF – National Front.

Racism, though, is a complex issue for Sharma, who says she can easily deal with the blatant thug-type racist who is shown up for exactly the sort of person he or she is, but remains wary of the condescending one who hides behind a "mask of acceptance", cautioning: "They're the ones you have to look out for."

"I was born around the start of the Troubles, so I was learning how to navigate my way through sectarianism, racism and also cultural clashes," recalls the former presenter, who worked on Countryfileas well as the Holiday programme and also had her own programme on Radio 2 for a time.

"I was being very Westernised, but there were still expectations from a cultural point of view and I was not necessarily living up to all of those.

"But, I'm very much a person who will not assume the worst in people and I hate the fact that there are people out there who tar everyone with the same brush. I get very defensive of people who intend no malice but who may innocently say the wrong thing and then others take it completely out of context.

"Sometimes, I think we shut people down and leave them too frightened to express their views at all in case they don't use the 'right' terminology. It scared me when I saw what was happening in England, media-wise, council-wise – the politically correct brigade, as honourable as their intentions were, have taken the dial too far now to the other extreme and I think that's a dangerous and destabilising thing."

Fears of similar boiling pots erupting across her beloved Northern Ireland make her work with the intercultural forum ever more important and as part of a Shared Voices programme she visits schools to speak on diversity issues – always making sure young audiences have the confidence to air personal viewpoints.

"My husband is a local, white guy and we have experienced each other's prejudices against each other but we laugh about them and that is what is so brilliant about living in a free-thinking, free-speaking society like ours," Sharma contends.

"We are not supposed to shut people down – those who do become exactly the sort of people they propose to hate: judgmental, dictatorial and prejudiced."

Her husband is Paul McCarthy, an airline pilot with Jet2 whose industry has also been hugely impacted by the pandemic, so the family-of-five recently found themselves all living under one roof again. As a mum who gave up her high profile career to bring up her children for almost 20 years, Sharma couldn't be happier.

The pair met while in an 80s cover band called Oasis – "it was actually pre the real Oasis," quips Sharma, who left school at 16 to pursue a career on stage following an exhilarating stint with the National Youth Theatre of Great Britain.

She only switched to a career in media after realising (and happily accepting, on the grounds of authenticity) that the majority of roles in Troubles-related plays at the time had no space for a young Northern Ireland girl of Indian heritage.

Now, after 20 years of being a 'stay-at-home' mum, she is eager to return, while still singing in her four-piece rock band, The Lata Sharma Band, with the husband who first encouraged her to "get back out there" again

"I have no regrets," she says.

"Emotionally, I simply couldn't have coped with being away from the children."

When we speak, Sharma has just been filming a short play as part of The Lyric theatre's Splendid Isolation collaboration with BBC Northern Ireland – available now on the iPlayer – "and it's all been great".

"Having children was my choice and my privilege, but it's my time again and I've got to do something. I'm excited to see what that might be."

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