‘I can’t believe someone’s written this’: the Muslim punk sitcom breaking new ground

·7 min read

It is loud when I enter the virtual room. Raucous laughter and excited chatter fill the air, and for a moment I feel like a teacher quieting an unruly class. It is a fitting start, given that I’m here to interview the cast of Channel 4’s new musical comedy, a six-part series following the exploits of an anarchic all-female, all-Muslim punk band setting out to make some noise.

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Beginning life as a “blap” (Channel 4’s term for its roster of comedy shorts, where shows such as GameFace and Stath Lets Flats were born), We Are Lady Parts features several of the original blap actors, including Juliet Motamed as Ayesha, Lady Parts’s sweary drummer, and Anjana Vasan as shy and nerdy PhD student Amina Hussein. Amina is far more interested in finding a husband than developing her secret musical talents (some strict Muslims regard music as forbidden). But Saira sees something special in her, and when the auditions for a new guitarist at the halal butcher prove fruitless, she makes the desperate Amina an offer: join the band in exchange for a date with the suitor of her dreams.

The stakes are high: can an extra guitarist give Lady Parts the edge they need to get out of playing in their bedrooms (and occasionally the halal butcher) and break into the toilet circuit? And can Amina finally catch a break in her pursuit of love? What follows is an exuberant exploration of female self-expression and sisterhood, complete with slapstick dream sequences, surreal puppet outtakes and tongue-in-cheek earworms performed by the cast. (“I’m gonna kill my sister / She stole my eyeliner,” starts one track, before descending into the worryingly catchy chorus of: “It’s an honour killing / It’s an honour killing.”)

“I remember getting the email for the audition,” says actor Sarah Kameela Impey, who plays Lady Parts’s lead singer Saira. “I’d already seen the blap and thought: ‘Wow, I can’t believe someone’s written this; I can’t believe these characters can exist on screen, and I can’t believe I wasn’t seen for the part!’ I knew I had to do everything possible to be seen.”

Joining them on their journey are Faith Omole, as Earth-mother bassist Bisma, in a rare on-screen portrayal of Black family happiness (and an even rarer one as a Black British Muslim), and Lucie Shorthouse, as their veiled and vaping, foul-mouthed manager, Momtaz. The series is loosely based on screenwriter Nida Manzoor’s own life navigating the diverse creative collectives of London. Manzoor and her siblings wrote the show’s songs – a hobby of theirs since childhood – teaching them to the cast who, in true punk fashion, were learning their instruments as they went along.

The cast reckon that their rumbustious series is arriving at just the right moment. “The script felt like kismet,” says Omole, who prior to Lady Parts was largely working on stage, including Shakespeare at the Globe. “The Black Lives Matter movement was happening and I think a lot of people were thinking: ‘Now is the time for new voices to be heard.’”

Vasan, who viewers may recognise from the Riz Ahmed drama Mogul Mowgli, agrees: “Sometimes you get character breakdowns on a script and the description will literally just be ‘Muslim’, as if that explains how you’re supposed to play the character. But here was a script that didn’t do that, and not just with one character but so many.”

Interestingly, few of the cast actually identify as Muslim or have Muslim heritage. Were they nervous about taking on such roles? For Vasan, it was always a question of authenticity. “That starts with the script. I had such a strong connection to Amina’s character, and when me and [Manzoor] spoke about her we ended up talking more about Amina’s relationship to music than her faith. It was very matter-of-fact. Amina wears a headscarf because she’s a Muslim. That’s it. Then we move on to all the other aspects of her personality. This story was safe in [Manzoor’s] hands.”

“Obviously, as an actor you have to be respectful and sensitive to the material,” agrees Shorthouse. She is perhaps best known for her performance as a hijabi character in the drag musical, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie. “But it excites me that there are these roles now, and I hope some day there will be more Muslim actors to play them.”

We Are Lady Parts’s writing is pleasingly knowing. By the end of the first few episodes, a litany of Muslim stereotypes have been poked fun at (“Well, don’t blame me if you run away to Syria and marry a jihadi,” says Amina’s mum, casually). And the “meta” aspect of a show about women finding their voice, written by a woman from a marginalised community, is clear (“Some people might find it offensive,” says Amina, about a Lady Parts song titled Voldermort Under My Headscarf. “Well, fuck people in the eye sockets!” Ayesha retorts, in a line I imagine is straight from Manzoor’s heart).

What is particularly striking is how refreshingly cheerful it all is. The series is reminiscent of the Canadian sitcom Schitt’s Creek and the joy it spread for showing a same-sex couple without the constant terror of homophobia. Will the series explore racism or Islamophobia at all? The cast are keen not to give away any spoilers.

“The show goes to some emotional places, without being heavy handed,” says Vasan, cagily. “Black and brown women just existing will be scrutinised, and that’s before making art. There’s some references to that in the show.”

“What’s really nice about the heavier, emotional moments is that they are everyday moments, and that’s their power,” says Motamed. “The everyday things that break your heart, leave you devastated or hang heavy on you. But you carry on because you’re a woman trying to make everyone happy.”

With its female focus, it is likely We Are Lady Parts will draw comparisons to comedy hits such as Derry Girls and Chewing Gum – but, with its surprisingly catchy and infectious tracks, I can’t help but think of Kurupt FM, the pirate radio station featured in BBC Three’s People Just Do Nothing. KuruptFM went on to play many of the UK’s major music festivals as fans of the show rocked up to hear the music they fell in love with, played by the actors in character. Could the same thing happen for Lady Parts?

“I’d love to get artist passes to all the festivals as Lady Parts, and just walk around,” says Impey. “It’d be a mystery – are they real?”

“My dream is to hear a Lady Parts song in the background when I’m in the shopping centre,” says Omole.

What about nightmares: do they have any fears around the show? “Well this is my first TV gig, so I’m terrified,” says Motamed. She was scouted for by the production team through the soulful electronica she creates as Azadi.mp3. “I pretended to play the drums at the audition. I couldn’t believe I landed it! But all of [the cast and crew] are so supportive of each other. We’re all so proud of this project.”

Here’s my fear: that We Are Lady Parts will be written off as another clunky and forgettable diversity initiative, where shallow representation is used to paper over the cracks of a shoddy show before anyone even watched it. Or that prejudice and our ongoing culture wars mean people simply won’t tune in to a show about Muslim women. All of this would be a crying shame. Because We Are Lady Parts does something that many diverse shows have not: it delivers on the potential of representation. In short, it actually is funny. And not in an “in-joke” way, but in the classic slapstick way of people falling over, and wry observations about the complexities of modern womanhood, as articulated in Bisma’s comic book, Apocalypse Vag.

“That was the biggest pressure, more than playing a rare Muslim role and what that means for people, it was just doing a good job with the material and being funny,” says Vasan. “Because without funny, none of it will matter.”

Another “Yeah!” erupts from the cast. “I swear we don’t always talk in unison like this,” she laughs. But it sure is magic when they do.
We Are Lady Parts begins Thursday, 10pm, Channel 4 with the full series available on All 4