We Are Lady Parts creator Nida Manzoor opens up about new Channel 4 sitcom

·9-min read
Photo credit: Channel 4
Photo credit: Channel 4

There's a lot to love about We Are Lady Parts. From the show's joyful cast to its addictive soundtrack, Channel 4's new sitcom about a Muslim female punk band is essential viewing. And it's also long overdue.

Creator Nida Manzoor has been writing since she was a child — "Anything I wrote, my grandfather would keep it in a file and say 'You’ll be a great writer if you keep practising' — but it wasn't until Channel 4 commissioned the show that Nida was finally able to bring her story to life on screen, all these years later.

And of course, We Are Lady Parts is also overdue on a much wider scale too. "There’s no one cookie-cutter way of being a Muslim woman," says Nida, but you wouldn't necessarily know that just from watching British TV. And that's just one of the many reasons why we love this show. "There’s such a variety of ways of being," and We Are Lady Parts proves this in the most brilliantly brash and punk way possible.

Photo credit: Instagram
Photo credit: Instagram

Digital Spy caught up with Nida Manzoor to discuss the joy of We Are Lady Parts and why mixed reactions to the show have been "quite freeing."

This ensemble is phenomenal. How was the casting process and how did you find the band?

It was quite an extensive process. My casting director, Aisha Bywaters, was amazing. Because, as you said, it’s an ensemble piece, so we had chemistry reads. We wanted to see if the energies were right in the group, as well as can these actors land the comedy? The show lives or dies on: is it funny? Can they land the jokes? As well as the music.

There was a musical element to the audition. They would work with my brother, who taught all the actors the instruments for a quick session, to see if they could pick it up, and, for me, to see if they could be punk. One of the things I found hard with very well trained actors was that they couldn’t sing badly or punk it up. Authenticity as a punk bad was also something I was looking for.

I felt so, so lucky to find the cast that we did. They were so great in all aspects. And Anjana at the heart of it, playing Amina, she came on board quite early on. She can do everything from big comedy to nuanced, funny eye movements, to very emotional drama – as you’ll see across the show. So she was in place. The others kind of came along around her, very organically.

Anjana is such a star in this already.

I’m so scared I won’t be able to afford her in anything ever again [laughs].

Why did you choose to tell this story as a comedy rather than a drama?

Growing up, comedies were the things that resonated the most, especially with the storytelling I was seeing. I liked it when I was invited to laugh as well as engage with characters and think about themes.

Photo credit: Channel 4
Photo credit: Channel 4

I think it's where I naturally live as a comedy writer. I remember, in my early days as a screenwriter, I had to write a test episode. I was like, "Oh, can I write some EastEnders?" So I did an episode and I ended up writing a comedy. I was like, “I can’t get this tone! I keep making jokes!”

So it’s very much in my DNA as a writer, to want to use comedy. And also, I felt that Muslim women – brown and black women – have often been shown in quite a serious light, or just something quite solemn, especially with Muslim women and how they’re portrayed as oppressed and victims,

My experience, and my friends', is that of joy and fun and silliness. I just really wanted to bring that into it.

As the show is somewhat autobiographical, did you find it cathartic to write about your experiences? And were there any that you found particularly difficult to share?

That’s such a good question. But yes to both [laughs]. I found it a very cathartic experience, and it was kind of mind-boggling to think that this was my job, to almost have therapy with myself, and put my own fears and anxieties into my characters. It was really cathartic.

What I wanted to do was show that you can have multiple ways of being. There’s no one cookie-cutter way of being a Muslim woman. There’s such a variety of ways of being.

Sometimes, growing up, I felt like, I couldn’t show all of myself, you know? With certain friends, I had to show that I was studious and good, and with other friends, I could be me a bit more. In creating the band Lady Parts, I wanted to show this group of women who all have love for each other and their differences. And there isn’t that judgement and shame that sometimes you can feel when you’re not behaving appropriately, or in what is deemed a respectable manner.

The shame is so debilitating. Writing the show, I was able to look at that, and explore that through my characters.

We Are Lady Parts tackles these very real issues but then also breaks form occasionally with scenes like that Casablanca throwback in episode one. Can you talk us through the reasoning behind that, and why these breaks from reality are so important for the show?

I just really loved Amina being this very imaginative, kind of silly character. It allowed me to be silly a lot, which I always want to do if I have an opportunity.

Photo credit: Channel 4
Photo credit: Channel 4

It allowed me to reference movies and TV shows that I’ve loved. I’m one of those people that, if I love something, I’m like, "Can I steal it? Or pay homage to Brief Encounter or a Coen brothers moment?" It was just something I really enjoyed.

The music is also integral to this show, so can you tell us more about the songwriting process?

I wrote all the music with my siblings, with my younger brother and my sister and my brother-in-law. We’ve just been making music since I was quite young, me and my siblings. I would come up with the lyric, and my sister would be like, "Oh my God, how about this?" My brother would jump on the guitar, and I’d jump on the guitar.

It was like what we did as kids, when my parents would be going, "Have you done your homework?" Now we can be like, "We’re doing it, and we’re getting paid." Which was really fun.

Music was my first passion. I wanted to be a brown girl Bob Dylan before I wanted to do screenwriting. So I can still live my kind of songwriter dream in the show as well [laughs].

Was it tough to get We Are Lady Parts made? We read before that you've experienced a mixed reaction to the show and some of its themes.

I was really lucky because when I wrote the pitch for it, I shopped that around to find the right people. And when Surian Fletcher-Jones came on board at Working Title, she totally bought into it, and believed in it. Channel 4 were like, "yes," and were totally behind me.

The mixed reaction, in a way, it was quite freeing, because it really made me realise – which we should all realise – that I’m just one voice, and I can only speak for my particular truth. There are so many different ways of being. It just enabled me to really zero in on what I wanted to say.

Because when you can’t please everyone, it allows you to really think, "OK, what is it that I have to say? What do I want to say? What means something to me?" So in a way, for the show, it really kind of empowered me to just do my thing.

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What are your thoughts on Muslim representation in TV and film right now? And what can the industry do to improve things further?

I feel like I’m in a quite exciting time with new voices breaking through. I’ve just been so inspired by so many different artists and creatives coming through who I hadn’t seen growing up, who have really… for me, it’s been like, "Oh, wow." It feels like this space is opening.

Michaela Coel has always been someone who’s been very kind and supportive of me, and someone I’ve looked to as a comedy performer whose work is really inspiring. With shows that are exploring Muslim identity by using comedy, there’s Man Like Mobeen, which I think is really fun. I think that Guz Khan is just the most charming comedy presence ever. And Ramy Youssef’s show, Ramy, in the States.

It feels like a really important time to be opening up. I just hope it keeps opening, and there’s more voices to add richness to the landscape.

What message do you hope people take away from We Are Lady Parts?

There are different ways of being, and a myriad of elements that you have in your personality. I feel like today, we’re getting more and more polarised as a society. That’s why we wanted to show these characters for their nuances and who they are.

They aren’t just "us and them". They’re full of joy, but they have sorrow, and they have pain. It’s trying to create characters that have complexity. Although they may still identify as Muslim women, they are different.

It’s just a snapshot to show different ways of being, and hopefully the joyfulness of it will be something that can lend itself to showing that they contain multitudes. They aren’t just one thing.

We Are Lady Parts airs Thursday nights at 10pm on Channel 4.

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