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Meera Syal's Trailblazing Voice and Beyond: A Recap of Edinburgh TV Festival by Georgia-May Guilmard

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Meera Syal - “I think in the casting, things really are changing and that’s fantastic for all of us but I’m worried that it’s window dressing when things aren’t changing fundamentally in the power structures.”

Woman with dark hair & black eyeliner leaning on her hand
Portrait of Meera Syal

The annual Edinburgh TV Festival is a vibrant hub in the television industry, where creativity and innovation thrive. Bringing together over 2,000 industry professionals from around the world, it's a fantastic chance to dive into the dynamic world of television. As a recent master's graduate and an aspiring independent filmmaker, I'm thrilled to have embarked on an exciting internship with Mor Media and the Cornwall Film Festival. Eager to immerse myself in all aspects of the screen industries, I couldn't resist the opportunity to be part of the Edinburgh TV Festival.

In this article, I delve into the highlights of the 2023 Edinburgh TV Festival. I discuss thought-provoking panels, eye-opening masterclasses, and the industry's ongoing quest for authenticity and diversity. As a newcomer to this world, my approach was marked by candour and a desire to dive right in, eager to absorb all that the Edinburgh TV Festival had to offer.

Starting with the panel that explored the concept of "Not So Guilty Pleasures: Does TV Have A Snobbery Problem?". This session attempted to delve into the world of TV guilty pleasures, examining the impact of labels like "guilty pleasure" and "trash TV" on commissioning and their potential connection to wider issues of classism in television. It celebrated shows often stigmatised, emphasising the skill behind their creation and the joy they bring to viewers.

What stood out to me was the composition of the panel itself – primarily composed of middle-class commissioners. These individuals had every reason to be proud of their successful programs, which had achieved notable acclaim and success. Yet, it struck me that their discussions were predominantly centred around the creative aspects of their shows, highlighting the meticulous craftsmanship that went into creating top-tier content. This raised a thought-provoking question: how could these meticulously crafted programs, objectively of high quality, be relegated to the category of "trash TV"?

Intrigued by this paradox, I seized the opportunity during the Q&A session to pose a question that had been brewing in my mind: "Is it possible that when we label certain TV as 'trash,' we are not actually critiquing the quality of the content itself, but rather passing judgement on the viewers who are associated with it? Could it be a subtle way of stigmatising and degrading the working class?"

To my surprise, the presenter and host of the panel, Rick Edwards, responded with a resounding "YES." His candid agreement with my query hinted at a deeper layer of social commentary within the industry. However, it quickly became apparent that this was a sensitive and potentially divisive topic. The other panellists, skilled in navigating such discussions, adeptly redirected the conversation, avoiding a more in-depth exploration of the issue. This moment served as a stark reminder of the complex interplay between television, societal perceptions, and the ever-present issue of classism. It left me pondering the broader implications of such judgments in the realm of entertainment and the role of television in reinforcing or challenging existing biases.

Hosted by Executive Producer Leon Campbell, C4 Commissioner Ian Dunkley, and featuring the lively cast members Baasit & Sid Siddiqui and Pete & Sophie Sandiford, “Gogglebox: The First Ten Years” provided a captivating behind-the-scenes look at the enduring success of Gogglebox. The session exhibited the show's casting, filming, and editing intricacies.

This session stood out as a personal favourite, illustrating what television can achieve when it's crafted with unwavering passion and dedication. Ian Dunkley, Channel 4's commissioning editor, and Leon Campbell, executive producer at Studio Lambert, celebrated the show's authenticity. They allowed Gogglebox's stars to share their experiences and perspectives without interference.

This dedication ensures that Gogglebox remains a show that authentically allows individuals from diverse backgrounds to represent themselves.

Notably, the Siddiqui family's pride in representing their South Asian community with sincerity was palpable. Their genuine enthusiasm for being themselves and

A tall man in a check shirt stands next to a woman and older man
Georgia May with the Googlebox Siddiqui family

their community's unwavering support underscored the show's profound impact. Gogglebox serves as a refreshing departure from the norm, emphasising the importance of diverse representation in reshaping how television influences our perceptions. Instead of portraying people as mere objects of morbid entertainment, the show presents them as genuine reflections of reality, offering viewers comfort and joy.

This masterclass emphasised that television, when infused with passion and authenticity, has the power to foster empathy, understanding, and a sense of belonging, uniting us in celebration of our shared humanity.

Finally, in the realm of television, there are moments that stand out as truly transformative, and one such moment unfolded at the annual Alternative MacTaggart session. Launched in 1997, this session has consistently served as a platform for industry leaders to provoke insightful debates from diverse viewpoints. This year, the spotlight shone on Meera Syal CBE, a powerhouse in the world of entertainment – an actress, writer, and comedian whose career has traversed multifaceted landscapes.

Meera Syal's recent recognition with the prestigious BAFTA Fellowship at the BAFTA Television Awards speaks volumes about her profound impact on the industry. In her conversation with Festival Executive Chair Fatima Salaria, she embarked on a journey through the highs and lows of being a trailblazing British Asian woman in film and television. However, her discussion transcended personal anecdotes; it delved into the very essence of representation and the amplification of voices that often go unheard.

For many, including myself, this session emerged as an unequivocal favourite. Meera Syal possesses a storytelling prowess that lingers long after the session concluded. As an Asian woman, it was an honour to witness two remarkable women, Syal and Salaria, who mirror my own experiences, dominating the industry. Meera Syal approached the discourse on television with unwavering dedication, confronting the changes that the industry so desperately needs. She passionately emphasised that genuine representation on screen necessitates creators who deeply resonate with, and authentically represent, the stories they seek to share. She says, “I think in the casting, things really are changing and that’s fantastic for all of us but I’m worried that it’s window dressing when things aren’t changing fundamentally in the power structures.”

The progress towards increased diversity and inclusion within the industry is undeniable, with marginalised voices finding more acceptance than ever before. However, the aspiration is not to only secure positions as diversity hires in entry-level roles. Instead, the goal is to ascend the ranks, ensuring that our stories are not just heard but also elevated. Meera Syal's presence and advocacy inherently challenge the status quo.

Woman in a green jacket tapping her forehead
Pearlena Igbokwe, Chairperson at Universal Studios

Meera's pioneering work has rewritten the narrative of South Asian representation on television. South Asians have emerged as fully fleshed-out characters, capable of humour without being reduced to stereotypes, capable of engaging in serious dramatic roles without falling into tokenism, and capable of challenging societal norms by blending their British and Asian identities into narratives uniquely their own. This paradigm shift is equally essential for individuals of all ethnic backgrounds. Figures like Pearlena Igbokwe, Chairperson at Universal Studios, echo this sentiment by challenging the conventions of black representation in the shows she commissions, moving beyond narratives rooted solely in trauma to encompass stories infused with warmth.

The impact and influence of individuals like Meera Syal, Fatima Salaria, and Pearlena Igbokwe cannot be overstated. They understand the transformative power of television, a medium that enters people's living rooms and moulds their perceptions of the world.

Although much change remains to be seen, these women recognize their unique ability to drive the change they wish to see, making strides toward a more inclusive and representative future in the world of television.

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