Catering for demand

Catering for demand

By Michael Pickard
September 15, 2023


Mrs Sidhu Investigates introduces Meera Syal’s high-end caterer with a side gig in solving crimes. Creator and writer Suk Pannu tells DQ how he brought the radio drama to Acorn TV and why cosy murder mysteries are back in fashion.

When writer Suk Pannu first pitched his idea for a “cosy” murder-mystery series featuring an enigmatic lead character, TV commissioners weren’t buying. At a time when grittier police series were in demand, there seemed to be no room in the television schedules for a drama about a high-end caterer with a taste for solving crimes.

Mrs Sidhu Investigates eventually found a home as an audio drama on BBC Radio 4, with Meera Syal voicing the lead character.

Several years later, at a time when traditional murder mysteries are back in vogue thanks to the big-screen success of Knives Out and series such as Poker Face and Only Murders in the Building, Mrs Sidhu is about to make her television debut on Acorn TV.

Syal reprises her role as the title character in the series, which is also called Mrs Sidhu Investigates. Its four feature-length episodes follow the widow as she juggles her new catering business with encouraging her wayward son Tez (Gurjeet Singh) to find his passion, all while chasing down those who believe they are above the law.

Suk Pannu

Mrs Sidhu’s fascination with solving crimes leads her to build an unofficial partnership with long-suffering DCI Burton (Line of Duty’s Craig Parkinson), who reluctantly comes to accept they are a formidable crime-fighting duo, much to the bemusement of his partner, DS Mint (Naana Agyei-Ampadu).

Episode one sees Mrs Sidhu trying to defend her niece from allegations of murder after two bodies are discovered at an exclusive gym, bringing her into contact with Burton and Mint for the first time. Other storylines include the death of a TV actor, the case of a top CEO who is found strangled just as he is about to sell his company, and the kidnapping of an up-and-coming boxer.

“These things do come in cycles,” Pannu says of being courted by the same TV commissioners who turned down Mrs Sidhu several years ago. “It just developed into a radio show, and then I was having meetings with people who suddenly go, ‘Oh, yeah, we’d like to actually do that now. We didn’t want to do that six years ago,’ which is what happens in commissioning. But the best thing about me is I’m a goldfish, so I forget rejection. I was just able to imagine it being a TV show and I was lucky to be with the right people at the right time.”

Mrs Sidhu Investigates follows in the footsteps of another BBC radio drama that recently made the jump to television, Annika. Starring Nicola Walker, that show is based on a Radio 4 series about a detective working for Glasgow’s Marine Homicide Unit and has run for two seasons on UKTV’s Alibi.

Transferring the radio drama to television, Pannu found he needed to revisit Mrs Singh’s crime-fighting origins to better establish the world of the series, which is set in Slough, Berkshire – the same British town where Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s The Office is based.

The idea of a murder in a glossy gym, in an affluent part of town, then became the perfect way to introduce the character and the juxtaposition of the world in which she lives and the seemingly murky worlds she enters through her catering business.

“It just felt like a really good way of reinventing that Miss Marple trope with an Asian woman who’s come from Slough,” Pannu says. “And Slough is the underdog, right? But it’s nestling among the most expensive real estate in Britain. It’s a few miles from Windsor Castle. It’s a stone’s throw from Eton College, Marlow, the River Thames. You’ve got all this lush countryside, so it’s like a concrete thing in the middle of this well-trimmed golf course. I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be fantastic for someone from there to go out and solve these high-stakes, glossy-world problems?’”

Meera Syal stars in Mrs Sidhu Investigates, reprising the role she played in the radio show

Pannu is no stranger to television, nor working with Syal. He previously collaborated with the actor on BBC comedy sketch show Goodness Gracious Me and chatshow spoof The Kumars at No 42.

“But for my sins, I pitched this as feature-length, 90-minute episodes, so the challenge was having to write something three times as long as anything I’d ever written before,” he says. The other demand of the TV series was turning an audio show into something more visual, where viewers would understand what was going on without the need for exposition or the moments where Mrs Sidhu speaks directly to the listeners on Radio 4.

“In that sense, there was also the challenge in making something that looked a little more real, because the radio show could work at a slightly more fantastical level,” he continues. “We’re so familiar with police work now, having her alongside a policeman had to feel much more grounded. Burton’s got to be much more of a real cop with all the police tape and forensic stuff going on, and yet balancing that would be her as an amateur sleuth. That was probably the challenge of the show, and that works so well because of the chemistry between Meera and Craig.”

While Mrs Sidhu is “loveable and annoying,” Burton is facing personal and professional challenges after going through an excruciating divorce and is desperately trying to get his career back on track. “So in episode one, he comes up against the worst and best person he needs to come up against in the world, which is this amateur woman defending her niece to the absolute death,” Pannu says. “Because of her backstory – she has a cop dad who died a hero when she was young – it’s an unfulfilled corner of her life, so across the series we see that relationship build [with Burton] and her coming into it more naturally as well.”

Mrs Sidhu is described as an “Indian aunty,” someone who is invisible to the elite and has spent a lifetime sharpening her skills as an investigator – a woman with an instinct for truth, a warmth with people and a persistent sense of nosiness.

Caterer Mrs Sidhu forms an unlikely but effective crime-solving duo with Craig Parkinson’s DCI Burton

Her origins can be found in Pannu’s own upbringing, living in and around Slough himself near the M4 motorway on the outskirts of West London and part of an immigrant community where he was raised not only by his parents but by his own “aunties.”

“They were amazing women who were full of love and made great food, but they also knew how to wheedle out your secrets,” the writer says. “They knew what you were up to before you did yourself most of the time. So I thought one day, ‘Wouldn’t it be great for a person like that to be an amateur sleuth?’

“When I was growing up, you barely saw Asian lead characters on TV, so it was a pipe dream this would happen. Fast-forward many years, I get to work with Meera. I was thinking, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to do something with her?’ and this character pops back up, and she loved it from the off. It took many years to get this off the ground, but whatever luck we had we needed. Having her involved has always been great for us.”

As well as starring in the series – produced by Monumental Television, Absolutely Productions and Acorn Media Enterprises – Syal is also credited as an executive producer and provided additional material for the scripts, two of which were written by Pannu and two by Vivienne Harvey. Steve Barron directs the first two episodes, with Ben Kellett shooting the second pair.

“As an actor, she’s fully committed to it and she inhabits it so well,” Pannu says of Syal. “So it felt natural for me to go to her to and say, ‘Why don’t you find some of her voice in the scripts as well? Have a look at this and see if you can add to it.’ And it’s been a huge bonus.”

The show debuts on Acorn TV next week

Pannu and Harvey would have meetings about potential ideas for the series, before splitting up to pen an outline. But developing the drama during the Covid pandemic meant most of their time together was spent on Zoom.

“We’ve got used to doing it separately and then getting together, and it worked very well,” he says. “It’s a fun show to write. There are hard bits, like plotting out murders, but it is enjoyable and hopefully that comes across the screen too.”

Launching on Acorn TV on Monday, Mrs Sidhu Investigates arrives at a time when traditional whodunnit-style murder mysteries are back in fashion. What’s most notable about the series, however, is Mrs Sidhu herself, as Pannu continues to break down barriers that have prevented Asian actors from leading shows, much in the same way Goodness Gracious Me and The Kumars did before.

“‘Indian auntie caterer solves crimes in rural Berkshire’ is the high-concept strapline, and the most the most important thing for me was to have a character like Mrs Sidhu lead the series,” he says. “Going back to the days when there were no British Asian lead characters, we were corner shop owners, victims of hate crime, basically that sort of menu on the table. And of course, Goodness Gracious Me changed that, The Kumars changed that.

“The most important thing for me was that she’s from her culture. She’s absorbed the knocks and the wisdom of it, but she’s got agency outside it. She goes out into this high-stakes, glossy world as the underdog from Slough, the underdog from the underdog town, and solves their problems. It’s flipping the white saviour into the brown saviour. That was a huge victory and a really important thing for me. It’s been wonderful to be able to put that across in a very entertaining, fun way with jokes, with plotlines that pay off and with murderers who you haven’t figured out who they are.”

Pannu believes the resurgence of murder mysteries is partly down to viewers seeking some escapism, and he hopes they will now join Mrs Sidhu to play detective and help solve the cases in each episode.

“Murder mysteries are a game played out between the audience and the show maker, and it’s a lot of fun,” he adds. “But as the writer, you have to be aware that everyone is genre-aware. It’s a very meta sort of thing. You know they’re going to be guessing, so you’ve got to be one step ahead of them, because the pleasure is in being fooled when you’re watching it. It’s a magic trick, and that’s part of its charm.”

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