‘My dad was a hero to me, but I also know he did some horrible stuff to my mum ... his leaving us changed my attitude to things, I take nothing for granted anymore’
Funnyman and first-time author Romesh Ranganathan tells Hannah Stephenson why he still dips in and out of counselling and how hitting rock bottom shaped his life
He’s clinched his first TV sitcom, replaced Jack Whitehall as team captain on A League Of Their Own and is working on a new stand-up tour — yet deadpan comedian Romesh Ranganathan still worries each job may be his last.
“Every day, I think to myself: ‘This could be it, this could be the last day’. I’ve never had that moment when I’ve thought, ‘Yes, I’m on the path now’.”
Just a few years ago, the sardonic, hip-hop-mad funnyman was on the point of quitting comedy entirely, because he wasn’t making any money and wanted to provide some security for his long-suffering wife, drama teacher Leesa, and their three children.
His comedian pal Seann Walsh stepped in — recommending him for jobs and sending work his way until he started making ends meet.
Ranganathan, who started off as a maths teacher, went on to clinch several comedy awards, including Best Newcomer at Edinburgh, and then got the call for Live At The Apollo.
By 2014, his career had taken off — his profile further raised with the 2015 BBC Three series Asian Provocateur, in which he travelled to Sri Lanka (and later to the US) to explore his heritage, egged on by his hilarious mother, Shanthi, who many said stole the show.
“My ongoing mission is to phase my mum out of the public eye,” he deadpans today. “She’s got out of control. The woman’s ego is a monster. My main aim is to try to get her deported somehow. Then that’s the problem solved.”
Of course, she features in his latest project — his autobiography Straight Outta Crawley: Memoirs Of A Distinctly Average Human Being.
Ranganathan’s trademark cynical humour is ever-present, as he charts his life from his early years as a fat child with a lazy eye (the result of a serious infection when he was three) growing up in Crawley, West Sussex, to climbing the comedy career ladder.
But there are also some darker passages. The most serious upset happened in his teens, when his accountant father Ranga’s spiralling debts resulted in the family home being repossessed. A more crushing blow was dealt when he left his wife and sons to set up home with another woman.
Shanthi, Romesh and his brother Dinesh ended up sharing one bedroom in a B&B while they waited for a council house and Shanthi took on a plethora of jobs to keep the wolf from the door.
“It changed my attitude to things,” Ranganathan (40) reflects. “I’d taken things for granted and it gave me an appreciation going forward.
I don’t take anything for granted now. We ended up going to rock bottom and you have to make your way back up.”
He admits it’s difficult to write about his father’s behaviour during that time, because he loved him dearly (he died suddenly from a heart attack, aged 70) and says he was a great father.
“My dad was a hero tome, but I know he also did some horrible things to my mum. Having tried and failed to keep us afloat, his intention was, I believe, to offload us into a council property and have a relationship with the other woman.”
When he didn’t contact the family for several days, Shanthi confronted her husband’s lover to discover that Ranga had been arrested for fraud. He was given a two-year jail sentence.
The family spent their Sundays travelling to see him in Ford Open Prison in West Sussex.
“It was horrific. You just become numb to it,” Ranganathan recalls. “The house gets repossessed, I get taken out of (private) school, then my dad goes to prison. It was a horrible time. Those experiences definitely had a profound effect on me.”
Yet, going to jail resulted in Ranga realising the error of his ways, ditching the girlfriend and returning home to reconcile with his family. He spent the rest of his life trying to make things up to them, becoming a financial director of a book export company, which he bought out and then sold to buy a pub. Ranganathan practiced his stand-up there, staging regular gigs.
“I loved my dad and we had a great relationship at the beginning and at the end — there was just a horrible middle bit,” he says. “He was a flawed human being.”
The experience affected the comedian deeply, though. He sought counselling at university, at the height of the family problems.
“I was struggling to process it all and every now and again, things get mentally difficult. My brother often says to me that he thinks what we went through permanently messed us up a bit. He believes we’ll always be slightly dysfunctional.”
Today, he dips in and out of counselling.
“The Sri Lankan culture is funny about mental health. The idea of seeing a counsellor is like you’re saying that you’re insane, but I think it’s a really beneficial thing, which is why I got involved with CALM (he’s an ambassador for Campaign Against Living Miserably, a charity ded- icated to preventing male suicide).
“I got involved after a friend of mine killed himself. It’s important for people who are going through mental health issues to take action. It shouldn’t be taboo. If you need help, you should seek it out.
“I had periods when it was going dark in my head. If you feel like things are going against you, anything can trigger you going back to that headspace and you become less functional. Every now and again, you feel despair.
“If I go through periods when I’m struggling, I do go back.”
Ranganathan says now that, if he hadn’t experienced trauma, he wouldn’t have been a comedian.
“My experience of comedians is that they are slightly wired incorrectly, or something has pushed them off-kilter a little bit and I think, if it hadn’t have been for what happened, I wouldn’t have ended up being a comedian.”
His first sitcom series starts on Sky One later this month, a semi-autobiographical tale of a man who reluctantly takes over his late father’s pub, much to his family’s delight and his own chagrin. Sky has already commissioned a second series.
“I’ve not done much acting, apart from playing a man with a screwdriver in his chest in Holby City, which was pretty well reviewed, so I’ve got a really good cast to compensate.
“But if I can’t play grumpy and indifferent, then we’ve got a problem.”
Laughter lines: Romesh Ranganathan and (below) with his mother Shanthi, father Ranga and brother Dinesh
Straight Outta Crawley: Memoirs Of A Distinctly Average Human Being by Romesh Ranganathan is published by Bantam, priced £20