In a windowless cell in the central London offices of the publicist for his new TV show, Romesh Ranganathan and I are discussing beards. Specifically, their significance in The Reluctant Landlord, the stand-up’s first sitcom.
Ranganathan’s facial hair, as viewers of multiple panel shows (QI, Have I Got News for You) and travelogue series (Asian Provocateur, The Misadventures of Romesh Ranganathan) will know, is full and luxurious.
But in The Reluctant Landlord, his titular character is out-bearded by a rival publican. Ranganathan’s hostelry is traditional and, shall we say, unfussy. His rival runs a gastropub, as telegraphed by the finely sculpted, would-be trendy fuzz lurking on his chin.
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“He’s just that dude who tries to pull off a look – let’s call it hipster try-hard – and the beard is part of that,” offers the cheerful 40-year-old, who’s co-written and stars in the show. “It’s a decision beard rather than a relaxed beard. My beard is just an ongoing effort to hide my face as much as possible.
“But I have just trimmed it – it was down here,” he says, indicating a point not far north of his sternum. “When my wife and my mum start saying, ‘You look unacceptable, like you’ve been found [in the street],’ I have to take action.”
The Reluctant Landlord is personal in other, more meaningful ways, too. Its creator plays a hip-hop-obsessed would-be DJ/producer called Romesh, grumpily running a pub in small-town Sussex, inherited from his recently deceased father. That, exactly, is the 40-year-old, Crawley-based father-of-three’s own story.
“The show reflects the struggle my dad had when he was running his pub,” says frustrated rapper Ranganathan, whose father died seven years ago. “He wanted to improve it, but he had resistance from the locals.”
This comedy late bloomer gives the example of the period when he was trying to escape a job teaching secondary-school maths by getting into stand-up comedy. It was a move that eventually proved successful when Ranganathan was nominated for Best Newcomer at the 2013 Edinburgh Comedy Awards, kick-starting a rapid rise on stage, radio and TV.
“At the beginning, I was desperate for more stage time, so my dad said I could do it in his pub. I started running a monthly comedy night, and I would book really good headliners – but all the regulars are going: ‘What the hell are you doing comedy for? I just want a quiet drink. I tell you what, if they’re rubbish, I’ll tell ’em!’” he relates, laughing.
“So my dad was constantly battling with his desire to improve the pub but also not upset the regulars. But my character doesn’t want to improve the pub – he’s essentially running it because, one, his wife thinks it’ll be good for him, and two, it’s his dad’s pub, and his mum thinks it’s a way of maintaining his dad’s legacy.”
That, he adds, was his own mother’s view: that he and his equally unqualified brother taking over the running of the Prince of Wales in East Grinstead, in the teeth of a nationwide crisis in the pub industry, “would be the right thing to do by Dad”.
So, driving yourself mad and into debt: it’s what he would have wanted…
“Exactly!” he laughs. “It’s funny you say that because that’s exactly how it turned out. The truth is, running a pub is a very personality-driven thing, and dad was very life and soul.
“But, also, he just wasn’t making any money. So when we took over, you no longer had Dad bringing in customers. People would keep drinking for a bit in solidarity with him… then they’d drift off elsewhere.”
After months of the Ranganathans paying money “hand over fist to the brewery”, his mum had an epiphany: “You know what? We’ll remember Dad another way.”
The pub trade’s loss was situation comedy’s gain. The Reluctant Landlord – already renewed by Sky for a second series – plays to Ranganathan’s strengths as a comic who writes about what he knows.
The on-screen Romesh – who lives above the pub with his wife (Car Share’s Sian Gibson), young son, record collection and turntables – describes himself as “nominally Hindu”. Is that how this Brit of Sri Lankan parentage sees himself?
“I’ve had a Hindu upbringing. There’s a lot about it I think is cool. Temples are amazing. It’s a nice vibe when people are praying. And there’s lots about it where I understand why they believe those things. But I’m not practising. My mum’s very spiritual, and I think she just tells everyone that I’m spiritual, too.”
Ranganathan’s mum, Shanthi, was one of the best things about Asian Provocateur, in which she sent him to Sri Lanka to learn about his heritage; in the second series she joined him on his travels, and stole every scene. “It’s an odd duality being essentially an English dude, but then you have all this Hindu stuff in your life.”
But his three young sons (aged eight, six and three) aren’t yet as conflicted. “They know they’re half Sri Lankan, but they think that we’re all brown and my wife’s white. They don’t see themselves as a mix – they’re just a lighter brown than Daddy. But they just don’t see the cultural side of it. And that’s what p****s off my mum.
“That’s where Asian Provocateur came from,” he adds of the globetrotting Bafta-nominated BBC series. “My mum said: ‘You’ve got kids now, and they’ve no idea about their culture because you’ve no idea about your culture. Then what’s going to happen when they have kids? It’s gone, or it’s on its way out.’”
Cue an enquiring, exploratory comedy career that has energetically roamed a long way from the usual Live at the Apollo/Mock the Week staples. Still, having filmed far and wide, made The Reluctant Landlord and, more recently, joined the line-up of Sky’s long-running A League of Their Own, Ranganathan admits he’s craving the loneliness of the single-mic spotlight.
“I’ve missed stand-up, I have to say,” he nods, acknowledging plans for a nationwide tour next year. “It is the thing I enjoy the most. The thing is, you’re funnier at everything else if you keep doing stand-up. That pressure of performing live really helps.”
That aside, he’s been working so hard this year that he’s promised his family a quiet autumn – although he manages to forget to mention to me that he’s just published an autobiography, Straight Outta Crawley: Memoirs of a Distinctly Average Human Being.
It all adds up to a broad-based appeal that draws in both parents and kids. Ranganathan is that skilled thing, a comic who’s sharply hilarious enough to appeal to teenagers but also offers deadpan socio-cultural observations that resonate with older fans.
“It’s not a conscious thing,” he insists of his pan-generational appeal, “you just write what you like. When I talked to Sky about the sitcom, I just thought it was quite nice that it was in a pub, and you’ve got the family aspect as well. I think it would be dangerous to try to second-guess what people are looking for.
“I just write what I think is funny, or interesting, and hopefully everything else will take care of itself. There’s no strategy to anything.”
As strategies go, it’s paying off quite nicely. From pulling pints to pulling in punters, I imagine that Ranganathan’s dad would surely approve.
The Reluctant Landlord airs Tuesdays at 10pm on Sky1 and NOW TV