If you’re going to play a pathologist, Midsomer Murders is the gig to get,” laughs Manjinder Virk, who has just joined the corpse-strewn ITV crime drama as Dr Kam Karimore.
She has a point. Virk barely has time to climb out of her overalls between inventive storylines in the new series, including body-snatchers and alien abductions. “You almost have to take a tongue-in-cheek approach because, despite the body count, there’s a real feel-good factor to the series,” she says.
The feel-good factor took a dent in 2011 when Brian True-May, then executive producer, claimed it “wouldn’t work” with ethnically diverse actors and described the show as “the last bastion of Englishness”. The comments, in Radio Times, sparked national debate and True-May subsequently left the programme.
Four years on, Virk, 40, is the first British Asian actor to join the regular cast, alongside Neil Dudgeon’s DCI John Barnaby and Gwilym Lee’s DS Charlie Nelson. “I was aware of the comments Brian True-May made, but it wasn’t really in my thoughts when I went up for this job,” says the Coventry- born actor. “The main thing for me was that they wanted to create a really rounded character, regardless of race. But I also feel that my being there will make a difference. Because Midsomer is seen in so many countries, hopefully seeing a British Asian character taking her place in that community will, in some small way, break down preconceptions of what England is.”
It’s a diplomatic response to a delicate situation but Virk is political to her boots. She met her husband, writer/director Neil Biswas, on a film about the Bradford riots and her nuanced performance as a jihadi suicide bomber in Peter Kosminsky’s Bafta-winning Britz (2007) drew international acclaim. More recently, Out of Darkness (2013) the award-winning short film she wrote and directed, starring Tom Hiddleston and Riz Ahmed, dealt with the psychological trauma of aid workers.
Virk owes her sense of artistic mission to her parents, who came to Britain from Punjab in the 1970s. “My dad’s very political – he worked in a car factory and was very involved in the Indian Workers’ Association. And both my parents are massively into the arts. They were very liberal – my dad says he brought me and my sister up like boys. That stereotype of Asian family life where women, mainly, do what they’re told, never applied to us.”
The outside world wasn’t always so enlightened. “I remember being on a double decker bus in Coventry with my sister. We both had really long hair, and I remember a father and his son sitting at the back and trying to throw lit matches at our hair. Things like that make you aware that these things exist, that people will hate you without knowing you.”
With two children of her own (her daughter is five, her son one), Virk, who’s from a Sikh background, is conscious that the terror attacks in Paris have fanned ancient mistrust and sparked new tensions in British communities. “As days go by, it gets more complicated and, to be honest, it terrifies me. When I played a suicide bomber in Britz, the shocking thing was that it was a female. Now you read about a woman blowing herself up with a suicide belt, and it’s not a surprise any more.”
The question of diversity in British television was pushed up the agenda with Lenny Henry’s 2014 Bafta Lecture, which focused on the low numbers of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) professionals in the creative industries and the exodus of high-profile BAME actors to the US. Does Virk ever think about heading to California herself?
“There was a time, before I had kids, when I was very interested. I have a manager in LA, so does my husband, and that life was possible. But I love the fact that British Asian actors are making a real change over here now, and I think we need to keep up the momentum.
“Whatever happens in my career, I try not to think, ‘It’s because I’m Indian,’ or ‘It’s because I’m a woman’. I’ve worked hard to get where I am. I feel lucky that I’ve had lead roles. I just don’t want to feel grateful.”
Midsomer Murders is on ITV today (Wednesday 6th January) at 8:00pm