Inside a Birmingham food bank, actors Tez Ilyas and Dúaa Karim are playing Jenga with a tower of tins of baked beans. They’re here, among shelves groaning with donated pasta, cereal and pulses, filming scenes for the BBC Three sitcom Man Like Mobeen where their characters, Eight and Aks, volunteer. As rapid-fire punchlines fill the air during NME’s visit to the set for the filming of the show’s third season, the effect is akin to I, Daniel Blake – with added jokes.
Admittedly, this might not seem like the most obvious setting for a comedy, but ever since it debuted in 2017, the show has specialised in subverting preconceptions. It follows Mobeen, played by the show’s 34-year-old creator Guz Khan, as he tries to look after his mates Eight and Nate (played by Tolu Oguenfun) and be a good Muslim, all while attempting to escape his criminal past. It deftly juxtaposes riotously laugh-out-loud humour with serious subjects – such as teenage knife crime, racial profiling and the rise of the far right.
In one early episode, Mobeen is locked in a police van with a Tommy Robinson-style leader of an EDL-style hate group. “You’re getting yourself in knots, you daft bugger,” insists Mobeen. “I know plenty of Muslims and I can’t get them to commit to what time they’re going to Nando’s, let alone commit acts of terrorism.”
After an attack on Mobeen’s friends and threats against his sister saw the last series end on a dark cliff-hanger, season three – which has just dropped on BBC Three – finds him armed, dangerous and out for revenge, pulled into the world of crime lord Uncle Khan, played by veteran actor Art Malik, who clearly relishes the role. Tonally, it could be described as Only Fools and Horses meets Breaking Bad – a lightning-in-a-bottle sitcom that features flawed-but-loveable characters you enjoy hanging out with, while actually saying something about the world they inhabit.
Sitting in make-up (“Don’t tell NME readers how long this takes!”), Guz explains how he sought to make Man Like Mobeen as authentic as possible. “In the beginning, we did the pilot, and I was like ‘Meh, it’s kind of whack’. It was very generic, super-sitcomy, so when we came round to making the series, we wanted to make something more substantial,” he remembers.
“Look, anyone can make a generic sitcom, but we want it to present real issues and show how easy it is to fall back into this lifestyle,” he continues. “When you’re watching the news and you see someone who has been sentenced to 22 years in prison – yeah, they might deserve it, but you don’t see the backstory – what happened in order for them to get to that point.”
He continues: “So we’re essentially witnessing a family guy who’s trying to care the best for his little sister fall back into a life he’s worked so hard to get out of. We’re filming here at a food bank, so we’re still looking at issues that matter to Mobeen, but the theme is very much his downwards spiral. The deeper he gets into this mess, the harder it is to get out of. And unfortunately, with no spoilers, happy endings are quite rare in real life.” He turns to his PR, before hesitantly laughing: “Shit, am I allowed to say that?”
Five years ago, while working as a secondary school humanities teacher in Coventry, Guz started uploading YouTube videos as Mobeen. One was a hilarious riposte to egregious Fox News reports that Birmingham was “no go zone” for non-Muslims. They caught the attention of Steve Coogan’s Baby Cow production company, who invited him to make a BBC comedy short, before commissioning a full series.
If season three has a noticeable swagger, it’s justified. Big name fans of Man Like Mobeen include Black Mirror’s Charlie Brooker, Riz Ahmed, and Idris Elba – who Guz ended up working with on Netflix’s Turn Up Charlie. “Everybody thinks ‘World’s sexiest dude’”, says Guz of Idris. “And he walks into a room and you’re like: ‘Oh shit! The aura is mad!’ But he himself started off in a block of flats in east London living a very tough life, so the show reminds him of what life could have been like for him.”
Most impressive for Guz was when his comedy idol, Chris Morris – the genius behind Four Lions and Brass Eye – was so enamoured by the show, he requested to meet him. “I feel like I’m double showing off!” he laughs. “I grew up thinking: ‘Yo! He’s a bad motherfucker!’, and that he’d seen what we were doing and reached out meant the world. When we met, he was passionate about real-life issues. He spends time in Birmingham in tough areas. You think: here’s the legendary Chris Morris in Alum Rock enjoying a curry! That’s mad!”
But then the show has attracted a broader range of fans than Guz initially expected, including the “mandem in prison,” he exclaims. “First of all, I want to know how they get the wi-fi in there?” he laughs. “I’m like, ‘Bro, what kind of fibre optics did you drill in the side of the wall?! For me, the fact that they watch the show and laugh at it but also see elements where they go: ‘Oh shit, I made that mistake, that’s where it all went wrong for me’ is great.”
At the other end of the social spectrum, silver-spoon multimillionaires in Monmouth are also tuning in. “I didn’t even know where Monmouth was!” he splutters. They contact him saying: ‘I very much enjoyed your show and it’s excellent social commentary’. “I’m like: Big up you, Phillip!”
It’s a turnaround in perception from when they first started filming on the streets of Birmingham. Tez Ilyas, who plays the naïve Eight, recalls: “We had young people coming up to us going ‘Is this Citizen Khan?’ Because they didn’t want that filmed on the streets they lived on – because it didn’t reflect their experience.” He’s referring to the BBC’s divisive Adil Ray-devised sitcom about a Muslim community leader which – although it aired from 2012 to 2016 – Guz once rightly described as being as anachronistic as 1970s show On the Buses.
By the time the first episode had aired, those fears had been allayed. “Now they come up to us while we’re filming asking us to be in it!”, laughs Tez. “People have been so thankful to see a character that represents them on screen, played in a way that’s funny, real and not tokenistic – all those negative things that Citizen Khan might have been. It feels like we’re blazing a trail for people to come after us and take advantage of the space we’re opening up.”
People regularly tell Tez – a 36-year-old stand-up comedian perhaps best known for hosting Channel 4’s The Tez O’Clock Show – that Eight is their favourite character. Aside from acting as the show’s dim Father Dougal McGuire (Father Ted)/Woody Boyd (Cheers) style marshmallow cushioning to some of the darker moments, Tez notes that he also acts as a window into a community some of the audience may not be familiar with. “He’s the dumb one who goes: ‘I don’t really get this. What’s going on?’ He asks the questions that people might have but are too embarrassed to ask. Through his naïve eyes, people can better understand.”
All involved feel they’re making something special. Co-writer Andy Milligan, gagsmith for Ant and Dec on I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!, says: “Until very recently, it was rare to see a Muslim man in his thirties on television without him wearing a suicide vest. Apart from being funny, I think the show gives a voice to a community that has been traditionally under-served on British television in general or worse, have been misrepresented.”
However, Mobeen isn’t an airbrushed ambassador for all Muslims. “I have a running joke where I say to Guz: ‘Can you tell me what every Muslim thinks about this issue?’,” laughs Andy. “Because there isn’t a tonne of shows doing what we do, there’s a tendency to say: ‘this show captures the modern Muslim experience’ and it no more does that than Mrs Brown’s Boys captures the old Irish woman experience.”
Even so, when Tez watches the show back “as a fan”, he can’t help but think: “I wish I had something like this when I was 18 years old.” Growing up, neither he nor Guz saw themselves represented on television. “It wasn’t until Goodness Gracious Me came along in 1998 that I thought: ‘Wow, people out there might find people like me funny’. That was ground-breaking and trailblazing but we had to wait a long time after that to actually be given a good opportunity.”
Ask Guz why it’s taken so long for shows like Man Like Mobeen to come along and one of the reasons he cites is commissioning cowardice. “It’s a question of: ‘How marketable is this?’ When you say ‘I want to make an episode where I’m in the back of a van with a far-right leader, that’s a difficult sell. The BBC were very much against me putting the Tommy Robinson character in series one – and we fought for it.” Keen to open up opportunities behind the camera as well as in front of it, he set up a training scheme on series three for young working class Midlanders. “With a show like this, we all think it’s important to leave a legacy,” argues Guz.
Against a backdrop of rising Islamophobia – a YouGov survey for the anti-racism group Hope Not Hate found more than half of Tory party members believe Islam is a threat to “the British way of life” – shows like Man Like Mobeen provide a hilarious counter-narrative. “It’s partly a show about Britain 2020 which is a horrible right-wing mess,” notes Andy. “In the age of Boris Johnson and Donald Trump, things have amplified since we first started the show. Minorities are the first people to be persecuted by – particularly right wing – figures of power and it’s important to have a strong kickback.” Perversely, the worse things get, the more material they have to spin into comedic gold. When society goes low, they raise their comedy bar higher.
Tez – whose stand-up has demystified Islam to a wider audience – quips: “I always say I don’t want to eradicate racism because then I’d have nothing to joke about, but if it could be about 4/10 that would be good. Not so much racism that I get punched in the face, but enough racism that the BBC still feels the need to put me on Mock the Week!”
The biggest compliment to Guz is that Man Like Mobeen is overturning people’s ingrained prejudices. “One lad who used to go on a lot of far-right marches told me he saw our silly little comedy and now he’s changed his mind and goes to meetings with people from different faiths and backgrounds in his local community.”
“So that shows to me that – even though these are polarised times – humour is fundamentally a tool to bring us together.”
‘Man Like Mobeen’ season three is available on BBC iPlayer now
Tez Ilyas will be touring his new stand-up show from September
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