❉ Andy Murray speaks to Sanjeev and Donald about the new series, Cluedo, tights, Poldark and the Blinovitch Limitation Effect.
“In the same way that Cheers the bar was the social hub of Cheers the sitcom, so this series is the social hub of Lenzie. Ramesh and Dave are warm altruistic people, and use their position at the heart of the community to dispense their warmth, altruism and Bombay Bad Boy Pot Noodles and embossed greetings cards featuring a watercolour impression of a boy heading a football on them. Someone called it a ‘shop-com’ but we had him shot.”
Five alive! A new series of Fags, Mags & Bags starts on Radio 4 on Monday (28 August), and if you’ve not come across the show before, you’ve got a real treat in store. If you appreciate great radio comedy, you’re likely to relish its whip-smart wit, well-drawn characters, dextrous love of language and loopy flights of fancy. And if you’ve never much cared for radio comedy, well, this could be just the show to win you over.
It centres on the eponymous small shop in the Glasgow district of Lenzie, run by Ramesh Majhu with the assistance of his good pal Dave. As well as Ramesh’s sons Sanjay and Alok, the cast of characters takes in a whole host of shop regulars from within the Lenzie community (and it is a community). It’s written by Sanjeev Kohli, who plays Ramesh, and Donald Mcleary, who plays Dave. Mcleary was also co-writer of West Skerra Light, a fine horror-comedy yarn screened by BBC Scotland to great acclaim last Halloween. Kohli, meanwhile, is probably best known in the role of another Glaswegian sitcom shopkeeper, namely Navid from the mighty Still Game.
Fags, Mags & Bags already has a very healthy cult following, with adoring fans congregating on social media to banter back and forth using show’s legion of catchphrases. And talking of ‘cult’, there’s also the strange matter of the many obscure Doctor Who references peppered throughout the show, not stopping short of a character who suffers from Binro Heretic Syndrome.
To mark its return, We Are Cult spoke to Sanjeev Kohli and Donald Mcleary about the new series, Cluedo, tights, Poldark and the Blinovitch Limitation Effect.
For anyone who’s yet to have the pleasure of Fags Mags & Bags, how would you describe it?
We describe it as a ‘Dry Cheers‘. In the same way that Cheers the bar was the social hub of Cheers the sitcom (stop saying ‘Cheers’), so FMB is the social hub of Lenzie. Ramesh and Dave are warm altruistic people, and use their position at the heart of the community to dispense their warmth, altruism and Bombay Bad Boy Pot Noodles and embossed greetings cards featuring a watercolour impression of a boy heading a football on them. Someone called it a ‘shop-com’ but we had him shot.
How did the two of you first meet and start working together?
The Radio 4 sketch show Week Ending was recording a show in Glasgow, and the producer had amassed the ‘cream’ of Scotland’s writing talent in the room. Or at least those who were less than three buses away and could get away from their work. The room was quite a long Mount Rushmore – a series of bitter poker-faced seething writers, clinging grimly on to their ideas. We were the only two naive enough to actually share our ideas. We got chatting after the meeting and discovered a shared love of Python, The Young Ones and tights. Sanj went to Donny’s house and by the end of the week they had written their first sitcom pilot: ‘Scottish Widows’.
Were there any classic radio or TV shows that you’ve used as a template or a benchmark for Fags, Mags & Bags?
Not specifically. Our shared influences though are Python, Victoria Wood, Father Ted, It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, the original Poldark, Threads and Nightingales.
How close is Ramesh and Dave’s dynamic to your own private banter?
100%. It has been an UTTER pleasure to have an outlet for our very niche conversations, and we pride ourselves on the motto ‘never knowingly under-obscure’.
How exactly do you write together? is it the classic ‘one sitting at the keyboard, one pacing about and blathering’ set-up? If so, which of you is which?
The first statement made on a writing day is “You’re typing”. Before even any pleasantries are exchanged. Basically. we alternate. We always sit together and write. Sanj is typing this sentence, and Donny iz gjfiutf75outu this one. (Donny has spelling issues. Sanj is typing now)
Is it just us or are there a whole lot of Doctor Who references dotted throughout the show? Who’s the fan?
No, it’s not just you. Terry Nation’s last breath was this very observation. Donny is the sci-fi one and is always crowbarring in ‘Scaroth – last of the Jagaroth’. Sanj still calls it Mr Who. And Dr Spock. To be fair, Sanj is paediatrician-daft.
The show has gathered its own cult following over the years. Did you ever see that coming?
We are constantly baffled – in the best way possible – that people seem to dig our chat. We’re proud of the fact that FMB has a very strong identity. People that hate it REALLY REALLY hate it, and people that love it REALLY REALLY hate it. We find it incredibly gratifying that fans on the Facebook page have actually adopted the language and rhythm of shop.
Could Ramesh and Still Game‘s Navid ever meet on the shop circuit? What would they make of each other – and would the Blinovitch Limitation Effect come into play there?
Never mind the BLE. We obey the Cluedo rules, whereby only one person of an individual profession can be present at any one time. As we have pointed out ,”There weren’t two butchers in Cluedo, were there?” (In fact there were no butchers, but the principle remains.)
Series 6 ended on what could easily have been a permanent conclusion, with the Mahju family accepting Ramesh’s new special lady friend Malcolm (Mina Anwar). So where’s Series 7 heading – and is there any particular reason why it’s only four episodes long?
Having incredibly low self-esteem we NEVER assume we are going to get recommissioned, so we like to end each series as if it’s the last . Although we are yet to actually feature Alan Alda going up in a helicopter. There are only four episodes because the Radio 4 hard drive is full, and until they delete all the old Hancocks, there are space issues. Series 7 will tackle gender fluidity, foster care, celebrity, lizards and the demise of the fidget spinner. And Simon Greenall! (We don’t mean we will tackle Simon Greenall, we mean that it will feature Simon Greenall.)
Are there other things you’d like to try with Fags Mags & Bags, such as a live show, or even a TV version – or might that sheer love of pure language get lost on screen?
We are in the early stages of planning a touring live show. We actually did a live script read in Glasgow and the response was phenomenal. With regards telly, it’s not up to us, but we would like the world to see The Wall of Crisps, Dave’s Vera Drake fleece and Sanjay’s hair helmet. Whatever the format of the show, we would always retain the density of language, because that in many ways defines the show.
❉ Follow Sanjeev on Twitter: @govindajeggy
❉ With thanks to Gus Beattie.
❉ Andy Murray is Film Editor for Northern Soul and a regular contributor to Big Issue North. He’s also the author of the Nigel Kneale biography Into the Unknown and co-author (with Dr Mark Aldridge) of the Russell T Davies biography T is for Television. He’s not the tennis guy, obviously. But he did once receive a publicity photograph of him to sign by mistake.