Guz Khan, star and co-writer of Man Like Mobeen, is hot property. Roz Laws describes his rapid rise from school teacher to multiple RTS award winner.
When he’s not in the jungle penning quips for Ant and Dec, Andy Milligan is the co-writer of Man Like Mobeen and has a running joke with the sitcom’s creator and star, Guz Khan. As they work on the hit BBC Three series together, Milligan asks him, “Can you tell me what every Muslim in Britain will think of this joke?”
This is because Khan has been dubbed “the face of British Muslims” – a result, Milligan points out, of it being far more likely for a bearded, practising Muslim to appear on our screens as a suicide bomber than as a character like Mobeen.
Khan has a wry laugh at the label and declares: “That is a crown I do not want to wear. It’s tricky, as realistic depictions of Muslims on TV are still so few and far between. If there were another five shows like Man Like Mobeen, it would take the pressure off. And I do feel the pressure of trying to represent people as fairly as possible.
“I hope my community is proud that they have a voice that’s honest. I’m sure that there are doctors and lawyers in Small Heath [the Birmingham suburb where Man Like Mobeen is set] saying, ‘This is not our story! – but they can tell their own.”
The third series of Man Like Mobeen recently dropped on BBC iPlayer. Set and filmed in inner-city Birmingham, the comedy follows Mobeen Deen, a young man with a dark past as a drug dealer who is trying to set a better example for his much younger sister in the absence of their parents.
Khan’s depiction of “the ends” is based on his own experience growing up on a council estate in Coventry with a single mum. Pakistani immigrant Zainab Khan raised him and his two sisters following his father’s death when he was three.
"I want to see more working-class people in front of and behind the camera"
It’s been a swift rise to prominence for 34-year-old Ghulam Khan, a married father of four. Five years ago, he was teaching humanities in Coventry and making comedy sketches for YouTube. One went viral after he joked that the film Jurassic World should be banned for racism because it called a species of dinosaur “pachys”.
His Mobeen character subsequently appeared on iPlayer in the short Roadman Ramadan, as part of the Comedy Feeds series. His comic guide to the Islamic month of fasting became one of the platform’s most-watched shows.
Events moved quickly. He gave up his teaching job and secured a pilot for Man Like Mobeen, also landing a breakfast radio show on BBC Asian Network and a part alongside Emma Bunton in Comedy Central’s Drunk History. He was later to star alongside all the reunited Spice Girls in a Walkers’ crisps advert.
In August 2017, it was announced that Man Like Mobeen was going to a full series. Executive producer Ben Cavey from Tiger Aspect – the show’s co-producer – described Khan as “one of the most exciting new talents in the country”.
The judges at the 2018 RTS Midlands Awards agreed, naming him the Outstanding New Talent. He has also scooped the Actor and (with Milligan) Writer prizes for the past two years.
On paper, you wouldn’t expect the Khan and Milligan partnership to work as well as it does. The latter – Ant and Dec’s only full-time writer for the past 14 years – admits he’s from “quite a posh part” of Newcastle and doesn’t get all the jokes in Mobeen. He was brought in as a script editor on Comedy Feeds and hit it off with Khan.
“We don’t have much in common,” says Milligan. “We bonded over our shared interest in hip hop and comedians such as Eddie Murphy.
“There’s lots I don’t understand, from Punjabi and Urdu words to cultural references. When we did a preview screening in Birmingham, the audience laughed at things I didn’t even realise were jokes.
“We hang episodes around issues such as knife crime, racial profiling and the NHS and, in the third series, we set one episode in a food bank. But the important thing is to make it funny, not worthy.
“Working with Guz isn’t so different from Ant and Dec. All three are very nice people who make me laugh.
“Guz is very generous with his time on set and knows everyone’s names. We all know self-centred performers, but Guz couldn’t be further from that.
“Any bad points? He’s always late and never answers his phone, which is annoying. But that’s about the worst thing I can think of.”
One of Khan’s passions is helping others to break into TV. For series three of Man Like Mobeen, he launched a training scheme in partnership with Film Birmingham, BBC Comedy and Tiger Aspect to offer eight paid, entry-level positions in production for people from the West Midlands.
Khan says: “Most people have no idea how to access the entertainment industry – where do you start? So it’s important for us to offer opportunities. I want to see more working-class people in front of and behind the camera. Talking is all well and good but you need to walk the walk.
“The scheme didn’t cost us too much money or time and I hope it helped these youngsters see they could have a future in the industry.”
Khan has also shown his former pupils at Grace Academy what they could achieve. “I still see them all the time, on the street and in the supermarket. I think I’ve become more of a crazy uncle to them. A few of them are interested in acting and have started their own YouTube channels, which fills me with joy.”
Wolverhampton actor Dúaa Karim was just 15 when she won the role of Mobeen’s sister, Aqsa. “He’s just like my big brother, in real life as well as on screen,” she says of Khan. “He’s very kind and encouraging of young talent.”
"He’s always late and never answers his phone, which is annoying"
With Khan’s dedication to honesty, in retrospect it seems obvious that, when he appeared on a recent episode of the BBC One panel show Would I Lie To You?, his two hilarious stories – concerning locking a fellow teacher in a cupboard and paying a friend to share his hotel room to scare away ghosts – had to be true.
He says: “That was great fun. The offers are coming in to appear on other panel shows but if I feel the vibe isn’t right, I give it a miss. I don’t have to be everywhere.”
Khan did say yes to playing Idris Elba’s friend Del in Netflix’s Turn Up Charlie and spent several weeks in a camper van with Billy Zane for Sky One’s Curfew. Additionally, he was cast by Mindy Kaling in her TV remake of Four Weddings and a Funeral.
For Khan’s next project he’s going back to school, but not to teach. He’s created a new sitcom that he hopes to star in based on his classroom career.
He ponders: “I’ve got to know Romesh Ranganathan well, as another teacher turned comedian. He said that no one else has come through as quickly as me.
“I’d asked the school to hold my position because I’d be back in a year after having a bit of fun with comedy. But I never came close to going back, because it just kept building.
“I think it’s because people gravitate towards someone they recognise. I’m one of their own and not fake. I’m not some Rada-trained actor, I’ve stumbled into this. But it seems to be going OK.”