Back in Time for Birmingham is the latest installment in the BBC’s Back in Time… living history series and follows the Sharma family — mum Manisha, dad Vishal, daughter Alisha and son Akash — as they experience 50 years of British Asian history.
Starting in the 1950s, the four-parter follows the work, home and social lives of the Sharmas, as they experience the interaction between British and Asian cultures, including the creation of Bhangra music and the adaptation of Asian food to appeal to British palates, as well as the racist violence sparked by Enoch Powell’s ‘rivers of blood’ speech.
Here is everything you need to know about Back in Time for Birmingham...
Back in Time for Birmingham air date
The four-part series will air over four nights on BBC Two, from Monday, June 20 to Thursday, June 23 at 8pm. It will also be available on BBC iPlayer.
What happens in Back in Time for Birmingham?
The series kicks off in the 1950s, when immigrants started arriving from newly independent India and Pakistan to take up jobs in industry in the Midlands, and we see Vishal and Akash live through this in episode one.
In real life, Manisha and Vishal’s parents would follow suit some years later: "My dad married my mum in India, brought her here in the 1970s, and they were working in factories," reveals pharmacist Manisha.
"Vishal’s mum came when he was just three months old. They needed nurses in this country, and she saw this as an opportunity for them as a family, and to support their relatives back home as well. A few years after that, his dad came over and worked for the Royal Mail."
Vishal and Akash find themselves living in pretty spartan conditions, including sharing a bed, with the intention of returning home after a few years. But then their plans start to change…
What else can we expect from Back in Time for Birmingham?
With Birmingham famous for its ‘Balti triangle’ of restaurants, it’s no surprise that food looms large over the immigrant experience, although the new arrivals started off by preparing and eating unappetizing fare made on a budget from what was available in the shops. "To them, the food was just bland,’ says Manisha. ‘You see Akash trying to make a baked bean curry using Branston pickle to add a bit of flavour!"
However, as spices became more readily available, British Asians were able to recreate their favourite dishes from home. "In the 1960s and 70s, people brought their own spices over with them," says Manisha. "They sold them door to door, which Akash does when he becomes a spice peddler!"
We also see the family starting to try out British favourites such as fish and chips, which Manisha says were part of her regular diet in the family home: "My parents’ generation had cooked with cumin, onions, chilli and garlic and spices, but for us growing up, it was all about fish fingers, chips and beans!"
British Asian families started to take control of their own destinies by leaving factory work to buy and run corner shops, and the Sharmas find out what that was like when they open ‘Sharma Stores’, where they live and work from episode two.
For Manisha, this felt like revisiting her childhood: "It was about trying to be your own boss. My parents bought a shop in Bradford that they called Manisha Stores, because I was born about the same time. All of my uncles all had shops too."
As the rest of the Sharma family discovers, they are all expected to muck in, to help keep costs down and profits up: "You would go to the cash and carry with your parents, put the stock out, price everything, and clean and mop at the end of the night,"Manisha recalls. "These were eight in the morning till 10 o’clock at night jobs!"
As the family business grows, the Sharma’s home in the series reflects their improving finances, with an Austin Allegro parked outside, plus the acquisition of a TV and a new sofa that is kept pristinely wrapped in plastic! "You've had to save up to have these things, and so the logic behind the plastic is to keep them nice and not ruin them," smiles Manisha. "When the television came [in the series], even though it was black and white, I was so excited and I realized how much of a telly addict I am! They gave us things like Grange Hill and The Generation Game to watch, and the kids were like: 'Where’s the entertainment in this?!'"
As the decades pass, the family, especially the children, adopt Western clothing styles, but Manisha, who wears a traditional dress in the show, says that’s something her mum never wanted to do. "Mum always wore a sari. She looked lovely and we just took it for granted and never questioned why she wore it. I never thought that I would get to do that every day!"
Enoch Powell’s infamous 1968 ‘rivers of blood’ speech sparked a wave of racist violence, and the Sharmas find out more about the racism experienced over many decades by British Asians as their shop window is daubed in National Front graffiti and a brick smashes the glass front door.
If similar things happened to her parents back in the day, says Manisha, they must have kept it from the children: "Sometimes I do wonder whether they had that experience because I think they protected us a lot from things," she said reflects.
"Learning about it through the series has made me angry, and encouraged me to explore more and to question the environment and the political messages around me."
However, the immigrants remained uncowed by the racists, and resolved to stay put with a gritty determination Manisha admires: "This whole experience has given me a greater appreciation for the hard work and sheer resilience of that first generation. Coming to a place where you didn't know the language or the situation, and just dealing with it."
Is there a trailer for Back in Time for Birmingham?
Not yet, but we will add one to this page when it is released.
Ian writes about TV and film for TV Times, What’s on TV and TV & Satellite Week magazines. He co-hosts the weekly TV streaming podcast, Bingewatch.
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