"We went from living in a semi-detached house, Dad doing well, me and my brother at private school… and a few months later, Dad’s in prison, I’m in a bed-and-breakfast with my mum and brother, and moving to a state school in one of the worst areas of town.”
Romesh Ranganathan is recalling the boyhood upheaval without which he would never have become a comedian. “It just skewed my perception enough,” he says. “It gives you a give-it-a-go attitude, because nothing’s guaranteed.”
His father, who came to the UK in the Seventies, was an accountant who got involved in a dodgy business deal. “He was a Sri Lankan Del Boy,” writes Ranganathan in his frank and very funny memoir, Straight Outta Crawley. In it, he also thanks his “lazy eye” and being overweight at school for shaping his future career. It left him with lasting body dysmorphia, which even fame can’t correct. “You just think people are more attractive when you see them on TV,” he says with a shrug.
He’s rarely off the television these days, as a panellist alongside Freddie Flintoff and Jack Whitehall on Sky One’s A League of Their Own, creator and star of his sitcom The Reluctant Landlord, and host of the travel series The Misadventures of Romesh Ranganathan. His success was hard won, though, and the 41-year-old former teacher from West Sussex came close to giving up more than once, because he wasn’t making any money after years of trailing across the country performing in clubs.
Now, he has just been announced as the co-host of the Royal Variety Performance in November, where he will introduce acts such as Rod Stewart, Frank Skinner and Petula Clark to an audience that is expected to include the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. “I certainly didn’t expect to be asked,” he says. “My mum absolutely lost her mind over it. I told her when I first found out, and every week, she phoned me and said, ‘Can I tell people now?’ ”
He was on the bill at the prestigious event in 2015, when he met the Duke of Sussex, and has also performed for the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall at their Christmas do at Clarence House. “I’ve got a little sticker book,” he laughs, when I suggest he is on his way to meeting all the royals, although he admits he may be a little more reverent than usual for the occasion.
He’s also in the middle of a huge UK tour and has his suitcase with him when we meet in Pimlico, central London. Sharply dressed, with a precision-engineered, razor-finessed haircut, he’s equal parts playful and analytical, as perhaps befits a comedian with a maths degree from Birkbeck College. He’s been honing the material for the new stage show as he goes along. On his previous tour, he caused a stir with a routine about his “feral” middle son. (“When I say to him, ‘Dude, don’t do that, because you’re gonna get hurt,’ and then he does it, and he doesn’t get hurt, that p----- me off.”) When it was shown on BBC Two, “somebody got in touch and said: ‘I hope your kids get taken away from you.’ ”
He muses on whether there should be “a Star Wars scrolling thing” before the new show, stating, “We should point out that Romesh is a dutiful father, and very much loves his wife and children.” He and Leesa, a teacher, still live in Crawley with their three boys, Theo, 10, Alex, eight, and Charlie, five.
We chat about the current sensitivity around comedy. Ranganathan says a woman stormed out of one of his gigs recently because he made a gag about the environment, adding: “I don’t think there’s any part of the new show where I haven’t been contacted by somebody to say, ‘I found that offensive.’ ” Despite this, he refuses to join the “you can’t say anything any more” brigade.
“If the police came to my show, or some authority, and said you can no longer do that bit, then I think we’ve got a problem with freedom of speech. But that hasn’t happened. I don’t think it’s happened to anybody… I’m not stopped from saying anything that I want to say.”
His new show includes routines about how his veganism makes him better than other people, losing one of his children – “easily the s---est of the three” – on Brighton beach, dwindling sex in marriage, Michael Jackson and paedophilia.
But offending people isn’t the only gauntlet he has to run on a regular basis. “Since I started in TV, I do get a fair bit of racism,” he says. “Some of it is really brutal, horrible, abusive stuff. And then there’s the ‘I wonder why Romesh was booked on this show?’ comments, and the insinuation is that I’m a token booking, because I’m Asian. There’s loads of that.”
It’s been going on for a long time. “I was spat at at school and stuff like that,” he says. “Then when I was at uni, I got jumped by a load of skinheads. It has happened at regular intervals during my life.”
Ranganathan’s father (who died in 2011) and mother are of Sri Lankan Tamil origin and were “focused on trying to assimilate over here”. His mother was “very conscious of the fact that as the son of an immigrant family, you’ve got to really work your ass off to get somewhere”.
His sudden change in schools was a blessing, he says, because he got to know a much greater cross-section of people. He was, though, “so desperate to not be the posh boy from private school”, that he went out of his way to be naughty, “smoking weed, getting into fights that didn’t even involve me”. He’d turn up as backup, he says. “I’d be hoping to God nothing happened, but socially it was better than saying, I’m not going to come.”
On one occasion, an incident involving a knife escalated into a gang turning up to attack him with golf clubs. Luckily, one of the gang was going out with a friend of his and said, “I can’t beat up Romesh.” He reflects on the knife crime epidemic – “I can see how easy it is to slip into it” – blaming the desire to be cool and to fit in. “My mum would be devastated to know some of the stuff that we got involved in, my brother and I.”
He bemoans the lack of working- class comedians in TV. He got his break writing for a fellow comedian but says he is the exception rather than the rule. “The live comedy circuit feels like a meritocracy to me [when it comes to] class, but breaking into TV becomes tricky because it’s dominated by the middle classes. Things like knowing the right people are trickier.”
He’s famously vegan, and slightly amazed at the amount of abuse it attracts. “We’re all worried about the environment, and eating a plant-based diet is known to be one of the best things you can do,” he says. “If somebody said to you, I don’t give a s--- about recycling, you’d think, ‘Oh that’s a bit selfish,’ but if they say they’re vegan, you hate them.”
It’s all material for Ranganathan, though. He would never do a joke that he didn’t think was “relevant”, he says, but don’t bet on his take on it. “My default position,” he says, “is contrary.”