Nina Wadia: Why EastEnders, Goodness Gracious Me and Strictly Come Dancing star is heading back to pantomime

She might be best known for appearances in EastEnders, Goodness Gracious Me and Strictly, but after a 33-year absence, Nina Wadia is going back to pantomime. Catherine Scott meets her.

It was 33 years ago that Nina Wadia, fresh out of drama school, last found herself appearing in pantomime. “It was Robin Hood at the Theatre Royal in Stratford East,” she recalls. “I trained in classical theatre and thought pantomime was some form of mime. It was a shock being brand new out of drama school and all of a sudden going into an audition thinking mime was involved. They asked if I could sing and dance and I said ‘what kind of mime is that?’

Now, she is appearing in only her second ever pantomime at another Theatre Royal but this time in York and it is Jack and the Beanstalk, having made her name for herself on the small screen in the ground breaking Goodness Gracious Me, Eastenders and Strictly Come Dancing.

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But being a television actress wasn’t something she planned either. “I thought I was going to be a theatre girl for the rest of my life.”

Nina Wadia is famed for her roles in Eastenders and Goodness Gracious MeNina Wadia is famed for her roles in Eastenders and Goodness Gracious Me
Nina Wadia is famed for her roles in Eastenders and Goodness Gracious Me

But then, 25 years ago she was approached to be in a radio series about an Asian family in Britain. Goodness Gracious Me was the change Nina’s life.

“I’ve said this many times but I just thought if we can make other brown people laugh at our jokes we’ll have done well,” she says.

“The truth is it took off in such a spectacular way that I was in a state of shock at how huge it was. It took my career in a completely different direction. I had a career in radio (where Goodness Gracious Me began before moving to BBC2) and hadn’t done television before.

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“It was an entirely different media, one of those live Friday night shows with multi cameras. I didn’t know how to work with one camera, let alone five. The thing is to just sit with the sound man or cameraman and learn. What you see on screen is me learning to act on screen.”

Launch of York Theatre Royal's Jack and the Beanstalk. Nina Wadia (Fair Sugarsnap).
Photographed for the Yorkshire Post by Jonathan Gawthorpe.Launch of York Theatre Royal's Jack and the Beanstalk. Nina Wadia (Fair Sugarsnap).
Photographed for the Yorkshire Post by Jonathan Gawthorpe.
Launch of York Theatre Royal's Jack and the Beanstalk. Nina Wadia (Fair Sugarsnap). Photographed for the Yorkshire Post by Jonathan Gawthorpe.

Nina was born in India but moved to Hong Kong with her family when she was nine. She went to school there and had dream of being a writer although her parents really wanted her to be a lawyer.

“When I was at school I used to love writing things that made people laugh – that was my real passion. But my parents, especially my mum, wanted me to be lawyer."

But when she had to take over a part in the school play when another pupil fell ill she decided she wanted to be an actress.

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“I got the biggest buzz from it and so in my final year when I was 18 I auditioned for the Importance of Being Ernest and got the role of Lady Bracknell. It went down a storm and I started to think maybe this is what I want to do.”

Her brother and sister were living in the UK and in the early 1990s, Nina moved to Sutton, south London, and attended a small theatre school in Richmond although she didn’t finish the course.

"I just wanted to work,” she recalls. But for nearly a year after she left she did everything other than act. “I parked cars, cleaned cars, did some accounting – anything but act. After 11 months I started to think I had made a terrible mistake.

“If you were an ethnic actor the chances of you getting a job were very low.” But then the team at The Theatre Royal Stratford East spotted her and gave her a couple of her first breaks – including Robin Hood. She got an agent and more work followed. "I started to realise I hadn’t made a mistake – all I needed was for someone to take chance on me. I’ve never shied away from hard work. I am passionate about the theatre and radio and I never had any interested in television or film – I was happy just to do theatre.

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“I was appearing ‘Do You Eat With Your Fingers?’, which was my version of Goodness Gracious Me. And I got seen in that show and they said I must be on television – I had no clue what I was doing, but my career went crazy. I went to Canada to see my sister and that’s where I met my husband and when I flew back people started stopping me in the street to tell me how much they loved the show.”

Goodness Gracious Me was a sketch comedy that aired in 1998, the show poked fun at British Asian life and stereotypes.

“We wanted a show that was for Asians – something we could laugh at, something where were could show our experiences of bring brown and living in Britain, which is why we were so surprised when so many people found it funny,” says Nina who appeared Strictly Come Dancing in 2012.

“There are certain things where I look back and think I am surprised we got away with that. At the same time the world has become too politically correct and woke and as long as humour is done without malice and with love, we should celebrate our differences and similarities. We weren’t preaching we were just asking people to watch what we experience for themselves.”

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It was while she was having some time out to have her family that Nina was approached to appear in Eastenders. “They wanted me to create a character for them – like Pauline Fowler but funny was what they said. I had only had my baby six weeks earlier and I have never even watched Eastenders.” She decided that as her contract was only for six moths she could spare the time. Six months became six years as her character Zainab Masood became an integral part of the cast.

“I left EastEnders because I was missing creating. For me, half the fun of being an actor is creating different people and I felt I needed to do that rather than play just one character. I don’t regret doing EastEnders, never in a million years, because it raised my profile with a different demographic and brought me a lot of very different roles as well. So I can’t complain about it.”

Although she believes society has moved on somewhat for Asian and black actors, she says there is still a long way to go.

"The York pantomime is the first time I have ever been on a poster outside a theatre,” says Nina. When not acting, and even when she is, Nina dedicates her time to supporting a wide variety of charities that are close to her heart. She has received an OBE for her charity work.

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She’s an ambassador for Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. Her son Aiden almost died because his Type 1 Diabetes hadn’t been diagnosed. “He was diagnosed six years ago (when he was ten years old),” says Nina who has written a book about the experience.

She campaigns for kidney research after her mothers death and for Barnardo’s after the death of her father who was an orphan in India. “What I like about Barnado’s is that they give young people a skill.

“I am a Parsi Zoroastrian – Freddie Mercury is the only other famous one I know of – whose ethos is about being a good human being. My parents told me the importance of being kind and giving. My charity work has always been focused around things that have affected our family and hopefully make change for other people so they don’t hurt as much.”

Nina Wadia can be seen in Jack and the Beanstalk at the Theatre Royal York until January 7. Box office 01904 623568 or visit

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