'I had a terrible work ethic when I was younger': Allan Mustafa Photo: Dominic Marley
“When I hear the voice of the working class on TV, I want to know how they got there,” actor, writer and musician Allan Mustafa “Sipa” tells his friends. “I want to know everyone's story. I think: “How did you get there?” Because my story is not ordinary.
We're in the office in Faringdon, where Mustafa is doing surprisingly well with jet lag, having returned from a holiday in Sri Lanka the day before. Although he is tired, he has a lot to do. In theory, he's here to talk about Channel 4's crime comedy The Grudge, which has already aired its second series. Then there's his YouTube channel Taste Cadets, on which he indulges his love of food, and the People Just Do Nothing podcast. Personally, he is warm, charismatic and, unlike many comedians, funny. He has the speed of speech of his most famous character, the delusional wannabe musician MC Grindah of the Bafta-winning People Just Do Nothing, but not the monstrous ego of Grindah.
Hard work didn't always come naturally to him. He says he's an unusual figure in the British comedy scene, which is dominated by clean, middle-class performers who hone their skills in Edinburgh before landing safe jobs in television. Mustafa was born in 1985 to a Czech mother and a Kurdish Iraqi father who fled Saddam Hussein's regime in the early 1980s. Allan grew up in Chessington, on the outskirts of London. It is often rumored around immigrant parents that they inspire their children to a ruthless work ethic. Not him.
“When I was younger, I had a terrible work ethic,” he says. “I didn’t do well in school, I had so many jobs that I got fired from. My parents fled Baghdad in the early 80's, so I think their vision of who I should have been was different from who I was. The immigrant parents took a big risk coming here, they don't want you to take the risk again and go into the creative industry. My Kurdish cousin grew up on an estate in Croydon, his father was Pershmeg and he is a heart surgeon. But I was so lazy. I delivered newspapers and ended up just hiding the papers. When I was 16, my mother got me a job as a carpet cleaner for a carpet company, but the owner came back to find me sitting on a swivel chair with a vacuum cleaner reading a newspaper, and fired me.”
As a teenager, his outlet was music. He grew up in the UK garage scene of the early 2000s, where all his friends wanted to be MCs, DJs or graffiti artists. (He was arrested for graffiti when he was 12.) Was he always funny?
Allan Mustafa in episode two of The Curse
“I don’t think funny people are allowed to talk like that,” he laughs. “But when I went to this school in Chessington, all the other kids already knew each other – mostly white working-class kids, and then I was a foreigner. The naughty kids wanted me around because I was funny and got away with everything.”
After this lackluster high school career, Mustafa went to Thames Valley College, where he did not work, but met Asim Chaudhry and Hugo Chegwin, and later Steve Stamp, who shared his passion for smoking weed, lounging, and making music. It was from this lifestyle and the suburban boredom that surrounded it that people who simply do nothing eventually emerged: the story of four buddies in Brentford who run the pirate radio station Kurupt FM, and whose dreams far outstrip the reality of their position. Like Basil Fawlty, or David Brent, or Alan Partridge—all Mustafa's comic inspirations—MC Grinda sees a lion in the mirror, and the audience sees a tabby cat. Where their comedic ancestors were mostly middle-class despite their frustrations, the world that Grinda and his friends live in is hopeless, a world of little stories and drab tenements. People don't do anything, but they don't have anything either.
“It definitely drew inspiration from childhood in the suburbs,” says Mustafa. “It's not the countryside where you live an outdoor lifestyle, and it's not the city center where you always know what's going on. It creates this culture of frustration and doing nothing. But the flip side is that they are a group of friends, while Partridge and Brent are on their own. They try to be loved, but they fail. “People Just Don't Do Nothing” has a sadness, but also a sweetness.”
Asim Chaudhry, Hugo Chegwin, Steve Stamp, Allan Mustafa and Daniel Sylvester Woolford in People Just Don't Do Nothing . Author: Jack Barnes
They launched a show on YouTube where it was a revelation that you can simply upload your films before they get picked up by the BBC. Sequels and awards followed, and finally the 2021 feature film Big in Japan. Kurupt FM have developed a life outside of the show by playing real gigs and releasing real music – although it's technically a parody, many of their tunes are real hits, which continues today – hence the podcast. While the gang has moved on to solo and side projects, they constantly return to each other, as in “The Grudge”, which Mustafa, Stamp and Chegwin co-created. Mustafa plays Albert Fantoni, a small-time con man who gets caught up in the biggest gold heist of all time. The second outing finds the gang on the run in southern Spain, spending their ill-gotten gains trying to avoid the gangsters who are after them.
“Writing something more action-packed is a difficult task,” he says. “It's still marketed as a comedy, but we like thrillers and old-school movies, and we've brought more immersion to it, while also making it fun. It's more than straight-forward comedy. It's a learning curve.”
“We are brothers,” he adds, working alongside his old bandits. “In the future, we may have families and big jobs, so we won’t have time to work together as much, so while we can, why not? There are chemistry, there are tolerance levels. We love each other and that's easy.”
Steve Stamp and Allan Mustafa in People Just Don't Do Nothing. Author: Jack Barnes
Another passion of his is food, through his YouTube project Taste Cadets, which he does with Marcus Adams, a tattoo artist, and Kieran Kavanagh, a former chef. They just taped the series in Vietnam and are going to Glasgow later this year ahead of a planned trip to Kurdistan where Mustafa, who speaks Kurdish, will meet his paternal family. “I've never been there, so it's about time,” he says. “My dad tried to instill culture in me and we ate this food and celebrated the Kurdish New Year, but I didn't care when I was younger. I didn't know how special and important it is to be a Kurd in the sense that there are a lot of people who can't because it's illegal in their country.”
Thrill added to the trip: Musfafa's father died 11 years ago, before the “People Just Don't Do Nothing” victory. “He was a classic Middle Eastern man who invested everything in his business: failed and tried again. He wanted me to be good at something. He didn't feel like I had failed, he just didn't see the way yet.
“Actually, I remember – it's a little profound, but damn it – he was in the Czech Republic, getting cancer treatment while we were writing the pilot for 'People Just Don't Do Anything.' But I didn't tell my parents about the show, not even what's on YouTube, because I used to lie about a lot of things.
“I thought, 'I won't speak until I have something specific to show you.' Then we got the green light for the pilot, so I called him to say, 'Dad It sounds weird, but I'm going to be an actor for the BBC.” He simply replied, “Hello, hello?” His brain didn't work. I thought it sounded normal, but it's not. I hope he knew, but here. This is life, isn't it?”
The second series of “The Curse” is already out on Channel 4