Bilal Zafar’s fourth Fringe show ‘CARE’ is the culmination of recalling events from his first job as a minimum wage care worker after finishing a media degree in Manchester nine years ago. “The pandemic brought to the fore attitudes to older people in the early stages. You could really see people’s attitudes and indifference at this time. I remember the footballer Matt Le Tissier tweeting that it was only going to be the elderly who were going to die and it tells you a lot about how society at large views older people.”
“Culturally in my family we wouldn’t put an elderly relative in a care home, they live with you and you take care of them, it’s just what we do, so it gave me a wider perspective to see what was happening.”
On applying for the job, Bilal wanted to do something with meaning, “When you’re 21 years old everything seems normal, and you don’t question the fact you’re on £6.50 an hour. I had a media degree, and a lot of my friends went into retail, but I wanted to try something nicer, so looked at a Manchester care home.”
“I got the job very easily – almost too easily – and after not long being there an older man came in with a broken leg for respite and the boss told us if we could convince him to stay for longer after he was better, he’d take us on a go-carting trip. They were making between £3000-£5000 a month off each older person for a ‘5 star residential care home’ experience but in reality we were all minimum wage workers, not qualified nurses, and were expected to essentially keep people alive.”
Bilal says this is a show about ‘the minimum wage, big business, and zero hours contracts’ and what this says about attitudes to caring for the elderly, though he isn’t trying to make anyone feel bad in terms of how they choose to care for older relatives. “It is just a very funny show that I use to highlight what went on and how this big private sector American company profited from older people being hidden out of sight, out of mind. It was just a job to my manager, and he wanted us to play a role in securing more residents.”
“A lot of the stuff that went on was odd and it’s only now I’m 30 looking back on it that I realise a lot of it has been buried at the back of my mind.”
During his time at the care home Bilal’s creative skills didn’t go unnoticed and were put to good use “I took on a number of roles like an activities organiser and if there were some older people who were reclusive and didn’t like joining in, I’d be given a rota of 20 minute tea and biscuit chats with each of them. Often they’d talk to me about how they were worried about dying and our chat was essentially like therapy to them.”
When it comes to joining the festival fringe for another year, Bilal is very clear on the role it plays in terms of its format and place in any comedian’s career, “there’s so much pressure on stage for a show to be perfect. The show must be very specific and reflect the stage of your career.”
Throwback to #March2020 and faced with many cancelled gigs, Bilal knew he wanted to do something to push things forward, and has found a dedicated and significant following on Twitch. “Twitch doesn’t have to be perfect, it can be led by something that interests you.”
“I’m picky about what I do work wise, it has to have integrity. I’ve been offered a lot of crap, reality TV ideas around being Asian or Muslim, which is cringe. So when the lockdown hit I was thinking I need to create something. I thought about a few platforms but didn’t like Instagram live and Facebook live is essentially just broadcasting to your family. I’d seen Twitch but hadn’t seen anyone doing comedy on there, or sticking to it. I took some advice from Limmy (fellow Twitcher) who told me to go all in, headfirst, and my Twitch channel was born.”
Bilal studied media studies and “watched films for three years” and has channelled plot twists and characters as part of his football manager series. A cultural phenomenon, Bilal has pioneered an online environment that’s “funny and stupid” and describes viewers as “my audience”.
Inspired by the likes of David Lynch and Twin Peaks, and where his community of followers are drawn into the outcomes, Bilal is clearly pioneering an audience in the digital age, at a time when the fringe, which is dependent on such high investment and output by acts, gives very few guarantees.
The 100th stream episode, “one of the best things I’ve done” says Bilal, was an epic episode was seminal in this new wave of direct to audience broadcasting, culminating in a bullied player’s teddybear telling him to ‘kill the gaffer’, at which point the gaffer has to go back in time and change the outcomes of his behaviour.
Keeping viewers guessing as to what the final outcome will be, conversation app ‘discord’ opened up a whole stream of theories shared by the audience as to the gaffer’s fate. “It allows me to do so much stuff, it’s really fulfilling, much more so than stand-up. Twitch has really helped me find my audience and it provides complete creative freedom that’s much more accessible for people to enjoy comedy.”
Bilal Zafar’s show CARE is at Underbelly: Jersey, 3rd-25th August at 5:30pm. Tickets from £7. Buy tickets here: https://www.underbellyedinburgh.co.uk/events/event/bilal-zafar