What’s this? As parts of the UK emerge – tentatively – from lockdown, is Idris Elba back to shooting already? From the looks of his Zoom backdrop on my laptop, he appears to be on location. Well, in a trailer on a film or TV set somewhere in the countryside.
Apparently not. He’s just in a caravan “in England”. As he points out with a chuckle, he spends most of his life in these mobile dressing rooms, “sitting and waiting for them to knock on your door and say, ‘Five minutes!’ So I bought my own caravan so I could still have that experience.”
Regardless of his modest set-up, the Londoner is one of the country’s best-regarded and hardest-working actors. The 47-year-old’s CV includes TV drama (HBO’s The Wire, the BBC’s Luther – of which he’s been reported saying, “We are this close to making a film”), Hollywood blockbusters (Avengers, Star Trek Beyond, Thor), documentaries (exploring his love for fast cars and mixed martial arts), directing (his debut feature film, Yardie, was released in 2018) and production (via his Green Door Pictures company).
He’s all over sitcom, too, as seen in last year’s Netflix show Turn Up Charlie and his partly autobiographical Sky 1 show In the Long Run, which returns for its third series this week.
Occupying an adjacent Zoom screen on my laptop is Jimmy Akingbola. He’s Elba’s co-star in In the Long Run; they play brothers Walter and Valentine in the comedy about an African family living on an east London housing estate in the 1980s. Co-produced by Green Door and created by Elba, it’s based on his experiences of growing up in Hackney. In an echo of his own childhood, the show also stars Bill Bailey and Kellie Shirley as Walter’s neighbours and best friends.
Akingbola – who’s also known for playing Mick in BBC comedy Rev and Baron Reiter in US superhero series Arrow – is normally based in Los Angeles, but he’s spent lockdown at his London home. As RT’s joint interview warms up, the friends spend a few seconds comparing the challenges of three months’ facial hair.
“This is a lockdown beard,” says Akingbola, stroking his luxuriant chin thatch, “that I just tried to tidy up. But I’m getting used to it.”
“You look very handsome with it,” affirms Elba. He’s rocking a salt-’n’-pepper moustache, although until recently he was as fully bearded as his pal. “But I thought I’d better try and see what my face actually looks like.”
A clean(er) shaven face – not to mention the caravanning mini-break – could be part of Elba’s rehab. Near the beginning of the global shutdown caused by the pandemic, he went public on social media with the fact that both he and his wife, Sabrina Dhowre, had tested positive. Now, he says, he’s “fully recovered… and feeling honestly lucky to be alive and thankful for being able to kick that”.
How badly did Covid-19 hit him? “I was asymptomatic so I didn’t get the major symptoms everyone else got. So, therefore, on that scale, not bad. Mentally it hit me very bad, because a lot was unknown about it. I felt very compelled to speak about it, just because it was such an unknown. So the mental impact of that on both myself and my wife was pretty, ah, traumatic. I needed the lockdown to try to get over it,” he smiles ruefully. “And it turns out the world actually probably needed the lockdown, too.”
As has been widely documented – but far from fully explained – Covid-19 is having a disproportionate impact on Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities. Last month a study of “Disparities in the risks and outcomes of Covid-19” by Public Health England found that, taking age into account, from 21 March to 1 May black men were 3.9 times more likely than white men to die from the virus. As of 13 May, the mortality rate for white men was 70 deaths per 100,000; for black men it was 257 per 100,000.
“My family’s lost people during Covid,” nods Akingbola when I bring this up. “And when you look at the numbers for black men, yes, they’re so much higher. And across black, brown, the statistics are higher, not only here but in America as well.
“My initial feeling, if I’m honest, was I was scared, and I was angry as well. Because it’s been obvious that the majority of us are also on the front line,” referring to the fact that key workers in many sectors, including medical teams and public transport, are, again, disproportionately drawn from non-white communities. “And I think the Government has been terrible – and I’m being polite!” he laughs.
This issue has been particularly acute for Akingbola for another important reason. Since the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in May, the actor has been heavily involved in the Black Lives Matter movement. This includes taking part in demonstrations, which were in contravention of social-distancing rules and deemed to be a significant public health risk (although, at time of writing, there have been no reported infection spikes connected to the protests).
“It’s a tough one,” he says. “In terms of the protests: yeah, I self-distance, but I went to the first one at Trafalgar Square. It’s quite interesting when you look at the lack of leadership from our Government this year, and you saw people off at beaches, doing what they want.
“But when you look at something like the BLM movement: I was at home, about to read a friend’s script, and I was like: I can’t be at home. This is bigger than anything. I’ve got to go. I’ve got to be able to look in my nephew’s eyes. ‘What did you do, uncle?’ ‘I went on a march.’ And I’m doing stuff in my own lane as well, to try to make a change,” says the actor, who’s a founding partner in production company the Triforce Creative Network (“built on a strong ethos of inclusion and access”). “I feel like we need to keep protesting, otherwise things won’t change.”
Yes, he acknowledges, there remains an inherent danger in any mass gathering. “But it’s a time when you can’t be silent. You can’t be still. You have to act. The globe is angry and ready to make change. I really feel like this is a turning point. We have to keep the foot on the pedal.”
As it has in many other areas of life, that belated acceleration has been tearing through the film and TV industry. The day before we speak, the BBC announced they will spend £100 million over three years to improve diversity and inclusivity in its programming.
When I ask Elba if that’s enough, his reply is calmly logical. “How do you quantify amplification of diversity? Diversity, by way of how many different types of human beings there are on the planet, is an ever-flowing tap. Can’t quantify that. But, not to comment on what the BBC have done, any steps moving forward to amplify diversity in storytelling is a good step. That doesn’t necessarily mean money – but money helps. It’s a shift in attitude, in perspective, in tolerance. And you can’t put an amount on that.”
As Akingbola points out, actions speak louder than both words and money. Those thoughts were cogently spelled out in another progressive development: the publication, hours before the BBC announcement, of what was titled An Open Letter to the UK Film and TV Industry.
Signatories in the first three days topped 4,300, “predominantly from people of colour”, noted the organisers, and included Akingbola, Elba, Michaela Coel, Noel Clarke, David Oyelowo, Sophie Okonedo, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Meera Syal, Gurinder Chadha, Asif Kapadia, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, David Harewood and Himesh Patel. The letter called for four “strategic commitments… to reshape our industry”: “Banish ‘your weak excuses’”; “empower black and brown independent producers”; “expand your vision”; and “be more demanding”.
View this post on Instagram
We ❤ the NHS. This week's Radio Times has four special covers featuring Miranda Hart, Charlie Brooker & Konnie Huq, David Tennant and Stephen Fry. See inside this week's issue where some of television's biggest stars pay tribute to our amazing health service and much more. Click the link in our bio to see how to get your copy, available now… . . . #radiotimes #radiotimescover #davidtennant #mirandahart #stephenfry #konniehuq #charliebrooker #nhs #nationalheathservice
Akingbola has had direct experience of those “weak excuses”. In May, someone asked on Twitter if anyone knew of a “black history and culture version of Mastermind”. After a fan chipped in with a shout-out for a 2016 pilot for an ITV2, Triforce-produced quiz show called Sorry, I Didn’t Know, Akingbola tweeted back: “We tried but unfortunately @ITV didn’t want it and same goes for @BBCOne @BBCTwo @Channel4 @Channel5_tv @SkyTV. We are trying the USA now #DiversityandInclusion”.
“For us it was about making an inclusive show,” says Akingbola. “Remember the days when people would watch Blockbusters or Catchphrase, the whole family together, chipping in with answers? Sorry, I Didn’t Know was a comedy panel show that flipped the game in terms of what we’re used to – white men being the captains, the token Asian guy, black guy, women…”
For the Triforce team, their show, which inverted those tropes, was “a no-brainer”. But all those broadcasters he mentioned in his tweet didn’t agree. For Akingbola, those “weak excuses” can’t be banished quickly enough. “It really is frustrating and tiring when you get the same responses – ‘we’ve got our own show’, ‘it’s a bit niche’ – or you don’t get any response.”
With his tweet, he adds, he was trying to point out the glaringly obvious: “Here’s a show that’s ready to go. It needs a home, it needs a commission, it needs someone to engage with us to help make it happen.”
Such specific demands and challenges, I say to Elba, are what made their open letter powerful and, hopefully, undeniable. By way of response, he begins: “You and I both know…” He’s acknowledging that he and I have explored these topics in several previous encounters. We have discussed the “novelty” of a black British detective series before Luther launched, the endless rumours that he’d be the first black James Bond and the “casual racism” that Elba ensured was carefully seeded through the scripts for the first series of In the Long Run in 2018. Yes, it’s a comedy. But it had to reflect the racial realities of the times, as experienced by the young Idris and his family.
“Any seismic, meaningful shift, in anything – any organisation, a small business, a large business, a country, a society – requires planning,” notes Elba. “It requires tasks. It requires real goals. And when we talk about racism in our society, in an industry, the way that makes most sense is to give people targets to move towards. To really highlight what moves the needle.
“And I’m being political about that answer. Because this conversation is truly to talk about one of those programmes, this particular show,” he says, not unreasonably steering the discussion back to In the Long Run – and, it seems, to his frustration that it doesn’t get more viewers and more acclaim.
“We wish it could hit more people. We wish it gets more of a shout in terms of how brave the show is, and how specific it is about what it’s tackling.” He concludes on a defiantly hopeful note: “I called it In the Long Run because the saying is: in the long run, we’re all the same.”
And in the long run, things change, too. Episodes of Little Britain have been pulled, their humour in places now deemed, to put it mildly, off-colour. Is it right that offensive shows, scenes, characters and so-called jokes are excised?
“I’m very much a believer in freedom of speech,” says Elba. “But the thing about freedom of speech is that it’s not suitable for everybody. That’s why we have a rating system: we tell you that this particular content is rated U, PG, 15, 18, X… I don’t know anything about X, by the way,” he jokes.
To Elba, racism should be no different from sexism. There should be a ratings system that warns viewers that a film or show has outdated, insulting viewpoints. “To mock the truth, you have to know the truth. But to censor racist themes within a show, to pull it,” Elba says with a wince, “wait a second, I think viewers should know that people made shows like this…
“Yes, out of respect for the time and the movement, commissioners and archive-holders pulling things they think are exceptionally tone-deaf at this time – fair enough and good for you. But I think, moving forward, people should know that freedom of speech is accepted, but the audience should know what they’re getting into.”
He references his and Akingbola’s backgrounds, as Britons of Ghanaian/Sierra Leonean and Nigerian heritages respectively. “Jimmy and I could tell a story about our upbringing. And that may have moments where we are actually livid at society, or livid at a white person, or livid at an Indian. Should we not tell that story? Or should we be allowed to tell that story with our truth, and it be branded so that people know what they’re getting into?
“I don’t believe in censorship,” Elba says again. “I believe that we should be allowed to say what we want to say. Because, after all, we’re story-makers.”
All of which brings us back to In the Long Run. “To be able to premiere a third season of this show at this time is unique, says its creator. “We should be celebrating that.”
This interview originally appeared in the Radio Times magazine. For the biggest interviews and the best TV listings subscribe to Radio Times now and never miss a copy.