Idris Elba’s childhood doesn’t sound like the stuff of comedy. While his home life in a council flat in Hackney, north-east London, was loving and secure, it was a different story at school. For the last two years of his primary education, the actor, director and now sitcom creator was sent to Stormont House on Hackney Downs.
“A special school,” he notes, for kids with “special needs”.
What were his special needs as a ten-year-old in the early 80s? “Asthma!” he laughs. “Yeah, that was a weird two years of my life. I was asthmatic, but I was fine as long as I wasn’t running around. But here I was at this amazing school that was full of kids with very severe disabilities, and kids who were just straight-up bad. I was chucked in the middle of that.”
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He got off to a better start at secondary school. The only child of Ghanaian mum, Eve, and Sierra Leonean dad, Winston, Elba went to a local comprehensive, Kingsland, where the pupils reflected the multi-cultural mix of this most diverse of London boroughs.
But after only one term, “I was snatched from that school because my mum and dad moved to Canning Town.”
His new school, Trinity Boys, in London’s East End, closer to Winston’s job at Ford’s car plant at Dagenham, “was a culture shock on many levels”.
First of all, Elba wasn’t used to a boys-only environment. “Then, of course, I’m a Hackney boy, where Afro-Caribbeans, Asians, white, everyone mixes. Get to Canning Town and everyone’s like: ‘What you doing here, you black b*****d?’ ‘Whoa, who you calling a black b*****d?’” he recalls.
And yet, Elba has taken these formative experiences and used them as the backdrop for his first major comedy project. In the Long Run is made by Elba’s production company, Green Door, directed by comedy veteran Declan Lowney (Father Ted, Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa) and set in inner-city London in the mid-80s.
It grew out of 2015’s King for a Term, a one-off Sky Arts comedy drama written and directed by Elba and based on his time at Stormont House. “There was so much material we didn’t use, so Sky said, ‘Is there a fuller length version of this?’ So the original ideas that became the scripts for In the Long Run were just me talking about my life. And then as it developed with the writers, with them talking about their own lives in the 80s, that started to form the structure of the show.”
Elba plays Walter, who’s based on his own dad, while Bill Bailey plays upstairs neighbour and car factory workmate Bagpipes. Sammy Kamara is Kobna, aka the young Elba, best mates with Bagpipes’s son Dean (Mattie Boys). Kobna’s life is upended by the arrival from Sierra Leone of Uncle Valentine, a flamboyant ladies man and DJ who – cheerfully ignorant of social niceties in England – takes the youngster under his wing.
Bailey can relate. As he and Elba drink tea after the Radio Times photoshoot in central London, the comedian acknowledges that, while his childhood in small-town, monocultural Somerset was far from the madding crowd of Hackney, he understands intergenerational contrast and conflict.
“My grandfather was a stonemason who lived in the end of our house with my grandmother,” says the 54-year-old. “So there were three generations in the one house, which caused a few bits of tension now and again.”
As to the autobiographical quotient of In the Long Run, Elba says that his uncle was indeed a DJ and inspired his own DJ career – which he maintains to this day. His dad died five years ago, but his uncle is still alive, although he asks me not reveal his name. Maybe the real-life Uncle Valentine doesn’t want to risk copping flak for causing the asthma attack that fells Kobna/Idris at the end of the first episode…
“Asthma was quite a dominating factor in my life early on, and I still carry a pump now,” says Elba, who at 45 is filming another series of Luther and couldn’t be any more robust.
“But also, as you do with some things, you find levity in them,” he continues. “My mum used to say to me: ‘You’ve got asthma because you eat too many sweets.’
“One time I had this massive asthma attack, and I went for chest x-rays. The doctor showed us the results – there were these real intense blobs where the arteries were clogged up. And my mum looks at me and says: ‘You see? Maltesers,’” Elba recounts, in a thick West African accent, much to Bailey’s amusement.
Did the Elbas have neighbours like Bagpipes and his white working-class family? “Yeah, of course. My best friend at the time, he lived at 10a, we lived at 9a, so that bit of the show is true. You know, the community in Hackney at the time was stronger,” reflects the actor, who first found success far from home in Baltimore on the set of the critically acclaimed drama The Wire.
But as we see in TV news footage in the show’s first episode, this was also the era of the 1981 Brixton riots. Elba remembers watching the bulletins, but admits he had no understanding of the racial dimension to the street battles happening on the other side of the Thames.
Still, the scripts for In the Long Run are carefully and deliberately seeded with the casual racism that was the tenor of the times. “It’s good that that’s come across,” says Elba, “because in early, early talks that was something I wanted to be upfront about. I wanted people to be reminded that, as PC as we all are now – which is fine, it’s good – we were thicker-skinned back then. Not that it makes casual racism right,” he clarifies, “but actually in the long run we all got along with it.”
Elba wanted his show to recognise that nothing is ever clear-cut where race is concerned. “At one point my character’s wife says something like: ‘They’re English, they don’t know any better.’ And there’s an Asian character who is casually racist towards Africans. We wanted to make sure it was a full picture.”
It’s those complexities, chips in the other half of the “Elbailey” odd couple, that drew him to the scripts. “Normally I get a script and it says: ‘Bewildered West Country farmer.’ Ooh, I wonder what character I’m going to be playing…”
Will In the Long Run do for the British sitcom what Black Panther has done for the blockbuster superhero movie – change the conversation about what stories audiences will flock to? Quite possibly, although for all his ambition, Elba won’t make such grand statements.
“The heart of this show is that it’s going to appeal to people who want to step outside of dreary 2018 – where everything is very sensitive – and just laugh with a community of people that you can relate to,” he states. “One way or another.”
The whole first series of In the Long Run will be available to watch on Sky from Thursday 29th March