EXCLUSIVE: Black British culture is reaching a “sweet spot” and creatives no longer have to move to the U.S. to achieve stardom, according to the creators of BBC comedy-thriller Black Ops.
Speaking exclusively to Deadline as BBC Studios shops the show at the London TV Screenings, creator and producer Akemnji Ndifornyen said cultural touchstones such as Netflix’s Top Boy are “accessible to our American cousins like never before.”
“Black British culture is reaching this really sweet spot,” said Ndifornyen, who played Mr Fergusson in Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit. “[Americans] now understand that we’re not just ‘tea and crumpets’ but can really subvert their expectations.”
Alongside fellow Black Ops creator Gbemisola Ikumelo and star Hammed Animashaun, Ndifornyen branded the “one in, one out” Black talent experience in UK TV a thing of the past, partly because “we can go to the U.S. and come back with a bit of cache” and also the influence of the BBC, which he praised for setting “the gold standard.”
“Race has become incidental in lots of drama,” he added.
Ndifornyen cited examples such as Michaela Coel, who followed up critically acclaimed E4 comedy Chewing Gum with BBC/HBO smash I May Destroy You, and Daniel Lawrence Taylor, who created ITV2’s Timewasters and is now making BBC Three drama Boarders.
A more close-to-home example is Ikumelo, he added, who along with Black Ops has been behind sketch show Famalam and BAFTA-winning short Brain in Gear, all for the BBC.
Black Ops star Animashaun said he has “never envisioned” going to the U.S. to help further his career. “I have always been very passionate about working and creating work here in the UK,” he added. “As a Person of Colour, it can be hard to make it here and many go overseas but for me it’s important to stay and crack the code at home.”
Black Ops stars Ikumelo and Animashaun as Kay and Dom, two community support officers who join the Met Police in the hope of cleaning up their community but are unwittingly thrust into the murky world of deep cover infiltration as they become part of a powerful criminal enterprise. Ndifornyen plays Tevin, the leader of the criminal outfit, and writing duo Joe Tucker and Lloyd Woolf have co-written.
With plenty of laughs combined with an intense storyline, the show is described as a comedy-thriller. Ikumelo said this is reflective of contemporary TV being a “post-genre society.”
“I love that the lines have become so muddied,” she added. “When it’s dark, it’s really dark and when it’s comedic, it’s really funny, and I love mixing the two and bending genres.”
Ikumelo, who also starred in Amazon Prime Video’s A League of Their Own and is featuring in the upcoming Jake Gyllenhaal remake of Road House, was inspired by buddy cop comedies such as 21 Jump Street and wanted to make a similar show with Black people at the center. The result is “like sticking characters from Home Alone into the middle of Top Boy,” she joked.
While Black Ops is not directly political, Ikumelo said “Blackness is always politicized,” coming a few weeks after Black 29-year-old Tyre Nichols was assaulted and beaten to death by five officers in Tennessee.
“The act of existing and getting a show made with Black leads is political,” she added. “There are some nods to race relations in the UK [in Black Ops] but we are ultimately being subversive and trying to make people laugh.”
“Conversations will abound” about race relations “just by virtue” of Black creatives making a show about the police, added Ndifornyen.
With BBC Studios shopping Black Ops at the London Screenings this week, Ndifornyen backed the six-parter to sell as either finished tape or be remade in other territories.
“It’s so translatable and ‘franchise-able’,” he added. “Anyone can relate to the odd-couple pairing and being out of one’s depth, and that situation can easily be transposed to a different place.”
Animashaun, who counts Black Mirror and Breeders amongst past credits, said working with Ndifornyen and Ikumelo had been “like rubbing shoulders with royalty.”
“When they asked me to read the script I thought they were pranking me,” he added. “I fell in love with it. I just thought ‘I have to be in this show.’.”