“When will Sky finally make an outstanding original drama?”
“Why has British TV found it so difficult to make really effective use of black stars like Idris Elba and how can it do so?”
These are two questions I have asked at various times over the past decade. Both have been answered in the last weeks. What is surprising is that the answer to both was pretty much the same – personal projects created by leading black British actors.
Sky’s attempts at original drama have usually involved buying up established talent and throwing it together in the expectation of automatic success, usually in formats that have proven recently successful. TV, like the movies, is a copycat medium – if something is a success, then try to replicate it. This is the exact opposite of “originality”, but genuine originality has to come from somewhere and, in British TV, that has usually meant the BBC or Channel 4. Even ITV occasionally comes up with something new which it then attempts to replicate ad nauseam, a la Broadchurch, but Sky’s efforts to date have been utterly derivative, from Mad Dogs (2011-13), which threw four then “hot” actors together in a gangster plot which basically ripped off Sexy Beast, to Fortitude (2015-), with its attempt to merge Scandi-noir with the vogue for crime mysteries in enclosed communities.
Last year, Sky presented its most promising effort yet – Guerrilla (Sky Atlantic), which was well worth watching but lacked the vital ingredients to make it outstanding, as well as containing what I thought was an unsuitable and under-developed role for…..Idris Elba. But the solution was at hand, and it was to commission an original drama from one of the many black British stars who had found fame and success in the USA. Actually, Lennie James was not somebody whom British TV had not found a role for in the past – he was excellent in the first season of Line of Duty (BBC2, 2012) and had a few writing credits to his name, such as The Bill. But nothing prepared us for the impact of Save Me, just concluded on Sky Atlantic.
The plot of Save Me has several points of comparison to Channel 4’s Kiri, aired in January – a mixed-race girl goes missing and her estranged black father becomes involved in the search. It even has a sympathetic black female detective in common with the earlier piece, but there the two diverge, with Save Me investigating the ghastly world of organised paedophilia and the effect of the girl’s disappearance on her parents and their circles of friends and associates, and most particularly on her father, Nelly. Lennie plays Nelly, and the inversion of his name seems to indicate that this is maybe an alternative version of himself. He certainly inhabits the character totally and in turn creates an utterly memorable social milieu for the character to inhabit – the run-down estate, the pub, the gang of locals.
What strikes you the most is the strength of the writing and the scenes James has created, many of them searingly uncomfortable yet totally gripping. It reminded me of This Is England at its best and I can’t offer much higher praise than that, but it is its own thing, not a copy of anything else. That comparison is perhaps prompted by the casting of Stephen Graham, an actor whose mere presence makes an average script good, a good one great and a great one outstanding – and this is a great script. A great cast, too, also including fine work from Suranne Jones and Kerry Godliman, alongside Graham and the others, and a brief yet indelible cameo from Adrian Edmondson.
I did feel slightly uneasy about the ending (and please skip to the next para now if you haven’t seen it), partly because the way Nelly rescued the girl who was being auctioned seemed a little too easy (though the fact that it wasn’t his daughter after all made for a satisfactory conclusion, which emphasised his own obsession and paranoia over her disappearance) but mainly because of the way it leaves things open for a second season. I certainly think there is room for more stories about Nelly and the others, but a continuation of this particular plotline would be very hard to sustain, so I hope that doesn’t happen – mostly because it just wouldn’t be “original” any more.
Sky has a much better record in original comedy than drama, both in terms of providing a platform for innovative pieces like Julia Davis’ Hunderby (2012-15), Chris O’Dowd’s Moone Boy (2012-15) or the wonderfully surreal This is Jinsy (2011-14), and of commissioning new work involving established comic creations like Alan Partridge. So, they deserve great credit for realising that Idris Elba had the potential for comedy – not just performing it, but also creating it. Maybe it was those commercials he does for them which gave them the idea.
Elba’s creation, In the Long Run (Sky One), is based on his childhood in 1980s London and he plays Walter, the character representing his own father, in the series, much as Lenny Henry did in his own recreation of his seventies teenage years, Danny and the Human Zoo (BBC1, 2015). Another point of reference is Danny Baker’s series based on his memoirs of a seventies adolescence, Cradle to Grave (BBC2, 2015) – In the Long Run uses contemporary pop songs in much the same way. Elba shows a considerable gift for comedy, considering that his reputation is based on dramatic tough-guy roles, which I guess is why his previous British TV vehicle, Luther (BBC), was just that – a creation designed to showcase him, rather than use his talents in something more substantial.
The council estate where the characters live is presented and populated in much the same loving detail as the one in Save Me (I particularly like the balcony singer, who gives both atmosphere and commentary). Unlike Save Me, though, most of the main cast is black (playing immigrants from Sierra Leone), with the exception of Bill Bailey as Walter’s friend Bagpipes and Kellie Shirley as his wife Kirsty. This is an excellent role for Bailey – a wonderful stand-up but hitherto underused as a comic actor. Bailey and Elba are particularly good in their scenes together. The racial politics of the time are a constant presence and reference point, without becoming overwhelming.
As I hinted in my last blog, Save Me goes straight on to my running shortlist for the best of 2018 (and is certainly the best drama on that list so far), but In the Long Run still has to be seen as something which is highly promising and has potential for development – it started a little unevenly, but episode 4 (the engagement party) was a classic and, by the time it reached the sixth and final episode the characters and their relationships were fully established and it had become highly engaging and enjoyable. Definitely one to keep an eye on in the long run.