Starting off as a 15-minute pilot last year as part of BBC Three’s Comedy Feeds season, Dane Baptiste returns to our screens with a four-part series of Sunny D.
He plays Dane, approaching 30 he still lives with his parents in his childhood bedroom, an arrangement nobody is particularly happy about. He hates his job and is desperately ambitious for the finer things in life.
His family is celebrating his Dad’s (Don Warrington) birthday with a party. The milestone is an unwelcome reminder for Dane that he’s yet to achieve any of his goals in life. To make matters worse, his relatives compare Dane with his twin sister Kadean (Gbemisola Ikumelo); his perfect cousin Christian (Akemnji Indifornyen) and his high-achieving girlfriend Nicola (Sasha Frost).
After enjoying the pilot, I decided to have a chat with Dane about creating Sunny D as well as diversity in British television. Here’s what he had to say…
First things first, how would you sum up Sunny D?
Hopefully, it’s an escape for anybody who’s going through what I’m going through. In the last episode, the D is for ‘Dreams’.
What is it that you’re going through?
I guess, it’s trying to balance between family obligations and romantic obligations, as well as having a dream and trying to wake myself up from the sleep of a corporate job or a nine-to-five.
It’s thinking about doing something for yourself and being able to live with yourself. It’s more about being able to live with yourself and trying to live, than it is about just trying to make a living.
How much of the character of Dane is you?
Quite a bit, so far as being very unhappy with work. I’m probably not all that opposed to my family members.
In fact, I probably get on with them a lot better now because my new career seems to be a lot more prosperous than when I first started.
He’s also a combination of the conversations I’ve had with some of my friends who are unhappy with how their lives turned out.
It’s trying to be a mouthpiece for that disenfranchised group of generation X, Y & millennial who were told that if you work hard enough you can get a house and a car and a family.
But with London house prices and over 40% of marriages ending in divorce, and 1 in 3 people developing some form of cancer and not being able to get a pension until you’re 80, a lot of them were starting to cotton not the lie.
So capturing that mentality… but with hilarious effect! Hopefully.
As a stand-up, how have you found the sitcom process?
I’ve found it rewarding. It’s challenging because I guess I’m used to having the final word and putting together the punchline when I write a joke. Whereas with dialogue, sometimes you have to write for your co-stars and make sure they have a funny line over something you may have said.
So it’s been quite introspective, thinking what’s the funny thing I could say to something funny that I said. It’s just pushing yourself to becoming a more rounded writer able to develop a voice for other people as well as yourself.
I was able to build a great rapport with my co-stars very quickly, which made it easier and allowed my writing to flourish.
If people did have particular skills and nuances that leant themselves to their characters, and made a funnier show, then I gave them the opportunity to do that.
Writing for television, you’ve got a lot more stimuli to rely on. It’s a lot more visual, rather than just creating gags with your mouth. But then I guess the challenge is being able to outsmart yourself in your writing.
Sometimes you need to be able to own up to the fact that your baby can be ugly!
Sunny D started off as a pilot which was shown on BBC Three last year. How helpful has that been to receive feedback before launching into a series?
It helped because I was able to take some feedback, look at it, scrutinise it and sometimes it’s nice to turn to old material with educated eyes.
You can pick out what the strengths and weaknesses were and develop those. It was a great way of testing the waters because I was trying to create an aesthetic that people hadn’t really seen before on British television.
Were you pleased with the reaction? Because I see on Twitter every week, people are asking you when the series is out. Does that make you more or less nervous?
It varies to be honest. Sometimes I’m like “I can’t wait for it to come out”, sometimes I’m like “Just get it over with please!”, but I’m very pleased with the anticipation.
Sometimes it’s good to build a buzz, thanks to people who have maintained some interest in it. I feel that even with the existing interest, I was more concerned with making sure that the product was quality. I spent a lot of time going over stuff in the edit.
Yes, there is a dedicated audience that have been enquiring about it, but I’m confident that word-of-mouth is still a very effective way of communicating quality produce. So the more people that see it, and the more people they can tell about it, should hopefully mean that it can be enjoyed by a large group.
I really hope that a lot of the aesthetics and the references that I put in there are picked up on by the right people.
Where did the idea for the various music and TV parodies come from? And how did you choose those references?
In a very similar way to how I do my stand-up, sometimes it’s a lot easier to demonstrate a point by citing precedence.
The format of the show is that I’m breaking the fourth wall, I’m making a lot of arguments for what I think is wrong with life. Whenever you have to deliver an argument, like in a courtroom, you always cite precedence. So that’s where the idea for some of the jump cuts came from.
“Guys, here’s what I think. And here is a visual representation of what I think” It helps a lot more because people are visual creatures, so the more light, sound and colour that I can provide to create a more vivid image, as well as describing it, the better.
I wasn’t necessarily a latchkey kid, but I had a cable box when I was a kid at home. We didn’t have Sky, but we had cable and we had it chipped – and I can say that because the statute of limitations is way past being able to prosecute.
I was able to gorge myself on a lot of American television as well as the British television that I grew up on. So I’ve just been able to combine all of those influences, and things that have helped me form my comedic ways, and share them with the potential audience.
I’m trying to show people what has been influential in creating my comedy voice, where it comes from, and why potentially it could be so unique.
In the last year, if you look at comedy on British television, I can only name Chewing Gum, as one which has a black cast.
Where do you stand on diversity in British television and comedy in particular?
Two decades ago, there was probably a healthy balance across all terrestrial channels, of representation of people of colour. You had shows like The Real McCoy, Goodness Gracious Me and over in the states you had stuff like The Cosby Show.
There was a very broad representation of most people of television and at some point over the last twenty years there was some sort of power shift and that has all faded into obscurity.
Seeing Chewing Gum was great, and very encouraging. But I think the issue is not just the aesthetic of people you’re seeing in front of the camera, but behind the camera as well.
Twenty years is an entire generation. This means that an entire generation have gone through doors of various production companies or been involved in this industry, and because they’ve not seen or had any frame of references for shows with a majority black cast or people or colour, even if they wanted to, they can’t really create it.
I’ve seen a lot of attempts by terrestrial channels to wheel out their token black shows and you can see that there’s not really a lot of investment, and I think that’s part of the problem.
Some people complain about having quotas, but I would actually argue that once you have an equal representation of people of colour, then people will be able to perform their own quality control.
Sunny D will first be shown online as part of the new BBC Three. Are you excited by this apparent move away from linear television?
I am excited by it, and I say this to a lot of people, but now the revolution will not be televised, it will be streamed. It’s just a natural progression of how people consume television now.
Who are you hoping will watch Sunny D?
I hope the people who watch Sunny D are those who are looking for something new and I hope are open minded. I want people who are savvy to a lot of the references, either the aesthetics of the show or the musical references, to see it.
There are a lot of people from my generation who so far, as part of what has been considered as an “urban offering”, have been given stuff which is quite juvenile. So I hope people who are of a certain ethnic background and of a certain age will watch.
With a twenty year gap of a sitcom offering with a black cast, hopefully the people that felt like they were being marginalised by the lack of offering will be able to get on board and get involved in the Sunny D vehicle.
What’s next for you then? More Sunny D? More stand-up?
Both, to be honest with you. It;s been an amazingly rewarding experience putting together Sunny D, so I hope it’s well received and the best scenario would be that I start working on another series.
But in the meantime, I’m going back to stand-up. I’m in the process of drafting my next Edinburgh show and just continuing to create and innovate as much as possible.
New episodes of Sunny D available every Sunday from 10am on BBC Three