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I TALK TO Akemnji Ndifornyen

"I think the ending (to episode one) elevates their stakes because you're left wondering where this could possibly go."

Set to be one of the funniest new comedies of 2023, Black Ops, co-created by Gbemisola Ikumelo and Akemnji Ndifornyen starts Friday on BBC One and stars Gbemisola and Hammed Animashaun as Dom and Kay, two Police Community Support Officers who join the Met Police in the hope of cleaning up their community.

They quickly find themselves unwittingly thrust into the murky world of deep-cover infiltration and when they meet one of the leaders of the infamous Brightmarsh Gang, Tevin, played by Akemnji, their lives become more of a fiasco than Donnie Brasco.

In recent years, Akemnji Ndifornyen has appeared in some superb television comedies, such as Breeders, Mandy and Shrill, as well as the huge global hit The Queen's Gambit, but is perhaps best-known for creating and starring in the BBC sketch series Famalam which cemented his working relationship with Gbemisola Ikumelo, with whom he created Black Ops.

I recently caught up with the co-creator and star of Black Ops, to talk about some of the decisions he made making the series, why anything is possible when it comes to chasing your dreams, why he opted for the villain role and so much more.

I was at the special screening you had in London for the series, what was it like watching it on the big screen and hearing such a positive reaction in the room?

It was interesting because when you finally release something for people to see, it's not yours anymore. You just have to relinquish all control and let people make of it what they will. They'll either anoint you or cut your head off. It's one of the two.

But it was good. It was a really good response. This is at its core a comedy and a thriller so to see episode one get these really big laughs was great. Episode two got laughs too, but not in the same way. Not to spoil anything, but a lot of the thriller elements start to get seeded in episode two. It was loads of fun.

You mention how Black Ops is a comedy and a thriller. Often with comedy dramas, the funny struggles to cut through. But from what I've seen so far with Black Ops, you don't struggle with that. Was that important to you?

Yeah, big time! We're going out on BBC One so we wanted to make sure people are engaged and not using it as a pacifier for their babies. It's not nap music. We wanted to make sure people are engaged and actually gripped.

Especially with the way we consume content now. You need to have a reason to keep people coming back episode after episode. Hopefully, we achieved that. That was always the ambition. To combine the funny with some decent storytelling.

How did Black Ops come about?

Me and Gbemi (Ikumelo) were doing Famalam, the BBC sketch series that I created. I was producing that, it was week one and I was like "Oh, she's brilliant. She's amazing." - I'd worked with her before, but she really was just showing off on Famalam.

So I said "We need a show for her" and the powers that be said "Sure. Get in a room, throw some ideas together" and Gbemi had this wicked idea about these two community support officers who go undercover. So we went from there and started adding layers and personnel to build this world.

That was 2018 actually, just to show you how long TV takes to get made. Those intervening years and months were actually because we became so busy. The side effect of Famalam doing well. Gbemi wrote and starred in A League of Their Own for Amazon, I was doing more Famalam, developing other shows and acting in Shrill and The Queen's Gambit, which meant I was flying back and forth to America.

So it was just really busy until the beginning of 2020 when we put the script together and by the top of 2021 we were filming the pilot, which I directed actually, and a lot of that material forms the basis of episode one.

When did Joe Tucker and Lloyd Woolf come on board?

They'd both written Witless for BBC Three and they came on board really early on actually. A lot of that thriller and storytelling component, because these guys had done Witless it made sense to have them on board.

They also did Click & Collect with Stephen Merchant, so they're really good storytellers. I think you put the dream team of people together and make the funny and the drama happen. That's how it all came about.

How would you best describe Black Ops then?

Black Ops is the story of Dom and Kay, who are two PCSOs, recruited by the MET police to go undercover and infiltrate a criminal enterprise. But they very soon find themselves unstuck to hilarious ends.

You play Tevin. Who is he and how does he fit into the story?

Tevin is one of the leaders of the notorious Brightmarsh gang. They run a very lucrative import/export business, shall we say. And actually, Tevin's partner is Breexe, played by Jaz Hutchins, and they're both at the head of this organisation.

They're not run-of-the-mill, in inverted commas 'gangsters' or 'dealers', they're operation is actually quite sophisticated and that's all I can say without offering any spoilers.

Was it fun for you to play a villain?

It really was actually. People initially thought I was going to play Kay, because that kind of made sense on paper. Being that Gbemi and I had done Famalam together, we'd also done Sunny D together, so it sort of made sense.

I was actually wanting to initially focus on the production side, but then the role of Tevin came up and I jumped at it. It's something different to me. To play someone that doesn't necessarily smile all the time. He adds a lot of gravity to a scene which is an interesting thing to play.

Tevin and Breeze aren't there for laughs all the time. They're there to remind you that there's an ongoing problem for Dom and Kay that they have to meander out of. So it was really run actually. That's the joy of being in this business, where you can play lots of different roles. It was good to stretch my muscles in that way.

A scene I loved was a short one, between Tevin and his daughter in episode two. Will we see more of his family life as the series goes on?

That's a little set-up and a little nugget to the grand plan for Tevin. It's a little seed. But on a small level, it shows you that with everyone, there's more than meets the eye.

Describe the relationship between Dom and Kay.

They're symbiotes. They bring the best out of each other.

Dom is the daughter of a paediatrician, she's very middle class and not street savvy at all. And she is ostensibly a slacker. So we meet her ambling along in her career in the hope that she'll get to retirement age and get the perks that befit someone who works for the police. But actually, underneath all of that, she's really brilliant.

Kay is a very innocent, church-going, God-fearing young man who runs a prayer group. He's invested in the work he does as a PCSO.

So when we meet them, Kay's enthusiasm and vigour for life upsets Dom, who would rather just stay under the radar. But when they're actually put together, you realise that they bring the best out of each other.

Episode two actually pushes that thing a lot, to show that they need each other to achieve their goals and solve whatever they find themselves in. They're a brilliant double act. And a really classic double act.

We've got to talk about the end of episode one. Let's not give anything away about what happens, but feels like something you'd do at the end of a series, not at the end of the first episode. So how did you come to that decision?

Yes!!! I'm glad you saw that! I'm glad you saw that. So we're not going to spoil it, but that is my happiest contribution to the show. When we were in the room and there are several ways you could skin the televisual cat from a storytelling perspective

And actually, I wanted to compress what would have been an episode six into an episode one, so that you go "WHAT is going to happen?!" "How are these guys going to get out of this?" and hopefully that doesn't give away what the thing might be.

The thriller element of the show dictates that two people need to be thrilled. Dom and Kay need to go on the thriller ride and the audience needs to be thrilled as well. So it's a two-way pact, really.

So Dom and Kay's stakes need to be elevated and I think the ending (to episode one) elevates their stakes because you're left wondering where this could possibly go. And I'm so glad you noticed that this would normally happen in episode six. I didn't want that. I was like "Let's give them a problem which then creates other problems."

What were some of your favourite scenes to film?

I really like the scene in episode two with me and Gbemi. Whenever I got to play with Gbemi and Hammed, that was really really fun. Obviously, the stuff we can't spoil from episode one. That was really fun to do.

I also loved working with Jaz Hutchins, a really good man. Anda. really brilliant actor. He's just really funny because he's really cheeky and would always try and say things to make me laugh. Or we would have these fun music debates. So it was fun working with Jaz.

Also, the thing of being creative on the show when you're not working. Instead of going straight home, you might go and look at the monitors or watch other stuff.

It was a question asked at the screening, which Gbemi answered, but I’d be interested to hear from you about how you felt juggling the many roles you had in this production. Switching between actor, executive producer and writer.

What was it like wearing multiple hats? I know you produced Famalam, so did that give you a slight heads-up on what that experience is like?

It was a different thing because on Famalam, it was myself and director Tom Marshall who wrote most of it together but the production aspect, I did everything in terms of music on Famalam, which was mad. Imagine, we'd just come up with a sketch on the day and I'd happily write the song and then try and give it to the actors for them to learn.

This (Black Ops) was more relaxed. Just by its nature, a sketch show is like shooting a hundred short films. But this, because Joe and Lloyd were part of the process because Gbemi was there, the load was shared a lot more evenly.

Also, Gbemi as a writer, in her scenes, was able to point out when this thing she wrote wasn't quite working and she would try it another way. And have the autonomy to do so, because she's an exec, she wrote it and she knows what sits better in situ.

It's basically like a superteam getting together, writers, performers, the great and good, because actually, when someone like Gbemi for example, is on set, I can watch it on the monitors, or the director can, to support her. It was just a different creative process to Famalam because Famalam was weighted a lot more on me. From the creative perspective.

For anyone looking at your career and recognising that actually there is a place for them in this industry, what would you say to them?

The title of this segment would be 'Anything is possible'. My journey is just my journey. I grew up in Hackney. My parents put me in drama club every Saturday. I went to this place called Pollyanna, an amazing place, and I did everything. I did ballet, all kinds of dance, singing, improvisation, plays - and that was every Saturday, so that gave me something to do.

I was a kid with a lot of energy and I also didn't want to do anything else. I was good at school, but I didn't want to do anything else. I wanted to create. Whether that be music. Or whether that be acting.

So I did everything from the National Theatre, to the Almeida, all these amazing plays and films with people like Tara Reid and Ashley Walters and then in my twenties, a friend of mine, Javone Prince, had his own series called The Javone Prince Show and he threw me an alley-oop and said "Do you want to come and be one of the writers on the show?

I'd never written before, but he just thought if anything, we're going to have fun for six weeks, writing this thing.

Phil Bowker (writer) then said to me "Look. You should be meeting some people at the BBC because you're good at this thing" and that was my journey. All I'll say is, that's specific to me because not everyone gets to come from the acting perspective and get behind the scenes, although a lot of people are doing that.

There are also so many journeys. We all have gifts. We all have magic. We all are unique and there are so many unique paths into this business. But wherever you are in the game, you have an opportunity.

We also live in a time where we're all mini broadcasters, we have TikTok and Instagram and Twitter, which are free. I've seen so many people change their lives by having the gumption to put it out there.

Anything is possible but hopefully, my story - even a little soupçon of that story - will translate to someone who looks like me or can identify with my story. Or is from a place like where I grew up in. And make them thing it is possible.

For me, what galvanised me, was seeing people who looked liked me - and whenever there was someone British or from London on TV, who was Black as well - I'd be like "Oh, that's possible."

He's not an actor, but when I as a kid saw Ian Wright, his gold tooth and his fresh hair, playing for Arsenal, not only did it make me an Arsenal fan, but it made me as a young Black kid from Hackney think that anything is possible. On a bigger level, that was the same watching Eddie Murphy.

On that, how important is it that this show is being given a primetime slot on BBC One?

You can't get bigger. I don't necessarily want to think about it, but actually, it's credit to Josh Cole, Charlotte Moore, the comedy commissioning team, Seb Barwell, Jon Petrie, for saying "This is something that is special and needs to be seen."

It's also credit to our previous execs, Shane Allen, Chris Sussman and Ben Caudell and everyone who invested in Famalam, because this is the child of Famalam. To throw some love to Auntie Beeb, they are amazing at nurturing talent and giving people that opportunity so this just felt like the natural progression.

Let's talk about Hammed Animashaun. A relative newcomer to television. His first leading role. How important was it for you to give him that opportunity?

He's super humble but Hammed is someone who I've watched for years in theatre performances and he's brilliant. When it was quite apparent that we were going to do a pilot for Black Ops and there was interest for a series, pending said pilot, I just called him up actually. I was running in Victoria Park - running is really good because you get to focus and ideas usually come to me at that point - and I had a eureka moment that Hammed was the guy.

So I called him up and said "Look, there's a script. Are you interested in having a read?" and he tells the story himself, but he just thought it was for a read, just coming to help out, but the intention was always "No, you're playing this role".

Just to give someone with that talent that look, that major look - Hammed's in some big things. He's in that massive Amazon show, The Wheel of Time - streamers are amazing, but the BBC is still the BBC and BBC One is number one on the clicker. It's number one on the clicker! So it's really really cool and Hammed is a really amazing soul and amazing talent so to give him a chance to show the world what he can do, is an amazing thing.

What's coming up next for you? Hopefully, Black Ops 2...

I mean, Black Ops one through ten. In the immediate thing, I'm going to be doing some more acting this year. I'm in Adjani Salmon's Dreaming Whilst Black. The pilot was INCREDIBLE and I know his agent so the day he won the BAFTA, we walked up to each other, and we knew of each other, and I said "You need to put me in your show. If I'm not in your show, someone's legs are getting broken." so I'll be doing that and there are some other things - the classic, cagey creative response.

I prefer to just pop up instead of talking about the things, but there are some nice things being developed that the chef will deliver when they're out of the oven and ready.

Black Ops starts Friday 5th May at 9.30pm on BBC One with all episodes available on iPlayer


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