I recently caught up with Jimmy to talk about working alongside Idris Elba in new Sky One comedy In The Long Run.
2018 is almost certainly going to be remembered for its great comedy and this week sees Sky One launch In The Long Run, a strong contender for the best new comedy of the year.
Created by Idris Elba, the six-part series set in London in 1985 brings together an incredible ensemble cast including Jimmy Akingbola, Madeline Appiah, Sammy Kamara, Bill Bailey, Kellie Shirley and Idris himself to tell a story loosely based on Idris’ own family.
Walter (Idris) and Agnes (Madeline) arrived from Sierra Leone 13 years ago and are happy earning enough to pay the bills with a bit left over to send back home. Sammy Kamara plays their son and their quiet life is soon turned upside down when Walter’s brother Valentine, played by Jimmy Akingbola, arrives with his exuberance and lust for life.
Jimmy Akingbola is perhaps best-known for playing Malick in Holby City as well as Mick in the BAFTA winning BBC Two comedy Rev. More recently he was seen starring alongside Phillip Glenister in Living The Dream for Sky One.
But it’s not just his work in front of the camera which is to be celebrated, behind-the-scenes Jimmy works hard to open up the industry to people from all walks of life through TriForce which he founded in 2008. Built on a strong ethos of inclusion and access, the network provides a trusted and viable avenue for the industry to discover diverse talent.
Now living in LA, Jimmy Akingbola still makes time for the UK and his latest role is perhaps his most important to date.
What first attracted you to In The Long Run?
The show’s very warm and it’s got heart. When I read the script it certainly had essences of Only Fools & Horses and sometimes Fresh Prince of Bel Air and Coming to America, but for me the warmth and the heart is so important.
It started making me think about my family that came over from Nigeria and friends’ families. It’s just got that beautiful nostalgic feel of what it was like back in the day.
I love doing all sorts of work, be it theatre or drama like Holby or Arrow but then I love doing stuff like Mick in Rev so when I saw this, I thought this was such a vibrant beautiful character to play.
It reminded me of Eddie Murphy in Coming to America and Will Smith in The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and I just thought, look I’ve always wanted to work with Idris so why not?!
Is this the first time you’ve worked with Idris Elba?
Yeah, we’ve got a lot of mutual friends but this is the first time we’ve worked together. It’s probably only the second time we’ve properly met. He’s very humble and I always say to Idris that he’s the beacon we look up to. If you look at the DNA of his work, we like to follow that. It’s nice for us East Londoners to be working together.
He’s back in the UK now and he’s creating content. With In The Long Run he’s telling a personal story which is loosely based on his family. He doesn’t have to do that but he’s decided to do it and that’s when you get a great cast like Madeline Appiah, Kellie Shirley and Bill Bailey. Not to mention the writing team, who are the same people that did The Job Lot plus Grace who’s a new writer.
We really have created a great squad of people and I feel humbled and proud to be part of that. Shows like this could have been cast with what some might call “the usual suspects” but I think when you look at this, everyone is doing something different. Even Idris himself. You don’t expect this from him!
What’s he like to work with?
He’s funny. He’s seriously funny. I don’t corpse usually but he made me corpse a lot on set. He’s got funny bones in him so I really look forward to seeing what people make of Idris’ character.
It was emotional for him to play his father. I didn’t get to meet his Uncle but Idris and I had a talk about it and he told me to make it my own and together with his cousin they gave me some little pointers on how he was confident, cheeky and the life and soul of the room all the time.
I was given quite a nice license to create something myself because it didn’t have to be exactly how the person was, so that was nice.
How would you best describe Valentine and what brings him to London?
He’s a vibrant, colourful, confident and charming man. What brings him to London is ambition. He comes from Sierra Leone where he was a successful footballer. He was a big fish out there but he always had that dream of succeeding in the UK. He’s a dreamer and a beautiful soul.
He represents the way a lot of people who have moved to the UK think which is that you only get one life, lead it in the best way and try and achieve all your dreams. I love the bit in episode one where he can’t believe that he’s made it to London. He genuinely wants to make the most of being here and embrace it.
I can relate to that and a couple of my friends and I talk about how our parents came over with their dreams and aspirations. Sometimes they don’t all come off. Sometimes you have to have to veer off the roadmap a bit.
He’s a hard worker, but he’s also a lot of fun. What I like about Valentine is his sense of independence. He’s there to achieve and be the best that he can be and he knows when he’s better than something. He’ll work hard and make his own way.
There’s that moment where he turns down a job which I like, because especially in African culture, education and your job is a big thing. Now there’s a rush of African actors, especially Nigerian, but back in the day if you said you wanted to be anything other than a lawyer, a banker or a teacher, your parents would never have let you go into the creative arts!
Even though he causes Walter and Agnes a lot of trouble, he’s a breath of fresh air in their lives.
What his relationship like with his older brother Walter?
I’m the youngest of four brothers and I feel that when you’re the youngest, you can be the cheeky and sometimes annoying younger brother that can get away with things. They’ve been apart for around 10 years so to be living together again and in London, that’s what Walter enjoys.
Valentine brings up the memories of what it was like back home. He’s a different man now but there are moments where you can tell that if Agnes let them two go out, they would have so much fun!
Walter's son Kobna really looks up to Valentine doesn’t he?
Yes and it’s beautiful. There’s always an uncle that you connect with more than others and I feel like I had one of those. It was easy to work with Sammy Kamara, he was amazing. I don’t know if you saw Damilola, Our Loved Boy but he played Damilola Taylor and I loved that drama.
There are some really nice moments between Valentine and Kobna where he teaches him life lessons. The same life lessons that Valentine, even though he’s a big man, is going through himself. He’s still learning and he’s sharing them with Kobna and he’s there for him in terms of guidance for his life going forward.
There’s that line where Valentine goes “Your dad stopped having fun” and that can be seen as just a comic line but I think it’s rather poignant. That’s what Valentine is bringing. He’s like “I know you guys are working hard out here and it’s hard to be in London but don’t forget to live life” – that’s the ethos that I believe Valentine brings.
He’s got a great friendship with Bagpipes too hasn’t he?
They’re the weirdest kind of kindred souls ever. They just hit it off straight away and what’s nice is their journey. Bagpipes doesn’t really want him around but they end up becoming best of friends.
I also love the layers to Bagpipe’s character. One thing I love about this show is that all the characters have got great layers and I’ve always been a fan of Billl Bailey but he’s just amazing in this show. Honestly, you watch his performance and you think “Why don’t we see more of this guy on screen?!”
The script was there but me and Bill did have license at times to improvise and ad-lib which is always nice especially when you’re working with someone as talented as Bill.
I remember one thing he said to me about why he wanted to do In The Long Run and it was because the characters were so different and so multi-layered, compared to what normally gets sent to him. He just couldn’t say no to it.
It was great that we both felt the same about this show and everyone working on it from top to bottom, and I know this is going to sound like typical interview talk, but we became one big In The Long Run family. Everybody was committed to the scripts and the show and I just hope people see that coming off the screen and enjoy the journey as they watch it.
It’s on Sky One rather than Sky Atlantic which means there’s a larger available audience there, who do you hope will watch In The Long Run?
I just really want this to get seen. I agree with you, I’m glad it’s on Sky One because it’s important that it gets seen. Yes it shows the vibes of life in the eighties, but also the young kids in it, they’re amazing.
For me, it has the potential to evoke that same feeling Only Fools & Horses did. The family can all sit down together and watch it. There are a couple of swearwords in there and what not, but I do feel like it is a family comedy that people can enjoy together.
Sky are doing some great stuff. I felt like I did a lot of work with the Beeb in the past; Holby City, Big School, Crouches, Rev but over the last three years I’ve done four jobs with Sky; Fungus the Bogeyman, Arrow, Living the Dream and now In The Long Run.
I’m really glad that people will get to see it and hopefully they get to see it again in series two because I think there’s a lot to explore!
Since Desmond’s ended in 1994 there’s been a real lack of sitcoms centred around black families on television hasn’t there?
Yes you’re right and that’s why I feel so proud to be part of this show. We love Desmond’s and everyone does it. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, what ethnicity you are, when people think about a black sitcom, Desmond’s is the first name that people say. Which is great, but it’s also a bit sad because it’s over twenty years ago.
Sometimes you might have shows with one character, but you’re right I can count whole black family sitcoms on one hand. I did The Crouches and I’ve heard about No Problem but black sitcoms are very few and far between.
I’m really proud to be part of this one because it’s a sitcom about a black family but it’s inclusive as well. It shows a community in East London. I grew up in East London, Idris grew up in East London around Canning Town and we remember the communities.
If you think about the other comedies, they’ve always been focussed a bit more with the Caribbean or West Indian families so it’s nice to have a West African family and bring those elements to the screen. That’s a fresh new thing. Hopefully everybody will love it and we get to do it again!
Now feels like the right time, if not a little late, for In The Long Run...
Yes and with Black Panther out at the moment, the fact that this is a sitcom with a black family and it’s got the African element to it as well, is perfect timing. There are a lot of panel discussions about diversity and “What are we going to do?” and me and my company TriForce just want people to commit. Let’s get up and do something.
That’s why I respect Sky because they stood up and said they were going to do quotas. Some people were against it but there’s going to have to be an element of people feeling uncomfortable and stuff not working before we get it right.
This is an exciting time and hopefully all the other channels will follow suit because there shouldn’t just be one show with a black family. And that happens a lot. You take out Chewing Gum and Undercover that Adrian Lester was in and it was years since there was anything on primetime TV like that.
And you do a lot for diversity through TriForce…
We were doing it before the current conversations around diversity and inclusivity. It’s always been an issue, it’s not like it just popped up but we’re really proud of the work that we do in terms of getting actors seen by the industry and Monologue Slam.
It’s not just actors in front of the camera but also creators behind the camera via this film festival that we do and the WriterSlam. We do a lot but the next step is to make shows. We’ve got our own production company so we want to make stuff and put in some of the talent that we nurture, develop and bring through.
We’re all about inclusion and I’m hoping that now because the conversation is where it is, more people will interact with us because I think we’re a company that don’t need to tick the boxes. We’re a network that’s already diverse and inclusive.
What’s next for you? Obviously you’re hoping for a second series…
Yes, I really hope for a second series of In The Long Run. I remember when we made Rev, you make something and enjoy it but the second time around it’s in you more. You know the characters more. You know what you’re making the first time around, but you really know what you’re making the second time around.
Next, if I’m honest with you, we’ve got a couple of scripts with my production company that I’m attached to that I would love get off the ground. Outside of that acting wise, I’m going to be on US TV in a show called Scorpion later on in the year and I’m just trying to focus on creating my own projects but also I’m keen to do drama again. I like swinging between drama and comedy.