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I TALK TO Jimmy Akingbola

"I hope that after people see this documentary, they'll think about the way they respond to people when they hear they've been through care."

Jimmy Akingbola is best known for being the host of ITV's hit panel show Sorry, I Didn't Know and starring in a number of hit TV shows such as Rev, In The Long Run, Holby City, Arrow, The Tower and more recently Bel-Air.

He also happens to be one of the kindest, most talented people in this industry, who over the years I've had the great pleasure of speaking to on a number of occasions, but never for a project as personal as this.

In Jimmy Akingbola Handle With Care, he opens up about his own story of growing up in care and in doing so, reveals the truth of growing up in the care system in England.

The number of children in care has risen by 28% in the past decade to almost half a million. Of the children in Britain awaiting adoption, over 40% are black yet black foster families are rare in comparison, resulting in white parents raising children from other ethnicities and cultures.

Speaking to his own foster family and biological siblings about their feelings, Jimmy also meets with fellow actor Lennie James and retired Olympic athlete Kriss Akabusi, who both share their own personal stories of foster and adopted care and children’s homes, good and bad.

While exploring themes of identity, abandonment, the importance of role models and cultural connection, this thoughtful, engaging and emotional film, directed by Andy Mundy-Castle, considers whether a loving family, no matter their ethnicity, is always more important than racial or cultural differences.

Back in August, I was invited along to a BAFTA screening of the film and it was a real privilege to sit amongst Jimmy's family and friends and be one of the first to watch such a deeply personal film. It was an emotional evening, with plenty of tears in the audience but also a lot of love for a man who is greatly respected by those closest to him.

A few weeks ago, in preparation for this interview, I watched the documentary again and those same feelings came flooding back as I smiled and cried my way through what is a truly unmissable hour of television.

When I caught up with Jimmy, he talked about his reasons for telling this story now, the care narrative he's hoping to change as well as the possibility of future documentaries and a lot more.

I guess the first question has to be, why tell your story now?

Growing up, I've always been a bit confused by the way care stories have been told or shared. I've always felt there's a sense of mining the trauma. "Ooh, what happened?" "How horrific was it?" - and I'm like, yes, the stats say that these things are happening and they are true, but it's not the full story.

When I look at my story - and not just mine, I've met people who have had similar positive experiences - and when I say positive, I don't mean that nothing bad has happened, there's still stuff that has happened, but overall it's been a positive story.

When you lose half of your family (Jimmy sadly lost four family members in 2020), you're grieving and questions pop up. I used to have numerous conversations with my brother Segun about being an artist and a storyteller and I'd been thinking about my story for the last four or five years, off the back of programmes like This Is Us, or you see films like The Last Tree and Farming - and Lennie James' drama that he did back in the day. I can relate to them, but it's not my story.

My survival mode during grieving was to lean into telling the story that was really important to me. When I was in the middle of lockdown, I was thinking about children in children's homes - where no one's going to see them, to see if they might foster or adopt them.

I started thinking about my younger version who in the middle of lockdown had just been given his first flat and has no job, has to pay bills and doesn't have the skills to do that. I also looked around at the world and there was so much anger and hate that I thought there has to be some joy and some love shared through storytelling and certain documentaries.

Which is when I said to myself, let me share my story with the hope that it will inspire the version of myself that will be 16, or those who have been through care in their forties, or their fifties or their sixties, because there's a sense of shame with it, right?

It's almost like you can't shout loud and proud about it. I hope that after people see this documentary, they'll think about the way they respond to people when they hear they've been through care. I always talk about that moment where people hear and go "Oh my god, that must have been terrible!" and I'm like "You've not asked me. You've not asked me yet." Why? Because of what they've been fed their whole life.

So why? Multiple reasons. I'm an actor, but I'm also a producer, an artist and a storyteller and to tell my story with my own production company (TriForce Productions) that's always been about diversity and inclusion, that's amazing.

You've talked to us through the years, Elliot, and I just feel like we use those words now but actually, we were moving like that from the beginning because that represented our families. I'm a British-born Nigerian and I've got a white family and a black family, Fraser (Ayres, CEO) is mixed race, he's got a black dad and a white Scottish mum - our diverse group would be represented if you come to our events. That's just the way it is. So it felt natural to tell this story with that running through the DNA of my story.

What did both your families make of you deciding to make this documentary?

I had to ask every member. My siblings were all just like "Yeah! Yeah! No problem!" - I couldn't believe it. I could not believe it. My mum though was harder to convince. She's not used to being on camera, she gets a bit paranoid about it and also a part of her was asking why. So I had to say to her "Mum, it's an amazing thing that you've done and I want to highlight that." - "Oh no! You don't have to do that. You know I love you."

I'm like "Mum, you don't get the point. I know you do, but it's a big thing." and she's like "Is it?! No, no. Anyone would have done it" and I had to say to her "No, mum. These are the reasons why I need to tell this story."

There was a brief moment where I wasn't sure if she was going to do it. "I'll speak to you on the phone" she said - "No mum, that's not how documentaries work." I think what it did, was the discussion that I had with my siblings, it changed them and made them just have a discussion with my mum. It had a ripple effect on the whole family.

With my biological siblings, they agreed to do it. And even though they might have had some worries and fear, they understood the importance of it as well. When I talk about it being a love letter to my family, it then all makes sense. A love letter to both families. Especially to those who are not here anymore. I am the man I am because of all the people I talk about in the film, those that are here and not here.

People ask me "Are you OK about this? People know you as an actor, they're going to see this other side..." and I'm like, yeah. I'm still the same actor. I'm still the same person. You just know a bit more about me. If someone else can see this story and be from a similar background, and go on to live their lives and not have their beginning dictate their future or the present, then brilliant!

Basically, that's what happened to me - I was collecting heroes anyway - but when I found out that people I loved, like Lennie (James), Kriss Akabusi, Lorraine Pascale and the Fashanu brothers, had come from care, it inspired me to go for it!

Before that point, there's a bit of me that looks at the statistics and thinks I can't be anything. I can't do anything. I might turn to drugs. I might not have a good education. I might be in prison. But no, we need to change that narrative. Yes, some of that is true, but it's not the full story.

At the start of the film, you talk about burying some of your childhood trauma in the roles that you've played to date. Can you explain a bit more, about what you mean?

The first role that pops into my head is Blue/Orange, Joe Penhall's award-winning play. I did that with Kathy Burke directing. I won a TMA Best Supporting Actor Role with that show. Basically, my trauma is the moments when my biological mum was ill and having relapses in front of me.

That was really hard. Sometimes she wouldn't know it was me. I saw a lot of stuff that I probably shouldn't have. Stuff I didn't share with my foster mum because she might have told me that I can't see my mum until she's better.

But also, my frustrations of when I was 18-21, and getting a call when I was doing a play to say my mum's been sectioned and having to go back and see my mum in that place. The system wasn't helping me, they'd take away my mum's flat - so all that traumatic experience and then the guilt that I let that happen. I should be doing more. Should I be acting?

At one point, I wanted to move my mum in with me, but I remember being told by the social worker "You don't want that. This is a whole thing, it's an illness. You can't do that." So that's one role, definitely.

I think in all the roles I've played, there's something in there. I can even look at something like In The Long Run, and all the joy in that show, those joyous moments with my mum, with my dad, with my family and when we'd come together for parties. I would lean into that energy and how it would make me feel being all together as a family.

Even Mick in Rev. It's not just him being on the drugs, but also the mental health aspect. He needed help. He needed a family. He needed love. In some ways, when I played Mick I did think about not just my mum, but other people suffering. People that I would see on the street in East London who were part of the community.

What were the positive things to come out of making this documentary?

I've always had a very close family, but one of the most positive things is that it's deepened all our relationships.

All my family being there together in one room on the night of the screening (at BAFTA). That is an iconic moment. Because we're all so busy, that might never happen again.

The other positive experience is that Elliot, you've interviewed me and my production company for a long time over the years. We have not only made the first-ever comedy panel show about black history, but now we've made a really beautiful documentary that is about care and unconditional love. It's nuanced. And that's amazing.

We used to do just party nights. Networking nights. And now we're making really important work, coming from an authentic place. Everything is with intention. Everything is intentional.

When I pitched Sorry, I Didn't Know to Kevin Lygo at ITV, I said to him "There's nothing else like this. There should be something like this. We can't just do black squares. History is not being taught in schools. Even within film and TV we're not seeing it being told correctly, so why is this show not on your channel?"

Not just that, when we share our team, you look at our team and how we make a programme, it's completely diverse and inclusive. Being able to honour what we've been about from the beginning, from everything we do, that's amazing.

The last thing is getting to meet my heroes. Lennie James. He didn't have to do that. Lennie James is one of the greatest. Someone said to me "How did you get him?" - i just asked him. He decided to share his story. He doesn't do it a lot but he did it with me - I wouldn't say for me, with me.

Kriss Akabusi, you know? I just... that... two of my heroes. That's amazing. And Cass Pennant. The way he shared his personal footage and the link with my foster family. Those three things were amazing.

Of the people you met, whose story surprised you the most?

I think Kriss Akabusi's. I related to him talking about wanting his mummy in a way I sort of wanted my mummy and my dad. Also, what surprised me is even though I'm talking about really positive care stories. I was surprised when he said that the children's home was his saviour. Because of what I've read and been told, I was surprised by that statement.

You describe this documentary as the most difficult thing you've ever done. Explain a bit more why.

Yes, I would definitely say that and you expect it to be. When you get into it you realise that this is really really hard. I call myself public-private. You know I'm very approachable, but public vulnerability is hard for most people. You don't have to have a care story for it to feel very hard. But not only that. but to remain open.

It's easy to delve deep and hide in characters. I could tell my story very easily to you over a cup of coffee for a couple of hours, but when the camera's there you realise it's going out to millions and hope people will be happy with it, including the contributors. There's pressure in terms of community. And by community, I don't just mean the Black community, I mean the care community.

It is the hardest thing I've ever done, but it's also the thing that I'm most proud of. I've done a lot that I'm very proud of, but for me, this is my love letter to my family and my trigger to hopefully inspire people. Whether that's parents to foster and adopt, children in care now or people who have come through care and still wrestling with stuff.

Would you like to make more documentaries?

I think so. They would always have to be very specific and personal to me. I would like to do a follow-up to this because, I think Chizzy (Akudolu, at the BAFTA screening), was very funny, but she hit on the money There's a version about young people now and how much has the system changed?

Also, I think there's an issue about people of colour fostering and adopting. The narrative is, that they don't do it and that's why I loved Lennie's story because he was saying "No, my adoptive family were black." My friend, Anthony Barrow, talks about how his dad was black and when he told him he wasn't his son, he blacked out.

Those moments were very important, otherwise, it just becomes too black and white and I've already got friends and contributors lined up for the follow-up that can talk about how hard it was, because either they were a single parent or a person of colour and wanted to adopt or foster. That's something very interesting to look at.

I know you were keen for this to not go out during Black History Month. Why was that?

Because I'm Black every day of the year and I have issues with Black History Month. I feel like there's a great effort to lean into it, but then as soon as it becomes November 1st, things get put in the drawer.

When we look at the word inclusion and something commercial, let's be honest, there are some people who turn off immediately when we get to October and don't watch a lot of the content that's on the screens.

I feel like, if you're careful in the way that you position something, then someone that might normally tune off in October, might go "Oh, this looks interesting." It's the optics.

I'm used to seeing so much content with people of colour where it's put in a corner. And I'm like "No! Put it in a normal slot, alongside Joanna Lumley. Just put it at 9pm primetime."

Congratulations again on Bel-Air. I know we spoke about it at the start of the year. Are you shooting season two at the moment?

Yes. We're in the middle of it. I think we're on episode three right now so we are going to be ready to go next year. Some exciting storylines. Some really nice surprises. Again, I'm loving being a part of this story.

I would love to be in Succession, but I would be the only Black person in it. So it's really nice to be part of a show that's universally loved, inclusive and diverse and being told through our lens.

I'm playing Geoffrey in the biggest care story on TV, alongside This Is Us. Making this documentary, I realised that I grew up watching Will Smith and I grew up watching myself, basically. Because Will Smith was playing Benny Medina and Benny Medina was adopted by a white American foster family.

So the Banks' fish out of water story connected with me on so many levels, without me really knowing, until I started doing this documentary. And look at how game-changing, iconic and well-loved this story is.

Jimmy Akingbola Handle With Care airs Tuesday 1st November at 9pm on ITV


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