Why Idris Elba had a blast reliving teenage past
Hollywood star Idris Elba grew up on a London housing estate and has now created a sitcom which draws on his own youthful experiences. He tells Gerard Gilbert about tackling hard issues such as racism and bullying
Watching television as he grew up in the East End of London in the Seventies and Eighties, Idris Elba - the future star of The Wire, Luther and countless Hollywood movies - would have been hard pressed to find representations of families like his own. That's to say black British.
Idrissa, as he was baptised (he shortened it to Idris while at school), was the only child of a father from Sierra Leone and a mother from Ghana, living on the racially diverse Holly Street Estate in Hackney. Such families were all but invisible in television of the day.
Born in 1972, Elba would have been too young to catch ITV's hugely popular sitcoms Love Thy Neighbour and The Fosters.
And then there was Mixed Blessings from ITV (again), about a mixed-race couple and how their families reacted to their impending marriage.
But even with the relatively greater sophistication of No Problem!, the young Idris may have struggled to identify with the characters involved since TV shows weren't yet discerning the cultural differences between families with Caribbean roots and those which had come from Africa.
So it's perhaps with a sense of retroactive rebalancing that Elba has now created a semi-autobiographical sitcom set in the era of his own coming-of-age.
A spin-off from a 20-minute short he made for Sky called King for A Term, In The Long Run is situated on a London council estate in 1985.
Elba and Madeline Appiah play Winston and Agnes, a couple who came to Britain from Sierra Leone 13 years previously, while Sammy Kamara plays their British-born son Kobna, who is the same age as Elba was in 1985.
"It's a bit of a mish-mash, to be honest," says Elba on whether or not the show is based on his own childhood.
"It really is just a good look at the Eighties, which was when I was turning from boy to teenager. It's looking at what London was like then, especially east London, where I came from.
"Kobna is meant to be me as a kid. And it's really weird sometimes looking up, seeing parts of my life being displayed. Remember, though, that this isn't exactly a carbon copy of my life - this is its own thing."
And by giving his own character the same name as his dad, Winston, and by having him work in a car-parts factory (the real Winston worked at the Ford plant in Dagenham), Elba would seem to be playing his own father. Did that feel strange?
"It's been all right, but it's a bit sad," he says. "My old man passed a few years ago, so it's bittersweet in places. But this character's taken on a life of its own, you know. I'm not really doing an impression of my old man."
While not entirely shying away from the overt racism of the time, In the Long Run is a warm, soft-edged recreation of a period that Elba has recalled as anything but - especially when his parents moved from multicultural Hackney to white working-class Canning Town.
He has spoken of the abuse (and eggs) thrown at him by National Front supporters making their way to watch West Ham United play, for example. And of being bullied at school.
"It does look at Walter's younger son Kobna being bullied," says Elba of his new show.
"And it puts a lens on racism and what it was like in the Eighties. But in truth, it was a lot more in-your-face than how we show it, if anything.
"We don't ignore it, but we don't make it the focus. We wanted to show what bound people together, not what divided them."
In the Long Run begins on Sky1 next Thursday