Idris Elba goes back to his London childhood for new sitcom

(L-R) Jimmy Akingbola as Valentine and Idris Elba as Walter. Picture: PA
(L-R) Jimmy Akingbola as Valentine and Idris Elba as Walter. Picture: PA
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It’s party time. The Babycham is flowing. And shell suit-wearing guests are shuffling amid the fogged disco lights to Dead Or Alive’s You Spin Me Round.

But this isn’t 1985. This is the nostalgic launch party set up to introduce Idris Elba’s latest project, In The Long Run.

Offering up a taste of his own childhood, the Sky One comedy – created by and starring the Luther actor himself – charts the adventures of Walter Easmon (Elba) and his wife Agnes (Madeline Appiah), who arrived from Sierra Leone 13 years ago, and their British-born son Kobna (Sammy Kamara).

Happy enough to pay their bills and send a bit of money back home, the family are embracing Eighties London – that is until they’re interrupted by the arrival of Uncle Valentine (Jimmy Akingbola).

“It follows two families that live in the same block of flats. Their sons play together, and it’s about what it’s like to live in a community, where ‘in the long run’ we’re all the same,” summarises Elba, 45.

“There’s no trickery, you like these people or you don’t. And it’s nice to have a multicultural cast, it’s nice to see an African family on screen alongside an English family,” he states.

The original idea stems from an intimate short he did three years back – King For A Term – about a young boy with asthma, struggling to adjust when he is suddenly moved to a school for children with learning difficulties.

A self-penned piece, he admits it was “based on me, basically”.

So just how true to life is In The Long Run, in comparison?

“To be honest, the setting and the time period, a lot of that is based very closely to my life,” he notes, having filmed in a traditional tower block, similar to the one he grew up in in Hackney.

“But the storylines are slightly exaggerated from stories that I told in the development,” he adds. “[The writers] came along and took some strands, some stories, took the time period of London and made stuff.”

As for the characters, while Elba – an only child – recalls growing up alongside such eclectic types as hapless neighbour Bagpipes (brilliantly played by Bill Bailey), it’s the depiction of his mother and father that really hit home.

“My mum is Ghanaian and was raised in Sierra Leone at a certain point,” he begins. “I remember Madeline being really nervous to meet my mum – and when she [did] she kind of got it.

“My mum is a big personality. She’s very shy but when she lets off, she lets off,” he continues. “And Madeline was doing parts Creole, which is Sierra Leone’s language, and handling it like a Ghanaian woman. I was proud of that.”

And paying homage to his father in the role of Walter?

“I remember when I first did a costume fitting and put the clothes on and the wig on, it was emotional, man, because we really designed it to look like him,” he recalls, having lost his dad five years ago.

“But it was also good therapy to get some laughs. My dad was funny and a jovial life-of-the-party kind of guy.”

Yet there’s a hard-hitting side too, as Elba justifies his decision to shine a light on the “casual racism” of the period.

“We wanted to be honest about it; people were less sensitive because it was just the way it was, so to speak, rightly or wrongly,” he says of the tone.

“But the truth is that for us to be able to put that on modern television now is a brave move, because people might go, ‘We don’t need to see that’, but actually I think it’s encouraging.

“The creators and writers were sort of freed up to have a balance – the racism comes from all angles,” he elaborates. “I’m proud that racism isn’t a factor on the show, but it’s definitely a presence.”

It’s not about a black family or a white family – but rather a community, says Elba.

“But that said, I’m very proud that in our country, coming from where we have in terms of what we’ve fought for, in terms of diversity and inclusion on TV, and here we are with a show like this,” he enthuses.

“I’m really proud of that – and not just because it’s about me. It’s great for our country, it’s great for our television industry as well.

“I love telling stories and I love acting, but what happens with acting is you just turn up in your trailer, eat some food, say your lines,” Elba maintains.

“But the opportunity to now produce something, to be the author of it, to really push that out there, that’s different for me. I might have movies coming out, but I’m not really the producer of them,” he finishes.

“This one is starting from grass roots, and I love that!”

In The Long Run will premiere on Sky One and NOW TV on 29 March