On TV, the tremors of cultural change taking place in America have finally begun to be felt over here. Stories that have, for years, remained confined within the walls of estates, and unheard of outside of the catchment of “bad areas”, have now begun to grace our screens. Between Michaela Coel’s Chewing Gum, set on a north London estate, and the upcoming production from John Boyega and director Sebastian Thiel on growing up black in Britain in the 90s, the realities of black Brits are visible to those other than themselves. But, as this unprecedented visibility has skipped a generation, actor Idris Elba is filling in the notable gaps by throwing it back to the years of his own youth in Sky comedy In The Long Run.
The show was spawned from a 20-minute short Elba did for Sky in 2015 called King For A Term. The opportunity to extend it arose and, soon enough, a six-part series was born. Set against a backdrop of Thatcher’s Britain, in the midst of the 1985 race riots, the show follows an ethnically mixed group on an east London estate, indulging in comedy capers and varying degrees of casual racism. In The Long Run takes place in Leyton and focuses on Sierra Leonean father Walter Easmon, his Ghanaian wife, Agnes, and their precocious son, Kobna, who is based on a tween Idris Elba. Elba, who grew up in Hackney, had parents of the same background and, through the creation of this semi-autobiographical series, he has – perhaps unintentionally – achieved a huge feat: In The Long Run is one of the first black British family sitcoms centred on an African family living in the UK.
For several years, Britain’s Caribbean community has dominated the conversation regarding black British identity. There has always been a dearth of black faces on British televisions, but shows such as The Fosters in the late 70s, No Problem! in the early 80s and much later offerings like Ker-Ching, Cleopatra, Youngers and The Crouches offered a welcome (if not often brief and flawed) glimpse into the lives of black Britons. Desmond’s, Channel 4’s longest-ever running sitcom – which is still heralded as the Holy Grail in terms of black British representation nearly 30 years later – bucked the trend and even led to a spin-off series, Porkpie.
Depictions of Africans in mainstream media are generally few and far between but, when they do crop up, the punchline usually starts and stops at them being African
But, even with this much-needed representation of black British life, there was still a lack of diversity within the diversity. Understandably, the portrayals of Britain’s black population reflected the majority of Britain's black population, which, up until recently, hailed primarily from the Caribbean, with the bulk of Britain’s African population arriving later, during the 80s and 90s.
Fast forward to 2018 and Black Africans are now the majority group in Britain’s black community. The last census found that those who identified as Black Caribbean remained at 1.1 per cent – the Black African population however has doubled from 0.8 per cent to 1.7 percent, or from 484,783 to 989,628 nominally. Despite the growth in population, however, television representation still lagged behind.
Depictions of Africans in mainstream media are generally few and far between but, when they do crop up, the punchline usually starts and stops at them being African. Although Desmond’s was a watershed show in terms of its depiction of black Brits, it was very much business as usual when it came to rehashing stereotypes of Africans. The show’s solitary African, Matthew, wasn’t funny because of his quick wit and acerbic putdowns like the rest of the Caribbean cast; rather, his comedic talents lay simply in him being from Gambia, a recurring gag that was integral to the BBC comedy 3 Non-Blondes. Cult classic films, such as Coming To America and Barbershop, relied on much of the same stereotyping for laughs and even the “woke” television adaption of Dear White People has a Kenyan character, Rashid Bakr, whose depiction leaves much to be desired.
The success of Marvel’s Black Panther has no doubt marked a shift in the depiction of Africans on the big screen (in the film, the gags never lay in their identity) but, as Elba’s offering is a comedy, it would have been been expected – maybe even encouraged – for them to mine African identity for cheap laughs. The humour, however, even when regarding their background, feels more like in-jokes than mick-taking. The primary comic relief and cheeky uncle character, Valentine, played by Jimmy Akingbola (the one to watch, aside from rising star Sammy Kamara, who plays Kobna), isn’t funny because of his accent, mannerisms or cultural idiosyncrasies but, well, because he’s funny. There’s nothing lazy about it – for once, we see Africans depicted as characters, not caricatures. By doing this, In The Long Run has offered Britain its only three-dimensional, multifaceted and genuinely relatable African family on British television.
It’s easy viewing – thick with 80s nostalgia that had me missing an era I wasn’t even alive for and populated with a likeable cast – but its importance goes beyond the belly laughs. Finally, young Brits of African descent will see themselves depicted in a comedy where they aren’t the butt of the joke.