Black Ops Interviews: Akemnji Ndifornyen

Black Ops Interviews: Akemnji Ndifornyen

How did Black Ops come about?

We made a BBC Three show about five years ago called Famalam, which I co-created and produced – and that was the second time I worked with Gbemi. I’d worked with her on [Dane Baptiste’s show] Sunny D, where I played her cousin in an episode, and I sort of earmarked Gbemi and said, “I’ve got to work with her on something.” So, when Famalam came about, she was the first person that I thought of and I kind of built the show around her. And so, the first week of the Famalam shoot, which was January 2018, I had been doing some bits with Gbemi and watching her on the monitors and I said to the execs, “We need a show for Gbemi. She’s brilliant, we have to get a show for her.” And they were all like, “Yeah, it’s a brilliant idea. Put her in a room and throw some things around and see what happens.” And then she pitched this idea about two community support officers who go undercover, and off we went.

Was it a fast process?

It did take a while to get up and running, just because of availability, everyone was so busy. We were doing further series of Famalam, I was acting in America – I was doing Shrill for Hulu and I was also filming The Queen’s Gambit in Berlin for Netflix, and Gbemi was super busy with other things. And then just before the pandemic, we had time to sit down and kind of put it together. Initially it was just a pilot, but I think the BBC had big ambitions for it because they felt like this will have legs.

How did Hammed come on board?

We were wondering, “Who’s gonna play Kay?” “Do you want to play Kay, AK?” and I was like, “No, I’m going to be producing so I don’t want to be doing too much.” And I remember I was running one day in Victoria Park and I just thought, “Hammed. Hammed’s the guy.” So, I rang him out of the blue and he was just like, “Yeah, sure, send me a script.” And then we had a table read and we went from there. I directed the pilot, and then they asked for five more episodes.

Did you and Gbemi write the whole series together?

Gbemi and I wrote a couple of episodes together, Racheal Ofori wrote episode four, and then Joe Tucker and Lloyd Woolf wrote the other episodes – but Gbemi and I were across everything as creators. We actually wrote episode two before any of the other episodes had been commissioned. We were in lockdown during COVID and I said, “Let’s just write episode two just for the hell of it.” And we did, we knocked that out really quickly, and most of the elements that we’d come up with remain in the final version of it, so it was really fun doing that.

What was the writing process like for you?

It was great. We were kind of still in the throes of COVID, so we had a few writers’ rooms with everyone sitting apart because of COVID protocol. But they were really good, and we had some really good folks come in to help generate ideas. We’d initially done a session just before the pilot was filmed, and then when we were commissioned for a series we went into a few sessions where we just threw ideas around and then we structured the story. Using episode one as a jumping off point, we worked out how we get into Dom and Kay’s adventure. For instance, episode three, came out of me throwing in a conversation about Pastor Tobi from SPAC Nation. And the pastor in episode three is an analogue for Pastor Tobi effectively, and it nicely becomes a moral story for Kay and his journey. So, the writing process was great, and to be fair, we were very ably supported by BBC Studios, who just sort of left us to do what we needed to do. But it was fun, and a lot of good ideas were created.

Episode one gets off to a really strong start.

First episodes are so important, mainly because that’s the one that’s going to be reviewed and the one that is entered for awards and stuff! So, you want to make it bang. I think episode one hits it out of the park. With that, I wanted the audience to be like, “Well, where can we go from here?” I wanted to have a feeling at the end of “Oh shit!”

RELATED:   The Great British Sewing Bee: Season 10 Episode 4 (BBC One, 11 June 2024)

It also features some great cameos.

In terms of casting, episode one is a veritable feast of a comedy and drama who’s who. You know, we have BAFTA Award winner Joanna Scanlon [as Chief Inspector Garner], Rufus Jones [as Inspector Scholes], Kerry Howard [as Jen], Holli Dempsey [as a senior nurse], and we have KG The Comedian [as a security guard]. It’s a really subtle constellation of stars that we’ve thrown into our show. And these are just people who I called up and said, “Look, are you up for doing a day?” And they were like, “Yeah, cool.” Jason Barnett is a dear friend and I said, “Jase you around for a day, do you want to come play a parking attendant?” He’s like, “Yeah, sure.” So that just sets a real template for what the show is, and throughout the series, there’s similar levels of comedic and dramatic talent that pop in. It is a feast of talent in the show.

Episode two acts as a real turning point for Dom and Kay’s relationship, doesn’t it?

Yes, and actually that to me is a special episode because you kind of assume that Dom and Kay have known each other the whole time but, actually, you realise that they’ve been thrown together and don’t know each other that well. And, so, the fact that they’ve come together under these extreme circumstances makes their journey that more entertaining.

What can you tell us about your character Tevin?

Tevin is one of the leaders of the infamous Brightmarsh Gang, which Dom and Kay initially have been sent to infiltrate by DI Clinton Blair [Ariyon Bakare]. Not to spoil anything but the gang, far from being just regular run-of-the-mill drug pushers, is quite a sophisticated operation.

In what way?

As time goes on, we learn that their drug dealing is sanctioned by a higher power. So, they’re dealing with some degree of impunity on the estate, which makes them that much more sinister – because it’s not just guys operating on their own fiefdom, they’ve been sanctioned by higher ups.

What role does Tevin play in Dom and Kay’s predicament?

Tevin is the guy at the end of episode one who shows up at Dom’s house with a task for her to do and collars her and brings her out to the marshes. He is part of the inciting incident for the real danger of the rest of the story.

How would you describe him?

He’s very organised. He does have a temper, but he’s very calculated. Tevin – and Breeze [Jaz Hutchins] by extension – are thinkers, they’re not doing anything by accident, they make very few mistakes. And they are also not people to be messed with. But they’re not necessarily just 2D cookie cutter villains, Tevin has a family life. We see in episode two he has a young daughter and when you see that you go, “Oh, okay. So, you have a purpose, you have a need.” His criminal activity is not just for chains and a fancy G-Wagon, it’s actually to provide.

Tell us about the location of their drug business.

Their operation is run out of a very innocuous HQ – from a launderette, which I actually really like, that was a little touch I insisted on throwing in. I was like, “We need to give them a cool HQ.” There’s a lot of fact-based stuff because in the pursuit of whatever they’re doing, they have to be sophisticated and clever with making sure that what they’re doing isn’t seen. And, also, it’s hiding in plain sight, because you wouldn’t expect that this place of business also hides an elaborate import-export operation.

Is Tevin suspicious about Dom and Kay?

He is, Tevin’s not a slouch. And that’s highlighted by the fact that in their first few encounters, he’s the one really who is reticent to increase their supply. Breeze is very much like, “Yeah, cool. You’re in now, we’ll give you another package.” Tevin’s the one who’s just like, “Really, like these guys?” He doesn’t trust them. I think that’s what’s probably kept Tevin and the gang at large in business for so long, that “we don’t trust you” mentality. He doesn’t trust Dom and Kay so he keeps them on a very short leash, but it’s like a game of cat and mouse. He’s always coming up and questioning their whereabouts, why they were short with their supply and other things. He’s very suspicious of those two.

RELATED:   EastEnders (BBC One Wednesday 12 June, 2024)

Just when you relax and enjoy the comedy of their situation, he pops up as a menacing reminder of the danger they’re in.

Exactly, and I think that’s the brilliance of the show, that balance. At its core you’ve got Dom and Kay as real amazing comic engines, and then you have this kind of layered story where Tevin and Breeze pop up as reminders that there is an overarching threat. The fact that you show up at someone’s house in the middle of the night with a body to dispose of – that was nothing, that’s just par for the course. And it’s also heightened by the fact that Dom and Kay know that they are protected –there’s a great line from DI Clinton: “I’m protected so you’re protected” – but conversely, the Brightmarsh gang are protected too.

Where was the show filmed?

We used a few parts. Some elements were in North London, but a lot of it was done in Bethnal Green and the estate itself was in Thamesmead. East London and Hackney is a strong feature. It’s quite nice because I’m from Hackney, so having Homerton mentioned, Walthamstow Marshes, and things that we grew up in proximity to us, is really, really cool.

What was it like filming on the estate?

The estate that we use for Brightmarsh was pretty cool and 100% welcoming. From a producer perspective, you want to make sure that you go into these places and you’re not just taking from the resource. Our base was a Community Centre, so you want to make sure that you’re ingratiating yourself with people and you’re not being obstructive, especially post COVID, because we’re just getting back to filming normally and without loads of restrictions.

This is a comedy, but it delivers a deeper message too, doesn’t it?

Absolutely. Dom and Kay are community support, and community support was designed as auxiliary of the Met to reach out to local neighbourhoods, and for people to see a familiar face, people that look like them, patrolling the beat, which is really necessary. Dom and Kay being young black faces from the area and going beyond just community support, and actually getting into some really high-level undercover work – you need that, because you need that kind of representation within the police. Whatever our reservations with policing all over the world, you do need people policing the communities that they live in, and I think Dom and Kay represent that.

What do you hope people will take from the show?

I hope they take away that at its core this is a fun, thrilling ride. You’ve got the fun of Dom and Kay’s relationship and their fish out of water hi-jinx, and then you have the thrill element of you don’t know what’s going to happen next. And while you can come into each episode expecting to see Dom and Kay, you’re going to be taken on an adventure because there are quite a few twists and turns.

Was it a fun set?

I talk to Gbemi almost every day but we as characters weren’t interacting as much. But I worked with Jaz Hutchins as Breeze a lot, and he’s an actor I’d never worked with before, and that was a real joy because he just very talented and really funny. Also working with Hammed who, apart from the pilot I hadn’t really worked with him – so just to sort of have those energies on set. It was a good set and a lot of that good nature filters onto the screen. So, a lot of Dom and Kay’s good vibes is a credit to the atmosphere on set.

Is there scope for a second series?

100%! I think the joy of this show is that once you crack the nut of episode one, and you kind of build a rapport with the audience – which Dom and Kay have, and Tevin as well as an overhanging threat by the end of episode six – you kind of can take this wherever. Some of the writers suggested the end of Back to the Future as a reference for that idea of setting up the next adventure, and I think it holds true. You could plop Dom and Kay anywhere and they’d find high jinks to get involved in, and furthermore, they need one another. They are stronger together than in isolation.

Black Ops Premieres on BBC One and BBC iPlayer on Friday 5 May 2023.

Alastair James is the editor in chief for Memorable TV. He has been involved in media since his university days. Alastair is passionate about television, and some of his favourite shows include Line of Duty, Luther and Traitors. He is always on the lookout for hot new shows, and is always keen to share his knowledge with others.