Arts

Idris Elba on return of In The Long Run and the possibility of Luther's big screen debut

Idris Elba tells Georgia Humphreys about his semi-autobiographical show, In The Long Run, the importance of community and the future of Luther...

Madeline Appiah as Agnes and Idris Elba as Walter in a scene from the new series of In The Long Run

BEING on set for In The Long Run is like a time capsule for Idris Elba: the Sky One comedy is loosely based on his own childhood and vividly and colourfully transports us back to 1980s London.

The charismatic actor stars in the show – which he also created – as factory worker Walter Easmon. The character is based on Elba's dad, Winston, who died from lung cancer in 2013.

And he recollects moments during filming when "I might sit on the sofa for five minutes, and just look around and go, 'Wow, this really was my life'."

His mum, Eve, is an avid fan of In The Long Run, he adds fondly.

"I bought mum an iPad for her birthday recently, and she's not tech-savvy whatsoever, but as one of the things to help her learn, I had all the episodes of season three sent to her as a special preview.

"After a week she calls me and goes, 'It's great, but how do you turn the volume up on the iPad?'" He chuckles. "She worked it out in the end."

As for the rest of the family, they've seen "bits and pieces" of the show.

"My uncle [who Valentine, played by Jimmy Akingbola, is based on] has not. He has not talked to me about it or him or the show; I'm sort of dreading having that conversation because he's going to be like 'That's not me! You missed that part!'" he quips.

Elba (47), who married his third wife Sabrina Dhowre in 2019, is also a musician. He began his career as a DJ long before he hit our screens and has performed at places such as Glastonbury.

His most memorable TV roles are Stringer Bell in HBO's The Wire and, of course, the titular character in hit BBC series Luther – which, he teases excitedly, they are "close" to making into a film.

As for the silver screen, Elba played a villain in last summer's Fast And Furious sequel Hobbs And Shaw, plus in 2018 he made his directorial debut with feature Yardie.

But In The Long Run must surely feel like a very different kind of project, as it's so personal.

"I didn't set out to do a comedy, I set out to tell a story of a portion of my life which, when I look back, I laugh my head off, about people that I met, people that inspired me, the area we grew up in," he notes.

"I'm so proud to come from Hackney, on a council estate, and just the mad diversity of who inspired me as a kid."

He says the show wasn't designed to poke fun at anything – and "there were some really dark memories of that time as well", he confides – but the idea is to "tell the story, but look at the lighter side of it".

One storyline in series three sees Walter's wife Agnes (Madeline Appiah) get suspicious about developers taking an interest in the Eastbridge Estate where they live with their son Kobna (Sammy Kamara), which would threaten the existence of their community. The possibility of his home being demolished is something Elba can remember actually happening.

"I left Hackney, the Holly Street estate, in the 80s, and the estate has been knocked down since – apart from one tower that's still there," recalls the actor, who has two children from previous relationships – 18-year-old Isan, and six-year-old Winston.

"But the talks of it being knocked down echoed way, way before."

His parents wanted to buy a property, and decided to move to Canning Town, he adds. But he recalls a crucial time of living in the Holly Street estate was when "everyone was thinking about, 'Are they going to knock down our building? What does that mean? Can we buy it? If we buy it, does it save it?'"

The new episodes also see the welcome arrival of Walter's Mama [Ellen Thomas], from Sierra Leone (Elba's father's native country) – and Walter is desperate to impress her. Meanwhile, Bagpipes (Bill Bailey) has a near-death experience that makes him question the meaning of life, Valentine finally finds love and Kirsty (Kellie Shirley) sets up her own catering business.

What's really notable about the heart-warming In The Long Run is how themes of family and community underpin the series. Over the last few months during lockdown measures enforced because of the Covid-19 pandemic, does Elba think we've got a bit of that sense of community spirit from the 80s back?

"Yes, 100 per cent. I think just because the nature of being locked down in to your home, you start to become aware of what's around you, who's around you. You're suddenly smelling cooking that you've never spelt before, hearing music, sounds – someone's alarm clock – that you've never heard before.

"You get a lot more time now to realise what home is… Not to mention the moments on Thursday evenings when everyone was applauding the NHS and you stepped out and you got, not only a chance to applaud the NHS, but to see your neighbour, and hear your neighbour, and see your neighbours' kids.

"It's just a real bonding moment, I think."

Another issue explored throughout In The Long Run is racial politics.

"In the first season, to varying degrees and varying reactions, we took a very bold attempt at what racism looked like in the 80s," says Elba.

"It sparked up a lot of debate; should this be on TV? But the truth is, that's how it was. And funnily enough, racism probably had a lot less of a pressure cooker vibe to it, based on the idea that people were a lot more free, open.

"They were all living together in one community, working-class, different cultures, and if you didn't like someone, or you were racist, you kinda said it. It was what it was.

"But everyone got to be closer to who they are, as opposed to this sort of pressure cooker where everyone's turning a blind eye perhaps. I remember reading reactions to episode one, and people were like, 'Wow, you guys went there. That's exactly what it was like'."

:: In The Long Run returns to Sky One on Wednesday July 23

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