In 2010, I looked up to actors like Ashley Walters. In 2020, I look up to actors/writers/directors like Michaela Coel. Both are successful in their own right but there has been a shift in how Black British people are portrayed on screen and how they want to portray themselves.
The 2010s were pivotal in shifting the focus towards ownership and creative control. YouTube had become popular and shows like Mandem On the Wall, Diary of a Badman and Smokey Barbers emerged. This represented a new age in British comedy and acting. These shows were for the people by the people. They made light of the 2011 riots, poked fun at Pakistani culture and showed the dynamic of a Black barbershop.
Despite the shows’ popularity amongst young people, for many their success was limited. Some people faded away and it wasn’t deemed lucrative. However, corporations soon realised that they could profit off of these stories.
In 2011, Hugo Chewin, Steve Stamp, Asim Chaudhry and Allan Mustafa, started releasing mockumentary footage onto YouTube under the channel, Wasteman TV. Three years later, their early ideas morphed into a show on BBC Three called People Just Do Nothing, following the lives of wannabe UK garage musicians. Similarly, in 2012, Michaela Coel’s Chewing Gum Dreams was produced at the Yard Theatre in Hackney Wick. Three years later, her initial concept formed into Channel 4’s Chewing Gum,telling the story of Tracy Gordon.
Both shows went on to win BAFTAs for Best Scripted Comedy, Best Female Comedy Performance and Breakthrough Talent respectively and they illustrate the successful progression from a DIY attitude and cult following to production teams and big budgets.
However, this transition isn’t always easy as Asim Chaudhry admitted in a VICE interview. He said that ‘you gotta understand that when everyone gets involved it’s everyone’s baby’.
This release of control has been the downfall of certain shows. Notably, ‘The Peng Life’, starring Elijah Quashie (The Chicken Connoisseur), lacked the originality and magical editing of his YouTube videos. The man who usually reviewed dingy chicken shops was suddenly surrounded by celebrities in a series that seemed distant from the content that made him likeable in the first place.
Nevertheless, people are now realising the value in continuing to build their own platforms. The Chicken Connoisseur returned to releasing videos on his YouTube channel, production companies like Wall of Comedy (started by the creators of Mandem on the Wall) are growing and podcasters like Chuckie Online give an insight into the industry.
Furthermore, corporations are starting to get it right too. Big Zuu Big Eats is a fine example of this. Dave gave him the space to be himself and the grime MC seemed comfortable around a whole host of comedians.
It’s beautiful that I now see myself fully represented on screen. The next stage is to increase representation behind the scenes; more producers, directors and writers who can help tell our stories.