With such a prolific output — Hollywood movies, TV shows, DJ gigs, a production company, a clothing line, his own London bar — you would think Idris Elba has access to a time turner. The man doesn’t stop. He can function, he says, on four hours’ sleep, bouncing from late-night DJ set to film set.
This is a work ethic first forged at the age of 14, when a teenage Elba, living in Hackney, got a £15-a-day job fitting tyres. It’s to Hackney we return for season three of his semi-autobiographical series In the Long Run.
The Sky One comedy created by Elba is heavily based on his east London upbringing. His parents came to the capital from Sierra Leone in the early Seventies, and his beloved late father Winston spent 30 years working at the Ford plant in Dagenham.
Set in the mid-Eighties, Elba plays car factory worker Walter (based on his father), who lives on an estate with his wife Agnes (Madeline Appiah), their son Kobna (Sammy Kamara) and Walter’s charming but wayward brother Valentine (Jimmy Akingbola), who was dispatched from Sierra Leone to live with Walter at the start of season one.
If you didn’t catch seasons one and two, the comedy is gentle and accessible enough to jump in at season three, which kicks off with the grand arrival of Walter and Valentine’s “Mama” (Ellen Thomas) who is welcomed like a visiting queen on a trip to the UK.
Keen to give his mother the best impression of their life in London, Walter rises at 5am to prepare for her arrival, while Valentine quickly realises his mother’s affection for him has been diverted to Walter’s butter-wouldn’t-melt teenager Kobna. There’s a particularly entertaining scene — which Elba says is based on a true story — when the family go to church and Walter attempts to convince his mother he’s a pious regular with an excruciating ad-libbed Bible reading.
Walter’s best friend Bagpipes (Bill Bailey) also returns with his wife Kirsty (Kellie Shirley), though a joke about Bagpipes’ health kick after a near-death experience on a fishing trip wears a little thin.
As a comedy this is not always laugh-out-loud stuff — some of the jokes feel obvious; others could do with working up a bit more. But its warmth and charm is undeniable, plus costumes by Amanda Monk and Kay Brown’s set decoration are a vintage treat — a sepia-tinged mix of African prints, big hair and swirly Seventies florals.
Elba once remarked that you wouldn’t get a true picture of modern Britain by switching on the telly, with its roster of period dramas packed with white actors. In the Long Run, the first mainstream British comedy about a black family since Desmond’s (which ended in 1994), is a push in the right direction. Plus, anything fronted by Elba is worth a watch.
In the Long Run is on Sky One, Thursday at 2am
Video: "Homecoming trailer" (The Independent)