Idris Elba on the pressures of ‘Guerrilla’ warfare

A TV show about London’s Black Panthers always seemed likely to push buttons,and is already raising temperatures over its depictions

"I'm very lucky to have a career that I'm proud of," says Idris Elba, grinning behind the shades which suggest exactly that. "The popcorn stuff, I love to do. It's entertaining and interesting. And the deeper stuff that have real issues at their heart are equally satisfying. But I couldn't do one or the other. I have to do it all. Everything in life is a variety."

Idris is more qualified to speak of the credible actor’s pendulum swing than most. From his signature role in The Wire to Luther to Prometheus to Nelson Mandela – projects undertaken alongside documentary-making, DJing and political activism – the 44-year-old Londoner is a shapeshifter of an actor. That’s proved once again with Guerrilla, a new six-part miniseries reimagining the Black Power movement in London in the 1970s. We meet him at its London premiere, relaxed, confident, and charming his way along the red carpet as if it were a game of dominoes.

Joining forces with director John Ridley (whose credits include American Crime and 12 Years a Slave), Elba plays Kent, who becomes involved in the black community's fight against the National Front, the Special Branch's "Black Power desk", and their second-class treatment within society.

As suggested by Ridley's involvement as well as that of high-end US programme makers Showtime and Sky Atlantic, the grittiness of London's underbelly has been smoothed over by some high production values, to which Elba contributed as executive producer.


International story "The story's huge and small at the same time," he says, explaining why he squeezed in his two weeks of filming during another project (the rumour mill around him playing James Bond refuses to quiet down). "There's a beautiful, very detailed analysis of the UK and the culture at the time, some of which I can relate to being born in that era. And there is the wider international story that resonates with other cultures too.

“As a producer, John and I threatened to work together for a long time, so this was the perfect opportunity. My character Kent is not an overwhelming part of the story, but it’s a key part. It was low-hanging fruit, to be offered this.”

Despite the fact that he's definitely the star of the show – he's the last to appear at the premiere and that's how you know – the central protagonists of the movement are Babou Cessay as Marcus and Freida Pinto as his Indian girlfriend Jas. Unable to find justice through ordinary means, the couple take the movement in a violent direction. As director John Ridley elaborates later in the evening: "If we don't make appropriate responses, then unfortunately there will be people who will make inappropriate responses. As we continue to see."

The casting has been the talking point of the show so far. For while the mixed race element reflects the true-to-life practice of all races joining the black struggle – the UK was much less divided along race lines than in the States or South Africa, for example – it did bring Ridley’s role of black women into question. Among the disenfranchised black men, racist or anti-racist white characters, and the justice-hungry Indian woman, the sole black woman in the first episode is portrayed in the rather limited role of informant and mistress.

While Ridley, its writer, creator and director, has defended his position by explaining the real-life roots of the show, as well as citing his hard to digest but critical storytelling, it can't be easy to explain away the overlooked contribution of black women to this social change. Still, there's no arguing that it's an otherwise considered show. Take, for example, the acknowledgement that the Irish faced racist abuse in a similar vein, a point proven in the first few minutes when Denise Gough is abused by a power-drunk copper.

“She was amazing – very solid,” says Idris Elba of his fellow cast member. “I didn’t have many scenes with her, but she was great. Across the whole of the board, for an English drama, we were lucky to get the kind of cast we got.”

It’s certainly a coup, given the Ennis-born actress is enjoying a purple patch in her career.

Passion for politics Resident in London since she was 15, Gough is best known for her stage work, which won her the Laurence Olivier Award for Best Actress last year. But the character of Fallon in a show that resonated with her own socially-conscious beliefs was too much to resist. A cursory google brings up her passion for politics: if it's not the Twitter bio where she insists being called an actress rather than an actor, it's the headline where she's quoted as "the Jeremy Corbyn of the acting world". "It's the grassroots thing – I've worked hard for a long time. And I've got a beard," she explains.

“It sounds so base, but to be one of the only white people at a read through was overwhelming,” the 38-year-old says. “The diversity wasn’t just in front of the camera either; there were women behind the scenes too, it was really quite something. And then to be telling the story of something that is still happening.

“It’s all about progression, and we still have some ways to go, but this show pushing a conversation forward. The statistic is 160 black men are killed every year by the police in America [or 260 according to the Guardian]. I mean come on, we need to be talking about that.”

I note that it’s just one of a long line of social issues she’s tackled in her career: People, Places and Things dealt with addiction; her current play Angels in America centres around Aids in the 1980s. Later this year, she’ll help reassess the stereotype of women in the title role of Paula, a BBC2 drama by the celebrated writer Conor McPherson.

“I have to do work that means something,” she says, as if it were barely a choice, “otherwise I can’t sleep at night.”

With Guerrilla sparking legitimate debate about the isms before it’s even aired, she can rest easy.

All episodes of Guerrilla are available from tonight on Sky Atlantic Pressure of ‘Guerrilla’ warfare