Idris Elba’s sitcom is a breezy take on black British experience

‘In the Long Run’ review: Show based on creator’s childhood is largely 1980s nostalgia

Sammy Kamara, Madeline Appiah, Idris Elba and Jimmy Akingbola in ‘In the Long Run’. Photograph: Sky

Sammy Kamara, Madeline Appiah, Idris Elba and Jimmy Akingbola in ‘In the Long Run’. Photograph: Sky

 

In the second episode of In the Long Run (Sky One, Thursday, 10pm), a new sitcom created by Idris Elba, an immigrant fresh from Sierra Leone watches He-Man with his young nephew, feeling robbed. This cartoon, a staple of 1980s children’s programming, has been stolen from an African legend, he insists, like so many other plundered treasures. “In Africa, they invented everything.”

If that’s a harder claim to make for the sitcom, Elba’s show – based on his own childhood – takes a breezy approach to restoring black British experience to this mainstay of mass entertainment. It may not be revolutionary, coming so long after The Fosters and Desmond’s, yet it still feels significant: those groundbreaking comedies of black family life are now decades old.

In the Long Run is a conspicuously sentimental project, brimming over with affection

The premise is simplicity itself: Elba plays Walter, a dutiful family man with a factory job, an incessantly scolding (and, by 1980s sitcom standards, therefore loving) wife, Agnes (Madeline Appiah) and a cherubic scamp of a son, Kobna (Sammy Kamara). His brother Valentine (the winsome Jimmy Akingbola), a Dionysian charmer, arrives from Sierra Leone to find his fortune with them, but mostly to bring impish fun into a drab London. You can guess the resistance. “Good evening, sir!” Valentine greets a Hackney local, with the courtly flourish Eddie Murphy once used to announce himself in Coming to America. “F*ck off, you mug,” comes a very similar reply.

Brixton riot

Though it finds room for glimpses of the 1981 Brixton Riot, a tragic flashpoint in the history of Britain’s race relations, In the Long Run is a conspicuously sentimental project, brimming over with affection. Bill Bailey, for instance, plays Walter’s adorably shambling neighbour, Bagpipes, soon swooning to the influence of Valentine’s cocktail, the Naughty Bastard.

Indeed, there is no encounter that Valentine will not win over, bringing lubricious breakbeats to a pub more familiar with Status Quo, or persuading an Asian factory manager to rekindle his lost dream of becoming a chef. Even a casually racist remark (“Aren’t you people strong?!”) is merrily taken as a compliment: “Stop!” beams Valentine, “You’re making me blush.”

The 1980s were hardly as innocent as an endlessly babbling soundtrack of nostalgic pop hits suggests, but Elba does recognise that offence is a case of give and take: Valentine doesn’t take it where none is intended. The show, rather charmingly, gets to have it both ways, letting Valentine lightly mock Bagpipes for wondering if they have electricity in Africa, while later responding to the suggestion that he find full-time work with a more sincere worry, “I’m not sure I’m the 10-to-three kind.” The form is quaintly traditional and the tone unashamedly sentimental, but, like Valentine, In the Long Run is here for a good time.

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