In the middle of my conversation with Akemnji Ndifornyen (AK) we started talking about being from East London; part of Ndifornyen’s latest thriller/comedy series Black Ops was filmed in Hackney Marshes. “It's just lucky for me because I'm a Hackney kid. So just a little hop skip and a jump you know to the marshes for night shoots. We love a night shoot.”
The night scene in question we’re talking about plays a critical role in the show, it serves as a point of no return for cast leads Dom and Kay, played by Gbemisola Ikumelko and Hammed Animashaun, and drives forward the overall narrative of the series.
Black Ops is a BBC series which follows PCSOs (Police Community Support Officers) Dom and Kay as they get dragged into the world of undercover crime. Ndifornyen plays criminal boss, Tevin who in the first episode cements his status as someone not to be messed with, without giving away too much.
Ndifornyen has worked with both leads of Black Ops previously, Ikumelo, who is also known for her comedy work, appeared on BBC Three sketch show Famalam with Ndifornyen from 2018 to 2020. The show received several BAFTA, Royal Television Society and British Screenwriters’ Award nominations with Ikumelo and Ndifornyen taking home three for three on the show’s wins. On being reunited with his former co-star Ndifornyen told me, “It basically started on week one of Famalam… I'd been in a scene with Gbemi and had previously worked with her before on a show called Sunny D, where I played her annoying cousin, and she was brilliant!”
“So I had an epiphany. While I was watching back, I thought, “she's brilliant, we need something for this woman, she has to have it. Because the world needs to see her as much as I do from time to time.”
So AK threw his idea out to the execs of Famalam and sat down with Ikumelo to brainstorm. A show about PCSOs (Police Community Support Officers) came out on top but it would be several years of conflicting schedules until we would arrive at this moment in time.
In preparation for the show’s creation and playing the role of gang leader Tevin, I asked AK if he’d spoken to anyone working within the police department, “There was research, some ex police, people that work on the more surveillance side [of things], just to make sure it [was] grounded in something. But then suddenly, you want to make people laugh. So all that kind of fact stuff, sometimes has to go out in favour of what is funny and that's what makes it funny, actually, just the fact that it's grounded in something that we all know. But for the most part, ‘funny’ dictates where the story goes.”
And it is funny. I told AK as much and in turn he told me that he can always spot a liar and I’m not one of them. But it’s serious too and AK doesn’t make light of that, “The stakes are high in the show and we tried our best to do that in a satisfying way for the audience. We'll keep people captivated.”
AK has the dual task of making that happen, both serving as a cast member and on the production team. When I asked him about why he made that choice and how he straddles both worlds he joked, “I like making money”.
He went on to say, “I started my career acting, I make music, I write and produce and it'd be remiss of me not to try to flex those muscles. Because actually, I'm pretty good at those things. And so I want to make sure that my career was built in all those arenas, and actually, the opportunity came up to play Tevin, and there was sort of a question about, “What? Why aren't you doing it?””
“And so I jumped in, because originally, everyone thought it was going to be a two hander between me and Gbemi, but I didn't know that at the time, you know, directing and producing, I just thought about trying to do all those things and pull them off. I don't think it's really possible or feasible to take on that many roles and not collapse. Kudos to anyone that could do that.”
As a result, AK stepped back to play Tevin who despite appearing in every episode had a much smaller role and Animashaun stepped in to play opposite Gbemi as Kay. The three of them play really well off one another, heightening tension and driving the narrative forward with every interaction.
The series is a strong body of work and we spoke briefly about the people invited to make the pilot as busy as it was, “the pilot features a lot of people popping up,” AK told me, “a lot of them were born through just like phone calls … but credit to Aisha Bywaters for having good taste and good credit with people, because people just jumped in without question really.”
The cast is well and truly stacked, AK listed off the cameos for me, “We’ve got Rufus Jones, we've got Kerry Howard, Tom Bennett, KG The Comedian, we've got Holli Dempsey, we've got Joanna Scanlan, Felicity Montagu….. And then as we go through, you know, we see, we see more of Robbie Gee and Jo Martin”. AK affectionately names Robbie and Jo his ‘TV Mum and Dad’ due to the fact that they played his parents around 20 years ago.
It’s very clear throughout the entire conversation that AK is a large advocate for Community and when our chat is nearing to a close I ask about the comedic talent I should be keeping an eye out for, the list is as extensive and as it is diverse.
But that’s an article for another day.
Black Ops is available to watch now on BBC iPlayer.