The story of how John Ridley’s passion project became Sky and Showtime’s latest star attraction, ahead of its UK debut on April 13.
The Black Lives Matter movement brought race relations right back to the centre of debate in the US. In entertainment, scriptwriter John Ridley has done as much as anyone else to highlight the plight of minorities there through his Oscar-winning screenplay for 12 Years a Slave and hard-hitting ABC drama American Crime, which has gone to three acclaimed seasons.
The UK’s black community has had its own continuing battles with racism over the years (think the 2011 London riots), but rarely has the subject been meaningfully tackled by its broadcasters. Matching Ridley’s straight-talking style to British sensibilities appears to create the makings of a strong attempt to rectify that omission.
Announced as part of European pay TV player Sky’s ambitious 2017 slate, Guerrilla uses the device of a fictional love story between a politically active couple (Freida Pinto and Babou Ceesay) to recall the simmering tensions between black and minority communities and a police force dealing with systematically racist elements in the 1970s.
“John has always wanted to do fiction set in fact,” says executive producer Katie Swinden.
Ridley conceived the concept for the series about five years ago. While in London working on post-production for Jimi Hendrix biopic All is by My Side, he met with producer Patrick Spence, who had launched Tiger Aspect-housed drama outfit Fifty Fathoms in 2010.
Swinden says Fifty Fathoms, the firm’s creative chief, exists to push talent to realise passion projects. This ultimately prompted Ridley, who had initially found networks uninterested in Guerrilla, to try again. The negative responses ended when Spence took it to Anne Mensah, head of drama at Sky. “She thought it was amazing, and she has been a champion of the project since then,” says Swinden.
“Sky Atlantic is all about bold, high-quality storytelling, with the very best talent on both sides of the camera,” says Sky director of programmes Zai Bennett. “Therefore, Guerrilla is a perfect addition to our world-class original-drama line-up for 2017.”
Even with Sky on board, new production challenges surfaced. Ridley’s reputation (and workload) exploded when 12 Years a Slave became one of the most important films of 2013, plus he was signed to an exclusive production deal with US broadcaster ABC. This led producers to work out a deal to bring the Alphabet’s edgy cable production division, ABC Signature, on board as a coproducer and co-distributor.
Hollywood actress Pinto was drafted in after meeting Ridley in LA. The role is a departure for the Slumdog Millionaire star, and Swinden says it has been “exciting to get the chance to reinvent someone”.
The 32-year-old Indian actor broke down in tears this week after an audience member questioned why she had been cast as the female lead in a predominantly black story. Ridley’s answer was that being ‘black’ in Seventies meant being anyone of colour from former British colonies. (It should also be noted there was an influential, Asian female race activist in 1970s Britain, Mala Sen.)
Meanwhile, Wisconsin-born Ridley felt the show needed an authentic, black British voice to bring an understanding of the territory’s racial past. Swinden turned to The Wire’s Idris Elba and his increasingly influential prodco, Green Door Pictures.
Elba was immediately keen to both produce and co-star, but again, scheduling was a problem, with his career also on a seemingly permanent upwards trajectory and his diary full to bursting.
“This production was all about getting huge talent in the same place at the same point, but the truth is that when you’re doing big shows you have to take your time,” says Swinden, Fifty Fathoms’ creative director.
The final piece of the financing pie came when Ridley used his positive relationship with Showtime in the US to usher the CBS-owned premium cable channel into the frame as a coproducer.
“It was important we got the right people involved,” says Swinden. “John wrote a very good script, and with Idris as executive producer and co-star, it is just the sort of voice Sky Atlantic and Showtime want.”
With all the pieces in place, Fifty Fathoms and Ridley’s International Famous Players Radio Picture Corporation turned to a pair of racial-history academic experts and others who had experienced the period for advice on narrative and accuracy.
“This is a surprisingly untold story, but many people from the period are still alive, so we were able to translate first-hand experience,” says Swinden. “John asked some of those people to come and sit in the writers room.”
The result, Sky’s Bennett says, is “a fictional exploration of a thought-provoking moment in history, which asks what might have happened if Black Power groups in the UK had turned to violence in their fight for equal rights”.
“In the bold, distinctive, unflinching Guerrilla I believe we’ve got another series our viewers will love, and a brilliant addition to our family of ambitious originals,” he adds.
Distributor Endemol Shine International had known about the six-part Guerrilla long before it debuted to market at MIPCOM last year, when Pinto and Ceesay (Black Mirror) came to Cannes for a promotional push. “I work very closely with the Endemol Shine Group production companies, so we knew a long way out that Patrick had been talking to John,” says ESI CEO Cathy Payne.
ESI has already held screenings of the show, one at the London screenings in February and others in Miami and Australia. “This is subscription television and is really intelligent storytelling,” says Payne. “It’s not going to be for everyone – it sits in the pay TV space – and I don’t expect it to sit on channels that rely on soft dramas.”
Payne says the narrative around black history in the US – slavery, Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement, and now Black Lives Matter – is much better known than the story in the UK.
“Now you’ve got the story being told in London in the 1970s. A lot of people don’t associate black oppression with the UK, so this is a very important story to tell.”
Ultimately, Guerrilla appears to work best for cerebral audiences not afraid of difficult themes: the love story at the centre of the drama contrasts with the decisions the characters make, and the subsequent consequences. It will also work for Ridley fans. As Swinden notes, “This is very much John’s vision.”