Riz Ahmed: British TV “has no choice” but to take more risks

Actor and Englistan creator Riz Ahmed has said that British TV “has no choice” but to take more creative risks in order to keep pace with international rivals.

Ahmed, who has starred in films such as Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and HBO limited series The Night Of, said that the US is constantly “betting on new horses” and that the UK could stand to learn from the Americans’ “embrace of the new and new voices.”

“Over here [in the UK], we can be a bit more discerning about the risks we take, how we take them, and whether we take them at all. That’s something we can really learn from the Americans in terms of empowering new voices. Now we have no choice but to do that.”

Ahmed – who has been a fierce advocate of improving diversity and representation across film and television in the UK – pointed out that his latest drama Englistan (7 x 60 minutes/1 x 90 minutes) is serving as a launch pad for new writing and directing talent.

The project is one of BBC Studios’ major drama bets for Showcase, and has been marketed heavily across the four-day event in Liverpool. Ahmed describes the seven-part series as a “saga” that follows a British-Pakistani family over four decades, from 1979 to 2019.

“It has themes and ideas that are highly resonant and provocative now – home, identity, belonging. But it also has timeless universal themes as well, like family and looking for love.”

Noting that he connects most with Italian-American stories, such as some of the films of Martin Scorsese, Ahmed pointed out the parallels between that community and British Asians in the UK.

“Around 5% of the US population is Italian-American, while 5% of the British population is British-Asian. I wondered why we don’t have that center stage spot when people talk about British drama and British stories,” he said.

“This is going to be a period drama – unlike any other period drama you have seen before.”

Ahmed promised that audiences would be shown a world that is “real and has never been seen before.”

New talent

Ahmed said Englistan promises a “whole new crop of talent with no agents”.

“It’s a tricky balancing act. We want to give people opportunities to flourish but we also don’t want them to drown by dropping them into the deep end.”

He added that while it is “resource-intensive” in the short term to upskill a new generation, the process is invaluable in the medium to long term.

“It is invaluable to have fresh pairs of eyes with an insurgent mentality at the heart of your operation, saying, ‘why do you have to do it like that? I don’t like that. Why can’t we do it differently?’

“It’s scary to have that energy around, but I think that’s how you improve and innovate. The pay-off in the long term of empowering new talent is massive.”

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