Akemnji Ndifornyen: 'Grange Hill was huge for me growing up'

The Famalam and Queen’s Gambit star on the shows that shaped him as a child, from the school-set drama to the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and the Office

Growing up in east London in the early 90s, I watched a lot of TV – I was being reared on a staple diet of African American programmes, but we watched a lot of British shows, too. A homegrown series that stood out to me was a live-action sci-fi show called Watt on Earth, written by [Doctor Who writers] Pip and Jane Baker, which aired on CBBC in 1991 and 1992. The premise was that an alien called Watt comes down from his home planet to a family called the Ruddocks, who live in a town called Haxton. He’s on the run from his evil uncle and his uncle’s chief henchman, Jemadah. Watt can transanimateobjectify, turning in to different objects, but something always goes wrong – if he becomes a bicycle bell, he’ll sound like a foghorn, for example – whereas Jemadah can transform in to other people. That stuck in my head, as did shows such as The Biz – set in a stage school – and Grange Hill. That was huge for me. Phil Redmond and his team dealt with so many social issues so cleverly, and I was seeing young black actors such as Arnold Oceng and Michael Obiora – people who looked like me – on TV, killing it.

Akemnji Ndifornyen as a child.
Akemnji Ndifornyen as a child. Photograph: Akemnji Ndifornyen

We were also watching The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. From the theme tune to the laughs, it was just incredible. Me and my sisters were like, What is this?! We were seeing this wholesome, upper-middle-class black family on TV – it was very aspirational and a contrast to the films I probably shouldn’t have been watching at that age, such as Menace II Society. I loved Will Smith’s chemistry with Alfonso Ribeiro as Carlton, and James Avery as Uncle Phil. When we got Sky we started watching series such as Kenan & Kel and Moesha, so we were getting this vernacular and fashion by osmosis.

There weren’t that many British shows at that point that showed you that kind of “aspirational blackness”. Representation generally is getting better in the UK – the next generation has people such as Michaela Coel, Gbemisola Ikumelo, Mo Gilligan and Samson Kayo – but when I was young you didn’t see a lot of black families on TV – it was like, we’ll do one season of this and cancel it if it doesn’t work.

Ricky Gervais, Martin Freeman, Mackenzie Crook and Lucy Davis among the cast of The Office.
Ricky Gervais, Martin Freeman, Mackenzie Crook and Lucy Davis among the cast of The Office. Photograph: Allstar/BBC/Sportsphoto Ltd/Allstar

We watched all of the obvious shows, such as Neighbours, Home and Away, and EastEnders – working out who shot Phil – and series such as The Real McCoy, The Lenny Henry Show and Desmond’s as a family. When I was in year 9 or 10, I got in to The Office. It wasn’t geared towards me, but I saw Ricky Gervais promoting it on The Big Breakfast. It was aired back to back with Coupling, which was heaven for me. The Office changed my mind about what funny could be, and what TV could be. It’s the most perfect British sitcom ever created, and it gave me a new language for comedy, because there was no laugh track – it was like a choose your own adventure story. I hadn’t seen Spinal Tap at that point, so that was the first time I had seen a mockumentary. It blew my mind. Even the peripheral characters like Malcolm, who gets sacked, are incredible. It ended at just the right time – I always think it’s best to leave before the lights come on in the club.

The Queen’s Gambit is available on Netflix; Shrill and Famalam are on BBC iPlayer

Contributor

As told to Hannah J Davies

The GuardianTramp

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