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Interview: In The Long Run returns to Sky One with Ellen Thomas as “Mama”

Ellen Thomas makes a special guest appearance in the third series of In The Long Run which returns to Sky One on the 22nd of July. The nation needs comedy and a good “old-fashioned” British comedy with an African family at the centre could not come at a better time. Alt was lucky to have a sneak preview of the first 3 episodes. Thomas arrives from Sierra Leone to see her sons Walter played by Idris Elba and Valentine played by Jimmy Akingbola, her arrival sparks sibling rivalry and match making for the single Valentine. A winning formula all round with a strong cast, spot on writing and the costume design speaks to the era that was 1985 where In The Long Run is set. If you do not know the story the series is created by Idris Elba and is semi-autobiographical, he plays Walter Easmon loosely based on his own father. Thomas’s character Mama prior to her arrival in the third series had only been heard on the phone. Alt caught up with Thomas to talk about “the dreadful Covid-19 lockdown” and behind the scenes laughter and more.

“It’s not just about seeing black family’s on UK TV, it’s about the quality of the stories we get to tell, it’s about eliminating the dreaded stereotypes we’ve had to endure for decades.  It is about the opportunity for us to tell our stories without “the white gaze”. Ellen Thomas

ALT: To date your  character Mama has only been heard on the telephone: was the voice on the phone you originally?

Ellen: The telephone call /letter VOICE of MAMA in all 3 series of In The Long Run  has always been me. Ellen Thomas. Sierra Leonean born British actress.

ALT: Was it always intended for the character to join the series? How did you feel about joining the cast: were you already a fan?

Ellen: I do not think the character of Mama was originally  intended to join the series. She was just supposed to be a link to Walter and Valentine’s past in Freetown Sierra Leone. I was a fan of the series from day 1. The scripts were hilariously funny. So, when I was offered the role of Mama,  I jumped at it. I am a huge fan of both Idris Elba  and Jimmy Akingbola, both of whom I had enjoyed working with in the past.

ALT: Can you tell us about “Mama” and her relationship with Walter (Idris)?

Ellen: Mama’s relationship with her eldest son Walter ( Idris Elba) is typical  African mama. She loves him, depends on him for support. She is super proud of him. Back in the 1980’s it was a big deal for a Krio mother to say ” God has blessed me Ohh humm, my son is in England” ” My son in England sends me money every month weytin your son deh do foh you” …blahahahaaa

ALT: Jimmy Akingbola pointed out in a recent press conference In The Long Run does not get the accolades it deserves: why do you think that is?

Ellen:  I think possibly one of the reasons IN THE LONG RUN  doesn’t get the accolades it deserves is because it doesn’t have nudity, seriously,  the show doesn’t depend on gratuitous nudity, or  projective throwing up, binge drinking etc for gags. Many of today’s comedy series are full of nudity. IN THE LONG RUN is just good clean family fun.

ALT: What do you like most about playing comedic roles?

Ellen:  What I like most about playing comedy roles in film TV and on stage is the scope to develop the character,  i.e. which of my aunties  cousins, neighbours can I emulate in a character,  what are their quirks, not to mention their wigs, their clothes, shoes, the way they walk, talk  and laugh etc.

It is a joy to explore, and I am happiest when I can bring any of my comedy characters off the pages of a script into life and have those character’s recognised by the audience. I love when viewers / audiences tell me a character is typically like their mum, or their aunty , or even their granny etc.

ALT: What was it like on set: as they are some real funny scenes?

Ellen:  I loved being on set, especially when we have a wonderful director (Sandy Johnson),  one who gives actors licence to play, explore, develop the character and the dialogue fully. You can see we are all having fun on the set of IN THE LONG RUN , it shows on the screen. I love it most when, we not only make each other laugh during a take or a rehearsal,  but also the crew, you know, the camera is shaking because the cameraman is laughing, or the boom operator’s hand is shaking because he’s also laughing at the scene we are shooting. That is the best.

ALT: Who on set is most prone to break into laughter Jimmy or Idris? 

Ellen: Jimmy Akingbola  and Bill Bailey  are most prone to make us all burst into laughter.

ALT: What is the mood like amongst your fellow actors: does the recent government bailout announcement (5/7/2020) for culture offer any comfort?

Ellen: The mood post covid19 lockdown is extremely challenging for all actors, and creatives. Many of us are freelance so no furlough for us. The thought of the effect of this lockdown on our theatre’s, our film and TV industry is frightening.  We as a people,  human beings cannot survive without ART in all its creative manifestations.  WE MUST SAVE OUR THEATRES,  SAVE OUR ART… The government’s bailout funding package announcement it is a big help. It means we can breathe a temporary gentle sigh of respite. But so much more money is going to be needed to reopen our theatre’s  museums and our film and TV industries.

ALT: Do you think now that we are talking about racism as a nation, we will see more African/Black families on TV?

Ellen: I am so thrilled that we as a nation/globe are FINALLY talking about racism, in all its ugly representations. #enoughisenough. But it is a movement not just a moment, especially now we have both feet on the peddle, we must push through till equality and fair pay are a matter of fact for everyone. It is not just about seeing black family’s on UK TV, it is about the quality of the stories we get to tell, it is about eliminating the dreaded stereotypes we have had to endure for decades.  It is about the opportunity for us to tell our stories without “the white gaze”. It is about stories of our humanity, our ups and downs, fears failures, loves and loss. All that makes us uniquely similar but different.

ALT: If you were not in lockdown what would you be working on that you can talk about? 

Ellen: Were it not for the dreadful Covid-19 lockdown, I would be filming a movie in Paris right now.  Then off to Scotland to shoot a Netflix xmas romcom.

Cast include Madeline Appiah (plays Agnes Easmon, Walters wife) Bill Bailey (Black Books) as Bagpipes, Kellie Shirley (EastEnders) as Kirsty, Neil D’Souza (Humans) as Rajesh and Sammy Kamara as Kobna, Ellen Thomas (EastEnders)

All episodes of the third series will be available to watch from  July 22, the broadcaster has announced.

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