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Challenging perceptions with BBC Three series ‘Five by Five’

DIVERSE: Five by Five

BBC THREE are continuing to create fresh, ground-breaking content, and this time they’ve got the help of Idris Elba to do so. The actor is currently creating and curating content specifically for BBC Three, and one of those passion projects includes Five by Five.

Co-produced by BBC Studios and Elba’s Green Door Pictures, Five By Five has been written by a host of fresh talent including lead writer Cat Jones, and newcomers Lee Coan, Namsi Khan, Selina Lim and Nathaniel Price.

Set in London, the films focus on people questioning their identity and changing their perceptions in the wake of some chance encounters. While the stories can be watched as standalone stories, they also intertwine and work well as part of the series.

As the show premieres on BBC Three, we sat down with the cast and crew, including Cat Jones, Richard Stokes, Georgina Campbell, Michael Ajao, Ben Tavassoli and Ruth Madeley, and talked Idris, diversity, and online streaming.

Cat, how did you develop the concept behind five by five?

Cat Jones: Well it came from Idris actually, who really wanted to do a piece that explored identity, and we decided to develop on that. So we all got in a room with the writers that we were working with and created the story together. Even though I worked on a different project — a short film — here at the BBC, this was kind of projected to me as an ambitious project with separate elements that could blend well together but could be watched separately also. So I was intrigued by that and from there, the writers and I spent about a week in a room, throwing ideas around and creating the story.

Michael Ajao

How was it to work with new, young writers?

Cat Jones: Well they’re all really talented writers and in most cases it’s their first telly credit, which was exciting. It was also a sort of new role for me because i've been off writing other people’s shows but i’ve never been lead writer on a project, and I realised that it’s a lot harder than it looks. But I think they did brilliantly, and it was a really fun project to work on and it was great to have input from Idris; looking at scripts, storylines, and its been a really great experience for all of us.

How did Idris Elba and his company Green Door Pictures get involved with the project, and what was it like for you all to collaborate with him and his team?

Richard Stokes: We were approached by Green Door Pictures who said they’d love to do two short films based on the idea of perception and Idris wanted to do something that had a very positive outlook, loosely based on the choices his made in his life that have led him to the success that he’s had.

So we went to BBC Three and said “hey we have Idris Elba, give us some money” and they wen’t “great, Idris Elba, here’s some money!” and that’s how it started and we got Cat involved and did a whole selection process to find the other four writers and got the team together to create the story.

How long was the overall process, from writing to casting, filming, etc.?

Richard Stokes: Probably around 4-5 months at least, and a lot of that was just finding the writers.

Georgina Campbell

Each episode has a theme of chance encounters between very different characters. What inspired that theme, and what does it represent in a wider context?

Cat Jones: I think everyone was just really interested in looking at this idea of identity and we really wanted to do something that looked at that and to really develop it.

For the actors, what drew you to starring in Five by Five?

Michael Ajao: The character I play, Ash, is just very relatable. Growing up on an estate, where his mother is like the father figure of his boy’s life, really impacts his day-to-day and his thoughts about who he gets involved with. I think that’s what made it very interesting for me, because I have a lot of friends who don’t have fathers and their mothers are the biggest impact in their lives. So when they’re not there, it’s almost like what happens? what choices might they make? It’s very interesting.

Ruth Madeley: I think the fact that Idris was involved was really exciting for me, and its great to work with BBC Three because they’re always creating innovative material, expectably for people within my age bracket.

In episode 5, I noticed that there was a significant difference in the way black men are usually portrayed. Here Michael Ajao’s character, Ash, is very innocent and vulnerable – something we don’t often see on screen. Was it intentional to create characters like that which defied a stereotype often seen in mainstream media?

Cat Jones: Well we wanted to do something that was about challenging perceptions of people so this was part of what we were looking at in the writers room. The writer of that particular episode, Nathaniel, is a black guy himself and he was really keen to create something that provokes conversation so he really drove that.

Michael, how was it for you to play that role and do something which was alternative to what we usually see on screen?

Michael Ajao: It was good, because with what’s going on in the world, it sparks a conversation, and focuses on changing the perceptions of people who are frequently stereotyped. It was a wicked opportunity to not play a stereotype and show that this 15-year-old has different layers to his emotions.

As Five by Five shows a wide range of diverse actors, do you feel that there has been a significant progression with p.o.c in film, television and theatre?

Ben Tavassoli: I’ve noticed it big time, especially in the States. I don’t believe that you need to go out actively seeking it, if you’re right for the role you’re right for the role, but they are providing those opportunities, which seem to be working.

Michael Ajao: I also feel like even though BBC Three is online, like Netflix, it’s still a big platform, and I think what needs to be done with this is that it needs to be pushed and people need to be reminded that BBC Three still do good work. If people keep tuning in, BBC Three could become something just as big as Netflix, with a wider representation that reflects all of us.

Five by Five is available to watch here.

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