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Bolu Babalola has been writing love stories since she was a teenager. “I’ve always been a rom-com fiend,” the author and screenwriter explains. “I literally have stories from when I was 14 or 15 called, like, Summer Loving or Two Can Play That Game.” When one of her friends “found out that I wrote stories on my family PC” in Comic Sans font (“bringing something funky to the genre”) they encouraged her to bring the print outs into her Ilford secondary school, “then started passing it around the class.” It became “a weekly thing for me, where I used to write the story and they used to get passed around.”
Reading them back, “some of them are like… ‘phew, what was I..?’ I used to watch a lot of The OC, and [read] a lot of American novels, so a lot of them are like ‘Dude, what the hell?’ you know?” she laughs. “It’s very cute, and very funny. I think it was just me finding my voice.” These first forays into writing proved that “OK, maybe other people respond to this thing that I’m doing” — and taught her that “rom-coms make people happy - they like to see people in love and people connecting. It’s such a very basic joy in life.”
That realisation has stayed with her ever since. After working as a writer’s assistant and an assistant producer at the BBC, the 30-year-old published her debut short story collection Love In Colour, which re-imagined classic love stories from mythology, last year; her first novel Honey & Spice is a romance set against the backdrop of a university’s Afro-Caribbean Society, and will be released next summer. If you’re a Love Island fan, her pithy tweets have probably circulated on your group chats (now that the most recent series has come to an end with not a bang but a whimper, “my skin has cleared, I have more mental space to think about other things, you know — it took over my life a bit”).
Her latest venture is the pilot episode of her first comedy series Big Age, which will debut on Channel 4 on Friday as part of the broadcaster’s Black to Front Day, an initiative spotlighting black broadcasting talent. The first 30-minute instalment introduces us to 25-year-old British Nigerian á¹¢adé (Ronkáº¹ Adékoluáº¹jo), who’s torn between whether to pursue her dream writing career or continue in the corporate job that keeps her parents happy; her biggest cheerleader is best friend Dela (Racheal Ofori). Every good rom-com, of course, needs some potential love interests, which come in the form of unrequited crush Zeke (Michael Workeye) and former classmate Tayo (CJ Beckford). There’s even a makeover sequence (“we got our Princess Diaries moment!”).
Big Age has been “a long time coming.” Babalola had a “very embryonic form of this idea” back when she was 25 and in a similar position to á¹¢adé, unsure whether to pursue her creative ambitions. “It’s weird - even though adolescence ends very abruptly at 20, you’re still living with the vestiges of it, you’re still processing, still growing,” she notes. “Then when you’re 25… you’re at this age where you think, ‘I’m an actual adult now… oh man, maybe I need to get my shit together.’ And you start thinking about your life very seriously… You’re rediscovering yourself, finding your voice, figuring out who you are and what you want. For me, 25 to 30 was such a huge dramatic growth spurt.”
After spending a few years drafting and redrafting, working with producer and “work wife” Amy Annette to develop the story and embracing her inner “avid nerdy fan of television” by studying the pilot scripts for favourite shows like New Girl, Insecure and Happy Endings, she pitched it to Channel 4 earlier this year. “They just got my characters… I didn’t have to change the integrity of my work,” she explains. As an executive producer, she has “been all over every aspect from costume to casting to music,” and “was on set every day. I had to periodically pinch myself. It’s so wild to have this world that you’ve built over the years manifest before your eyes. I think I was really annoying the props and art department… I was like a kid in a toy shop. Some props I actually brought home… It’s just emotional to see all these different creatives come together to build this world so vibrantly.
Her script fizzes with energy, most of it generated by the back-and-forth volleys between á¹¢adé and Dela. Their bond is very much “the key romance of the show,” encapsulating how “through it all our girls have our backs and support each other… I really wanted there to be a sense of joy and hope - how friendships can really propel us and galvanize us and recalibrate us.” á¹¢adé’s younger sister, “loosely based on my own little sister” (she has two), only appears in a few brief scenes but is just as vividly sketched. “I loved that she’s actually the perfect foil for á¹¢adé… One of my favourite parts is when they have a very similar reaction to something that their mother says, it was a really nice sisterly bond, that moment. I’d love to be able to explore more of that.”
When Babalola was coming up with her “dream cast” for the pilot, she immediately knew that Beverley Knight would be perfect for a special cameo role. “She’s an iconic character in the show, somebody who á¹¢adé looks up to, and I thought it would be really cool to have somebody who genuinely is like that for me. And she’s a black British woman, she’s so successful - she’s iconic.”
When the singer and actress “said she’d read the scripts and loved them,” she cried - and her mum was “over the moon. I mean [Knight’s] a household name… To have somebody who really is so impactful on black British culture was a dream come true, almost like a full circle moment.”
Getting her on board marked another important “lesson” - “Don’t diminish your dreams and ambitions out of fear of disappointment. There’s nothing wrong with dreaming big because you never know.”
Big Age is on Channel 4 at 11.05pm on September 10