Idris Elba’s five by five – an important introduction to new talent

Alex Moreland

We’ve just come to the end of BBC Three’s Idris Takeover – a week of content specially curated by Idris Elba as part of his ongoing efforts to encourage greater diversity on and behind our TV screens. (Or computer screens, in the case of BBC Three, but the general point still stands.)

The centrepiece of the Idris Takeover was five by five, a series of five short films promising to challenge stereotypes, question identities and change perceptions. Taken from the minds of young writers Lee Coan, Namsi Khan, Selina Lim and Nathaniel Price, five by five features the acting talents of new stars such as Georgina Campbell, Michael Ajao and Ruth Madeley – from its original conception, this series has always been about its young voices, rather than as a vehicle for Idris Elba himself.

Each short film is interconnected – though they do more or less stand alone, they’re certainly enriched by being taken together – through a clever central conceit structured around the consequences of the first film. They work almost as though a butterfly effect, with each short leading into the next. Some are more effective than others, certainly; the third episode, Lucas, is a charming piece, while the second episode, Chloe, is a bit of a disappointment, held together only by Georgina Campbell’s fantastic performance.

The standouts, of course, are Ash and Michael, the two films that bookend the series – they’re undeniably the most effective in terms of creating their characters, and certainly feel the most grounded in terms of exploring London. It’s here where the idea of exploring identity really comes to the fore, and you can see that five by five is hovering on the precipice of some fascinating drama that could (and should) be returned to again in a more substantial way.

In some respects, there’s a feeling that these films aren’t exactly as groundbreaking as they seem to position themselves as; primarily, I was reminded of Channel 4’s excellent anthology series Banana, which you could argue shares the same general intent as this project, but was able to realise it much more effectively. Really, when watching five by five you wish that there had been a little more to it; each instalment feels almost like a tease, more of a pitch towards what could have been than necessarily satisfying in their own right.

And yet by the same token that feels like an entirely unfair way to categorise these short films, because at the end of the day, what they’ve achieved is manifestly more important than what they actually are. A showcase for up and coming young voices, they’re going to prove meaningful starting points for the actors and writers involved in the series – an attempt to address the paucity of diverse voices, for lack of a better word, in the production of television, if not so much in terms of telling those stories. It’s in this way that five by five makes its real steps towards exploring identity – by introducing us to these new talents.

There’s a value to that, and accordingly, there’s a value to five by five. You’d be wrong to ever begrudge them that – even if you do rather wish we’d seen more from the series.

Related:

Looking back on Banana

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