Jimmy Akingbola: "All we're asking is for the full extent of history"
The actor and host of ITV comedy panel show Sorry, I Didn't Know talks about the show's own history and why he's excited for the future
“Our show probably got the most positive responses you could ask for,” says Jimmy Akingbola, recalling how his comedy panel show Sorry, I Didn’t Know was first received. But his drive to bring stories about black history and overlooked pioneers to TV was abruptly derailed. “We got an email to say, ‘We don’t think it was right for our audience.’ It was a big blow.”
That was 2016. Commissioned as a pilot for ITV2, Sorry, I Didn’t Know’s combination of history and humour was rejected. Four years later, comedian Paul Chowdhry - a panellist in the pilot - returned for the opening episode and his first words referred to the show’s long journey: “Not sure what happened in the news or anything that encouraged this to happen.”
In the long run, like Akingbola’s hit Sky comedy, the series arrived on the mainstream platform he always believed it deserved. What was formerly deemed unsuitable for an ITV2 audience now sits in ITV’s schedule, and has been a major addition to the channel’s entertainment output. After a summer when protests for equality and demands for an end to systematic racism spontaneously broke out in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing, commissioning tastes caught up with the ambitions of a show which had always been relevant. “Our show shouldn’t be the first comedy panel show about black history or to have two female captains,” says Akingbola. “It shouldn't be like that. It's a shame and it's disgusting that it is.”
Change is what Akingbola has been working towards for years. He’s a co-founder of Triforce Creative Network, an organisation dedicated to promoting equal opportunities, but despite 17 years of advocating for greater representation and helping thousands of actors and writers, he too found himself asking if he could have done more. Scenes from the Black Lives Matter protests in London, especially John Boyega’s speech in Hyde Park, made a profound impression. “That was a really passionate speech and then you saw what was happening online - everybody was calling each other out, asking if you’re an ally. And, if you have a certain amount of influence, what are you doing to change things? I got caught up in that mentally, being a bit hard on myself.” Individuals can only carry a cause so far - what's needed is institutional change.
For too long representative shows have been treated as experiments which can be classified as honourable failures. Akingbola feels Sorry, I Didn’t Know will break free from this destructive and exclusive cycle. “Don't look at our show as a risk, because that's been the issue over the years. You have the One-In-One-Out mentality; it's not properly backed, hasn't got the proper budget and hasn't got the proper time slot. The show doesn’t do well and then the network says, ‘We tried, but look what happened.’ No! If you back this show, like you would back QI or Have I Got News For You, then it will be a success. ITV has done that. We feel like it's a part of this year’s sea of change.”
This change extends to ITV’s robust support of Ashley Banjo after Diversity’s BLM-inspired routine on Britain’s Got Talent, as well as the commissioning of the short film strand Unsaid Stories, all told from a black perspective. “At last I feel like I'm being fully supported and nurtured,’ says Akingbola, who also stars in ITV’s sitcom Kate and Koji. “ITV are leading the way in terms of truly backing the talent, the content, and this change in terms of attitude within the industry. The biggest challenge for ITV now is to sustain it. I'm quietly excited, but I'm still cautious.”
One obstacle remains for Sorry, I Didn’t Know - it being treated as just a show, not a show which is part of Black History Month or a tokenistic effort to improve on screen and behind camera representation. “The industry has to take responsibility for it. The reason why it's an obstacle is because you've not been doing it all these years,” says Akingbola. You only have to watch some of this summer’s documentaries and you’ll see how many people have been banging on doors. Listen to people like David Olusoga or Steve McQueen, who talk about the lost generations of people who have left this industry because they've knocked on doors and not got through.”
Those lost generations are mirrored in the historical figures which Sorry, I Didn’t Know focuses on, figures from British history who have been excluded from congregating in popular culture with faces familiar from banknotes. What Akingbola hopes is for the next series have an extended run over a year, with a Christmas special, so it becomes just a show, one which expands the palette of British history. “All we're asking is for the full extent of history. There’s that claim you can't say anything about Winston Churchill. He did some amazing things, but you can't just focus on them and ignore what happened in Kenya or India. Give the full picture.”
Sorry, I Didn’t Know airs on ITV/STV Tuesdays at 10.45pm. Episodes are available on ITV Hub