Martins Imhangbe: “If you can hire a white historian, hire a black historian as well”
The Bridgerton star talks British history, why the show deserves praise, and boxing scene close-calls
When your Christmas Day features a bare-knuckle fight, it’s a sign the honey-glazed parsnips weren’t nearly as honey-glazed or the Queen’s speech was more divisive than usual. This year a bare-knuckle fight on Christmas Day is the sign of a day well-spent, as they feature in Netflix’s festive treat Bridgerton.
Julia Quinn’s Regency-era romantic novels have been adapted by Chris Van Dusen and assembled with verve and sass by Shondaland, Shonda Rimes’ production company. This take on British history is a rebellious, bitchy, and inclusive delight, blasting away the cobwebbed mutton chops of historical drama. Such was the production’s desire to provide greater representation, Bridgerton’s showrunner Van Dusen created a new character not found in the books but based upon a historical figure of note.
Will Mondrich, played by Martins Imhangbe, is inspired by Bill Richmond, a British boxer originally born into slavery during the American Revolution. His story is the type which should be more widely known - his move to England and education was facilitated by aristocrat Earl Percy, with Richmond later becoming a renowned boxer and trainer, even coaching Lord Byron. A riff on this figure is of huge significance for Imhangbe. “I want to give huge credit to Chris Van Dusen and I want to commend him. I commend him for creating a world where this character can exist, for doing his research, and working with a black historian.”
Van Dusen would speak with the cast and write or draft scripts after their conversations, and, crucially, the writing process had included contributions from multiple historians. “There was a sensitive approach to the process and these characters, and we need more of that. It just takes a bit of attention to detail. Sometimes it feels like a huge effort, but if you can hire a white historian, hire a black historian as well. You can all collaborate. It gives everyone a sense of belonging and they’ll feel they’ve been treated fairly.”
Will, like Bill, is an outsider to the privileged society of Bridgerton, where families vie to marry their aristocratic daughters off to the most suitable (read: loaded) aristocratic men in a 19th century version of Take Me Out. Through his skill and charisma, Will’s able to break into more rarefied social circles. “Will’s a working class hero and he manages to balance family and boxing. It’s a means of survival as opposed to him fighting because he's a brute. Boxing in the 1800s is completely different to boxing now. Back then it was bare-knuckle, had few rules, no fancy footwork, and no special combos. It was a brutal war.”
The lack of rules or 21st century athleticism didn’t mean Imhangbe was given a strict regime of eating or drinking what he liked to develop the physique of a pub car park brawler. The reverse was true, involving hours of strength and conditioning work, as well as fight training. “It was interesting adjusting to that era physically. The training was all about preparing me to be able to take on the choreography.”
Imhangbe pauses before continuing. “All the fight choreography was by Brian Nickels, who sadly passed away towards the end of filming. He’s responsible for all the boxing sequences in the show.” Stuntman Nickels was 54 when he died in February and the former boxer’s credits include billion dollar film after billion dollar film, his work featuring in multiple Marvel films, three Bonds, and two Harry Potter films.
The value of writing Will into the story aids a better representation of British history - Bill Richmond was so famous, he was even invited to the coronation of George IV - and Imhangbe underlines the importance of the character’s inclusion. “I swelled with pride after I read the script and did the research. Usually in period dramas you hardly see yourself. You hardly see people like me or, if you do, it’s always in an oppressive light. This isn’t about Will being a slave or 'The Help'. If, growing up, we saw ourselves more in this light, I think there would be fewer people feeling inferior or that they don’t exist. It's about visibility, but visibility in a positive light. This is really encouraging.”
Stripping off for a scrap also gives the characters a chance to let off the pressure generated inside bodies bottled up by tight Regency clothing. During the series Will spends time in the ring with friend and sparring partner Simon Basset (Regé-Jean Page), the place where their friendship develops. “Regé really enjoyed that aspect of the show, all the boxing scenes and the bromance. There's something about the bromance between us which feels very real. You don't see much bromance without the bravado, because there's usually a lot of bravado between men. But this feels very real, like there's a deep connection.”
Despite that bromance, despite that friendship, did he come close to socking Regé-Jean in the face during the boxing scenes? “There were a few times when it was really close. You get to the stage where you want to look slick and committed to the action. There were a few times when I could have grazed his nose, but didn’t.” When that happened, did he give you a look? Imhangbe laughs. “Once or twice!”
Bridgerton launches on Netflix on Christmas Day