- This interview first appeared in the September and December 2021 issues of the Black Film Bulletin.
In the timeline of culture-shifting British and Black moving-image makers, film and television producer Nadine Marsh-Edwards is a pioneer. Rising to prominence in the mid 1980s era of the Black Film Workshop, the future Bafta and Royal Television Society award winner made her mark as part of Sankofa Film and Video Collective, producing landmark works, including Looking for Langston (1989) and Young Soul Rebels (1991) by director and fellow Sankofa alumnus Isaac Julien, and Gurinder Chadha’s award-winning debut feature Bhaji on the Beach in ’93. As an executive for BBC Drama Scotland, Nadine originated and executive produced primetime scripted television for more than seven years. In 2018, alongside production partner Amanda Jenks, their company Greenacre Films made history producing the musical Been So Long, starring Michaela Coel – Netflix’s biggest ever UK feature acquisition at that time. Greenacre Films’ 2020 production Unsaid Stories led the way in UK TV production. Commissioned by ITV and released at the height of the global pandemic, the series enlisted an array of Britain’s most talented Black screenwriters, directors, producers and onscreen talent to deliver its four-part episodic reckoning on the zeitgeist; explicitly and poignantly inspired by the global Black Lives Matter movement.
Marsh-Edwards’s prolific insights on the changing face of British and global diaspora filmmaking culture have been ever-present in the pages of the Black Film Bulletin since its launch in the summer of 1993. Black Film Bulletin’s June Givanni and Jan Asante had a present-day catch-up with the acclaimed filmmaker – the first in our two-part series.
June Givanni: In 2018, just before your groundbreaking Netflix feature Been So Long debuted, I asked you about Black British cinema, then and now: how you saw it and what you thought of our idea of an online magazine for Black British and Black international cinema. A digital Black Film Bulletin?
Nadine Marsh-Edwards: My response back then was, “Absolutely, yes!” There’s enough material coming out now to have a focus on Black British cinema. But I wouldn’t keep it to just cinema. I’d broaden it to include television. We need to see as many stories as possible come through from many different points of view. That would make British culture richer. But I also like to know about what other people are doing around the world.
Jan Asante: This conversation that you and June have been having from 1993 to 2018 to today provides such a valuable timeline of events and changes in the politics and landscape of African diaspora filmmaking – here in Britain and across the globe. And then came the pandemic. How have you been surviving it?
NME: Well, I think for everyone it’s been a challenge. It’s been difficult because you started off that year not knowing that it’s going to be an entire year, but it’s just gone on and on and on. Fortunately, we were able to continue with our development work, because it’s something you can do from home. Zooms with writers, talking to directors continued almost as normal.
JA: These institutional statements on ‘inclusion and diversity’ that we see coming from all directions presently; from corporate ‘black squares’ to industry pledges from bodies like Bafta and the BFI, and more contentiously the UK government’s Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities – what impact has all of that had on you and on your work?
NME: We were fortunate enough to shoot a production right in the midst of the pandemic, Unsaid Stories (2020). Those short films would not have happened if it wasn’t for the incredible and heart-wrenching events of last year. I’d been watching American news and they started to talk about coronavirus disproportionately affecting Black people. And then that same information also emerged in England. You started to realise that a lot of the doctors and nurses passing away first were Black. I just thought, “What’s going on?” It’s not because of our skin colour; it’s because of the jobs we do. We were exposed more, but nothing was really being done about it. And then George Floyd got murdered. I felt extremely overwhelmed by it all, I have still never watched all of the footage. As a Black person, it felt like we were under attack. I had to take a couple of days off work. I really needed to process what was going on.
All I did was watch the news, to be honest, and got assaulted by lots and lots of information. And I just thought: “We need to do something. We need to have a response to what is happening in the world and the way that it is affecting Black people.” I didn’t know what that was going to be, but we just sat down and we came up with a couple of paragraphs: “We want to work with a few writers; to do a few short films” – we wanted them on TV, we wanted as many people as possible to see them and get a sense of why some of us feel how we feel.
Initially the idea was to do monologues. I thought, “What can be done that’s quick and easy and doesn’t cost lots of money, but does have impact?” So we sent a short proposal to ITV and they got back to us within 48 hours: “We’re in! Let’s talk about it.” [ITV head of drama] Polly Hill encouraged us, “You can do more than a monologue. Make it more!” That week, they had Isolation Stories (2020) transmitted – a series of 15-minute shorts, quite contained, about what it was like to be in lockdown. So we basically followed their format. Then they said they’d make it primetime nine o’clock viewing, but they needed it delivered in four and a half weeks! There were no stories yet; nothing. So we literally called up writers that we were either already working with or wanted to work with, with a very broad brief – “What’s your response to the situation we are now in?” At the moment many Black writers in this country are really busy, which I’m so happy about, but fortunately, even though they were very busy, everyone we approached who wanted to say something said, “You know what? For this, we’ll make ourselves free.”
Along with ITV, we chose four ideas. In the end, there was only one film that really referenced coronavirus and Black Lives Matter directly. The main BLM UK marches had happened by then. The other three films were more to do with the thoughts and processes that might make someone want to go on one of those marches. Those other things that happen to you in your life that make you think: I’m going to make my voice heard, I have to make my voice heard. So we commissioned the scripts, they were written, cast and crewed within two weeks, and all shot within the same week. We had four amazing crews filming simultaneously. Everything was done remotely, the only people on set were the actors, the camera person and the health and safety person. Everyone else was looking down at their computer screens. It was all edited within a week and transmitted the week after. What was incredible for me – for all of us – was to get the dramas on primetime television at the point when the subject matters were still hyper-relevant. Normally drama takes over a year before it sees the light of day. To do this turnaround so quickly was the most crucial part. We got to work with fantastic talent both in front and behind the scenes and I’m really proud of what we all achieved and I’m proud that we managed to pull it off in the way that we had to do it due to the pandemic.
JG: Your company made history with Been So Long. What’s next?
NME: We have an ITV series in production: Riches, set in the world of Black glamour, style, hair, makeup, with rich and aspirational Black people running a business – of course greed gets in the way! It’s a fantastic story. Abby Ajayi (a screenwriter on the hit US legal drama How to Get away with Murder) has done a brilliant job creating and writing the series. We’ve also brought on a new writer because Abby – like us – is very committed to bringing in newer talent.
JA: I’ve heard it’s a transatlantic story, set in Britain and the US, with an African-descent family living between two worlds? How significant was that decision?
NME: Yes, the story connects two families. It’s about being international and being part of the diaspora – I’ve got relatives all over the world. That’s my normal. But we’ve not seen that reality often onscreen in the UK, so it’s brilliant to have the opportunity to show a different type of Black family to the ones we’ve tended to see to date. But again, I think that the range of stories we are telling is changing. As long as there’s a variety of Black experiences being shown on TV and in films, I’m really happy about that.
It is now so exciting with the breadth of stories that people can tell and the many formats those stories can be told in! We’re not restricted and I think people should really just go for it – don’t limit your horizon at all, because there just might be a home for it. I also think for Black filmmakers, writers, directors, producers, actors – finding allies to work with is crucial. It’s really important because you need that support. It can be quite a long journey, so find kindred spirits to go on that journey with you, they can help sustain you through the ups and downs.
JA: Is that you forever rooted in the collective spirit of the Workshop movement?
NME: I suppose so, but I think other people work that way too – they just wouldn’t call it that. Look at some of the most successful film and TV partnerships – the same people work with each other all of the time, over and over again. You just find the people you feel comfortable with; people who push you a bit; people who fill the gaps in your knowledge as you fill the gaps in their knowledge. But having said that, it’s also often good to get in someone who sees things from a different perspective and can question you and bring something new to mix.
The thing about making film and TV is that it is a collective experience. You cannot make it on your own, and the quicker you realise that, the better! My attitude is: take people with you, work with the best people you can. Do your best work. Help them do their best work. If you can help each other, it’s a win-win.
JA: Comparing this period now with when you were evolving as a filmmaker through the Workshop era: 30 years on, are you hopeful?
NME: It’s been a rollercoaster. Being part of the Workshop movement was a very special period in my life/career. I think that we all felt that we were part of something – a movement that was trying to make a difference here in the UK but also make connections with other film makers in the diaspora. We were getting an opportunity to tell stories that we wanted to tell in lots of different forms. There were arthouse movies, there were straight dramas, documentaries; there were lots of different forms of expression that I felt had their moment. But it’s important to remember that there were of course other Black creatives also doing their thing, making their mark.
Thinking back to our Black Film Bulletin conversations through the years, I think we really all did believe that there would be a swathe of people coming behind us be able to tell their stories – and it was such a shock that that didn’t happen. I think quite often about why that didn’t happen, and– this is just my opinion – the pressure was taken off the powers that be to continue supporting the work of Black film makers. I think those in power got complacent and thought it was ‘job done’ because some work was being made, awards were being won. But there was/is so much more that needs to be done. As usual, a few individuals were chosen to be lauded, and then it all stopped. So there’s a whole generation, or maybe two generations, of Black filmmakers who really had something to say, who had a lot of talent, but then had to stop because reality stepped in, and they had to pay the bills.
Am I hopeful? More so now than I was three years ago, or even this time last year. Lots of changes have started to happen, but there’s always room for more change. But I do think that this is probably the best time to enter this industry. It’s a good time to remain in this industry. It’s a good time to try and get your stories told and it’s a good time to find other Black people to work with. So yes, I am optimistic at this moment.
JG: The strapline of your production company Greenacre Films reads: “The home of authored voices and distinctive worlds.” What impact did you and co-founder Amanda Jenks envisage Greenacre Films would have in the industry?
NME: We’ve always strived to tell stories from diverse voices and by that we mean diversity in the broadest sense. It doesn’t feel niche for us, it feels normal to do this. When we set up, most of the stories you saw on film or television tended to be written and made by very similar types of people and it was their worlds that we were watching; although we could engage with them, they weren’t necessarily worlds that I recognised or inhabited. We want to see worlds that we see when we walk down the street on screen. I think audiences are much more accepting of difference than we’ve been led to believe up till now. So it can be a love story set in Islington that has resonance with someone who lives in Atlanta or Mumbai. It’s all about emotions at the end of the day. So, that’s what we want to do – connect with audiences on an emotional level and take them on a journey.
JG: So with Greenacre’s success in 2018 with the Netflix feature Been So Long, tell us about moving the project from ambition to reality?
NME: It’s the first major drama that we’ve made at Greenacre and we’re very proud of it. Developing drama, which is primarily what we do, can take a long time. You have to be prepared for the long haul. In all it was a very long journey because we optioned the play over eight years ago – the play written by Ché Walker with music and lyrics by Arthur Darvill. It was a musical that was staged at the Young Vic, we went along to an early read-through and totally loved it. It was originally the UK Film Council who came on board really quickly to help us develop the script. They were so positive and helpful throughout. We then brought Tinge Krishnan on board to direct. She’d previously directed a film called Junkhearts  which we’d really liked and believed her to be a great match for Been So Long. We also brought on Jane Wright and Indira Guha as exec producers, who were fantastic and introduced us to distributors and sales people who they thought might be a good fit for the film. The BFI were the first in with production money – which was brilliant. It gave the market confidence and showed there was concrete support for the film, and they were totally supportive of the fact that we wanted it to be a diverse cast and crew. We then sent the script to Eva Yates at Film4, and again their response with financial support was really swift.
JG: Why do you think there was such an enthusiastic response?
NME: Because it’s a musical and because it is a great story that is a love letter to London – and in particular to Camden, the area where I grew up; where Ché grew up. It’s a story about people who don’t necessarily hang out in Camden Market, but they live in the streets on either side. Normal people who are just trying to live their lives; to earn a living, to fall in love and enjoy life… and sing about it!
JG: How did you make the casting decisions – especially around a passion project that simultaneously needed to attract investors?
NME: We started to look at the cast about a year before we’d actually raised the money for the film. They had to be great actors who could really sing because Tinge always wanted to shoot them singing live. During the casting process, it became evident that there was a lot of love and respect from the actors for Ché and Arthur, the writers. That, alongside a huge will for the film to happen, put us in a really good position to start with.
JG: How and when did Michaela Coel come on board?
NME: Tinge had an early meeting with Michaela and we just thought she’d be perfect for the lead role, so again, it was good timing and the stars were totally aligned for us. It was only after we started to film that Michaela’s show Chewing Gum was sold to Netflix and Michaela deservedly became a huge star. We are so happy for her because she’s a huge talent, as are the rest of the amazing lead cast: Arinze Kene, George Mackay and Ronke Adekoluejo.
JG: Would you have preferred to have had a traditional cinema release before a Netflix platform release? If so, what difference would it have made?
NME: We made Been So Long to be shown on the big screen. A cinema release and festival run in a few countries, as well as it being shown on Netflix, would have been ideal – but on reflection, it being on Netflix from the get-go meant people around the world got an opportunity to see our small film.
JG: Back in 1993 you said you felt that with “cinema distribution, the ideas have to be bigger; the scope of the film wider, and cinema has to transcend locality and provide the universal story.” One of the main tasks of a producer is to try to tell at script stage whether a project will work, financially or marketing-wise, for cinema. Now that you’ve worked on both sides, and given the industry changes now, is this still the case?
NME: I think that’s all different now. I really do. Filmmakers are seeing the huge benefits and opportunities that TV is offering. The budgets available now for high-end TV shows are bigger than many UK films. So if you’ve got ambitions to tell big stories that need more time to be told and have access to a worldwide audience, television is now a really good place to do that too. That wasn’t the case two decades ago.
JA: How big a gamechanger is the rise of Netflix?
NME: They saw and understood the way that stories were consumed – globally. So, if you’re a TV programme-maker or filmmaker who is part of the diaspora, you already know your audience could be global; you’re not just banking on audience figures from your own territory, you’re looking at audience figures being consolidated from around the world. I think it’s an acknowledgement of what we’ve all known – that if a story touches you, then it touches you regardless of where it is filmed or what language is spoken. The specifics of where the story is set is obviously really important because that’s what makes it an authentic piece, but for instance, when I watched Nadine Labaki’s Capernaum  or Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite  – both set in worlds I don’t really know at all – they are both stories I understood and connected with emotionally. Both films prove that you can have a global audience for a story that’s quite culturally specific.
JA: Back in ’93, you made a statement to BFB somewhat debunking the notion of the grass being greener for Black filmmakers leaving Britain for the US; which you’d personally resisted doing. But you were just as candid about the broader challenges of working within Europe and finding Black European production collaborators. So what’s shifted structurally – in terms of industry support and finding allies?
NME: Ha! Things have changed a lot in the USA over the last ten years. The work available to and created by Black creatives is reaching a critical mass – for some time now. I totally understand why Black artists, crew, creatives go from the UK to the States to make their mark – they get fed up waiting for it to happen here. The role of allies is really important too. I think there are now many more people in the industry here who really are trying to make change actually happen: Screen Skills, for instance, who are paying people to train and change grade and enable more people from diverse backgrounds to enter the industry. Having different types of people telling their stories as well as having more people from diverse backgrounds moving up the crew ranks is essential. If you get to be a head of department, I believe it’s your duty to pull other people up behind you, to sit alongside you. We have to pass the baton on, and not just relax and think, “Well, I’m OK,” and that’s it, job done.”
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