‘I didn’t think this would air on the BBC’: the stars of shocking legal drama You Don’t Know Me

When he first read the script for You Don’t Know Me, Samuel Adewunmi assumed that the TV drama was set in the US. “It didn’t strike me as something that would air during primetime on the BBC,” he says. “It had so many Black characters at the forefront.” Once he clarified that the show was set in London (albeit filmed in Birmingham) it was “a must-have role. The whole story just felt truthful. I thought, this is a really interesting guy – his dignity, his identity, his morality – and the story was told from his perspective.”

The four-part series opens with Adewunmi’s character, identified only as Hero, in the dock. On trial for murder, the hitherto law-abiding car salesman looks out at the jury and – in a desperate plea for their sympathy and mercy – begins to tell his story. In relaying his version of events to the court, he hopes to overcome what facts and evidence, both circumstantial and forensic, have suggested – and to avoid a life sentence.

The series is based on a novel by the criminal barrister Imran Mahmood and was adapted by Vigil writer Tom Edge. “There’s this vein of anger in Imran as he writes it,” says Edge. “This is a world full of characters with intelligence and a capacity to work hard whose lives are squandered.”

The show plays out in flashback, as Hero recounts the events leading up to his arrest, his courtroom address acting as a useful framing device and a comment on how the British justice system works – and whose interests it serves. “[The novel] carried a real moral authority,” says Edge. “Lives are more than a collection of unfortunate circumstances, and we shouldn’t infer too much [about people].” That the speech is potentially Hero’s final act as a free man not only heightens the tension but serves as a reminder that the courts are where we tend to see young Black people penalised, rather than given a chance to communicate. Given that, as a group, men like Hero are nine times more likely to be locked up in England and Wales than their white peers, the ensuing lack of sympathy from the judge, jury and gallery is unsurprising.

The complexity of the show lies in the subjectivity of Hero’s account. The audience, like the jury, is left to decide whether his motives – and indeed the characters he describes – are genuine, or the fabrications of a desperate man. The question of why key elements of his defence have been left to the concluding statement lingers over proceedings. That the protagonist is nameless only adds to the ambiguity. It feels appropriate, however: Hero (a tour de force from Adewunmi) is just one of the thousands of young men who find themselves at the sharp end of the justice system every year.

Beyond its accomplished exploration of racial prejudice in that system (it brings to mind the early episodes of HBO’s The Night of, starring Riz Ahmed), the show also highlights much young Black British talent. Now 27, Adewunmi’s breakthrough came in the 2019 film The Last Tree (directed by Shola Amoo), a tender coming-of-age story of a young British-Nigerian boy growing up in Lincolnshire, London and Lagos. He also starred in “punk rock thriller” The Watch, an ambitious TV take on Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. “It was much bigger budget than anything I’d ever done,” he says. “Much bigger sets and a fantasy, all very different to The Last Tree.” He says the relatively smaller scope of You Don’t Know Me was a welcome return to the sort of character work that truly excites him, although he felt the pressure of leading a primetime drama. “You’re constantly reminded that everyone’s gonna be watching,” he says. “But that’s not what’s important about the work.”

Adewunmi is in practically every scene in the show, charged with overcoming both the jury and – perhaps – the viewers’ preconceptions about the accused. “I’m just a young guy from Camden Town, but there’s a massive responsibility on all of us to acknowledge that people’s minds are shaped by what they watch,” he says of the responsibility of programme-makers. “We have to vet the things we put out.”

As in The Last Tree, his character is Yoruba, a West African ethnic group numbering 42 million globally, more than 100,000 of whom are in the UK, including Adewunmi’s family. “It was very important to me that people who come from where I come from – my friends and family – were going to be looking at real characters and their real lives.” Besides, he says, “it helps to have that element of personal attachment there”. In You Don’t Know Me, Adewunmi’s mother and sister are also played by actors of Yoruba heritage, Yetunde Oduwole and Bukky Bakray respectively. Much of the action takes place around Hero’s kitchen table, where the family flit between two languages. “That specificity was very important for it to feel authentic,” says Adewunmi. “These things were written in English but Sam [Sarmad Masud, the series director] especially wanted to imbue the story with elements of Hero’s home life by using the Yoruba language. It allows audiences a deeper view into the full scope of Britishness. [The fact that we keep] part of our original cultures is the beauty of London.”

Bakray plays Hero’s sister, Bless, an observant “old soul”, who serves as his moral compass. It is only her second professional acting job, following her lead role in the coming-of-age film Rocks in 2019, a performance that saw her nominated for best actress at the Baftas and pick up the prestigious rising star award (former winners include Tom Holland, Letitia Wright and Daniel Kaluuya). “I still can’t believe that moment happened,” says the 19-year-old, who was discovered in a school drama lesson and says she had “no ambitions to be an actor” despite a lifelong love of film, particularly before-her-time classics of Black cinema such as Boyz n the Hood, Malcolm X and Training Day. “I’m very lucky with how the first few years have gone. I’ve met amazing people – directors, DOPs and editors as well as actors – who I try and learn from every day. [Making this show] was more like going to masterclasses than going to work.”

She was particularly impressed by her co-star Michael Balogun, in the role of Face, the terrifying gang leader who plays puppet master in the second part of the series. Balogun discovered his passion for acting while he was in prison and working on licence in the kitchens at Rada. He later won a place at the drama school, graduating in 2017. “It was so great to experience the level of discipline someone like Michael brings to it. This is his craft and [from him] I learned that all you have to do is focus on one thing. I’ve carried that with me on to all the other jobs I’ve done.”

Key to becoming Bless was creating a playlist for the character (“If I didn’t have music, I wouldn’t be able to act!”), an eclectic mix of Lauryn Hill, Frank Ocean, Al Green, Loyle Carner, Sade and Bon Iver. “I always have music that I draw on,” she says. “It’s the lyrics. There’s a song called Ottolenghi by Loyle Carner; he says: ‘Trying to exist and hide your face’. I feel that Bless is a character who feels marginal to everything and she’s always trying to hide.”

In conveying the message of the series – that the justice system, as it stands, is not fit for purpose and that is evident in its outcomes – the cast put in assured and compelling performances. As for his lead, Edge describes him as “an amazing talent with a massive future ahead of him. As a writer, when you see how much depth an actor has, you don’t want to squander any moment you have with them.”

The caption on the main picture of this article was amended on 3 December 2021. Samuel Adewunmi is on the right, not left as stated in an earlier version.

You Don’t Know Me begins on Sunday at 9pm, BBC One

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