Jake is a Programming Manager & Unscripted Development in our Network Team. He was announced as “Ones to Watch” at the 2021 Edinburgh TV Festival, thanks to his fantastic submission in the previous year. We sat down with Jake to find out more about the application process, how he felt being chosen and also found out more about his journey to Little Dot Studios and his proud West African Heritage.
Tell us a bit about yourself? Your background? What is your role here at LDS, how did you first get into the industry?
“I grew up in North London, but my parents are from West Africa (my mum is Nigerian and my dad is Ghanaian), and they moved here in the 1980s. I went to University in Portsmouth and studied TV and Broadcasting which sparked my interest in content and the industry I work in now. Probably the most important part of my come-up was actually a small YouTube show I made called Who Asked You? I got my funniest, most available friends to pair up and give their take on the news, current events and various topics; I created it, produced it, edited and filmed it using a small DSLR and random objects like pizza boxes instead of a tripod. It’s probably still the thing I’m proudest of in my career and maybe 100 people saw it, but it was still good for my portfolio and CV. My first role at LDS was as a Junior Content Editor (operations assistant at the time). From there I have progressed in a linear way, moving to Content Editor, Senior Content Editor and now Programming Manager while doing some work on Unscripted Development.
The reason I have such an interest in content, TV and broadcasting is because I know that different people have different ways of communicating. Storytelling is something that has existed in human history for as long as anyone can remember. It is how we share knowledge, entertain ourselves and impress others and many other things, and has always been my way of communicating with others since I was very young. I’ve always liked the idea of writing or producing something that makes people laugh, feel and think.
When I was a child I used to make up and write stories which I would tell to others and very quickly realised that is my favourite way of communicating my ideas. I would make my own little comic books, come up with movie ideas, and improvise poems and stories for my friends, I wrote a terrible play at uni which maybe 20 people saw. Therefore working in a role which enables me to do this on a daily basis and at such a large scale is hugely rewarding.”
Tell us more about the EDTV Ones to Watch scheme? What/who made you want to apply?
“I had never heard of Ones to Watch until I got an email one day last year telling me that I had been nominated for it by Dan Jones. Once you’re nominated you are given the opportunity to officially apply for it, so after a lot of back and forth, I submitted my CV and application and I asked Head of Unscripted Development and Executive Editor, Paul Woolf for a recommendation/bio about me as part of the submission.
For the submission you had to answer stuff like; what you would do with the scheme if you got it? What have you achieved which makes you feel you’re one to watch? What do you want to get from the position, and how would you use the position to benefit others?”
And how did you answer those questions?
“It was pretty easy to answer for me as at the time I was doing a lot of outreach work for underrepresented filmmakers, which has always been my priority since getting into a more senior position. I had done a lot of work with Grierson Docs Lab to hear pitches from underrepresented filmmakers. Paul and I were also working on a deal at the time, which sadly didn’t come to fruition, with the Black TV and Film Collective in New York where we were looking to put on an event. So all my answers were about how it is my personal goal to help boost underrepresented filmmakers and just give them a chance for someone real to look at the stuff they dreamed of making.”
What were the biggest challenges you faced? And how did you overcome them?
“I have always struggled with writing bios about myself. I felt like it was a challenge because I had to convince myself that I deserved it and once I did that, I had to convince someone else I deserve it!
I always find it a challenge to write about myself in a way that is “bigging myself up,” which is something I think a lot of people struggle with. It is difficult to look at yourself objectively because you naturally assume there is always more you can do.
To overcome this I needed lots of affirmation from those around me to combat my doubts. During the process Paul Woolf, Director of Content, Alex Hryniewicz and CEO Dan Jones were all really supportive and reassuring as well as all the people I was close to. When I originally found out I got the nomination, I emailed Dan asking if he made a mistake! So when he replied saying that he hadn’t it was a huge boost for my confidence. It was also about looking at myself objectively and looking at what I had achieved with Real Stories, such as all the awards, the brands I’ve grown, the decisions that got me to where I was, and realising that I had done enough to push for this and getting that written down before I have a chance to doubt it."
What happened once you had been selected?
“It was really cool, I got an email on my way to get a trim in Finsbury Park and almost had a breakdown in my Uber! From there it was meeting all the relevant people at Edinburgh, meeting the other Ones to Watch, attending two days of talks and Q&As from industry professionals. We were supposed to go to the Edinburgh TV Festival that year but it wasn’t happening in person.
As part of the Ones to Watch process we were asked to do a live pitching competition to Channel 4 for a short film. The theme we were given was the 1980s and we had a week to come up with an idea - I had even less time as I was so busy with work that I completely forgot about it til the morning of! Luckily, there was an idea at the time which I was kind of toying with anyway and my sister made it solid in my mind. Somebody I knew called Uncle Victor had spoken to me about how a lot of Black Elders have a wealth of knowledge and stories that they can share, which got me thinking about all of the amazing stories my mum, dad, uncles and aunties would casually tell me about both their lives in Nigeria/Ghana and their lives when they came to England.
I pitched the idea of asking any Black elder for one story from the 1980s, then turning this story into an animated folk tale in the style of the country they are from. It was so last minute I didn’t have a chance to build any slides for the pitch, so I got a gif of an Anansi the Spider animation on YouTube, looped it, and worked with what I already had. It was strange because at the time I wouldn’t have said that I was intending to win. With all the work I had going on already, the idea of making a whole film on top of that sounded way too much. But I did win, and now I am fully invested.
There is a funny video of me being told I won (on a zoom call), and you can see on my face the moment where the volume of work I would have to do started to dawn on me. I didn’t really smile but looking back I am very proud to be selected. So now I have to make the film, due in late November. This involves everything from developing the idea to producing to directing to writing, all the stuff I’d done a bit of in the past.”
What’s great about being part of OTW?
“The main thing that is so great about being part of One’s to Watch is the people that you get to meet i.e. your fellow ones to watch. There were 29 other professionals who are part of it, and one of them, Jessica North who’s a producer, added me to a group chat of black media professionals in the industry. This ranged from people who were entry level to commissioning editors and as a result I have met a lot of friends from the process.
It also meant we could work together on our projects. One of the core functions of the group was the ability to make requests or ask questions, then other members can help you get in contact with the necessary people. For example, I said I needed an animator for my project, so I asked for an animator specifically of African descent, and they helped me get in touch with Jide Johnson, from Aniboxx, who is so good, so we have been working closely to make the film.”
I actually got to go to the festival for free this year, and it was amazing! I got to see a lot of the OTW in person again, I met Steven Moffat who is one of my writing heroes, I almost got to meet David Olusoga which is a funny story I’ll probably share at some point, I exchanged details with so many professionals who I hope I get to work with someday, and I got to attend talks and Fringe Shows (including one show hosted by our very own James Loveridge). My favourite talks were the Q&A for Ghosts, one of my favourite shows, a panel about TV commissioning where Zeze Millz told the industry about itself, and, of course, Brain Cox’s amazing talk. It was so interesting learning about his life, attitudes towards the industry as a Scot and his politics, it also got me into Succession, which I’m super happy about."
How did being selected make you feel?
“At the time I felt quite stressed. While I have experience making content, I had never really made a short film before, nor was it something that I was intending on making, so stress was the overriding emotion at the start. However as time went on, it started to dawn on me how great the opportunity was.
The way I see it, the top 30 ones to watch have been shortlisted from a huge pool of applicants, then from that small list, I had been chosen to have this opportunity, so it is something to be really proud of. One thing I live by is the notion that when you have a victory, you take it and really dwell on the fact that you got it because you deserve it.
And what makes me really happy about it is that when I was given the chance to make anything, literally anything at all, I chose to make something distinctly African without even thinking. I’m really proud of myself for putting my whole self into this project.
At first it was difficult to feel like I deserved it, but after lots of support and calls with people at work and home, where I would tell them how anxious I felt, they helped me understand how important it was for me to tell the story I wanted to tell, because being myself, and instilling my culture and beliefs into my work is what got me this far, so as long as I continue to do that I will be fine. And I think it’s really important for young, Black creatives who are being told their only options of a sustainable career are to be a doctor, lawyer, or engineer to see people like them doing what me and many other Black creatives are doing with our lives, whether we’re entry level or right to the top. Even if we’re struggling at time or waiting for our next opportunity, we’re happy, Black and doing what we love to do, and that in itself is powerful.
Alongside highlighting Jake's impressive win and discussing One's to Watch, we took the chance to ask Jake about BHM, his experiences and how companies can improve.
What does BHM mean to you?
This is a complicated question for me and many people, but I think an important one. To me, BHM is a contradiction, and while it’s hard to feel excited about it, I can’t say it’s not needed. We essentially live in a country that spends one month “honouring” Black history, and the other 11 months trying to do everything it can to minimalise it and sweep it under the carpet.
We were taught so much about American Black history but little about the history of Black people in this country and, to me, that’s partly because to look at Black history in this country in the detail required is to ask some very uncomfortable questions about the legacy of Britain as an empire and to witness the determination of many people and politicians to whitewash that legacy in what they, and those who refuse to oppose them, call “The War on Woke”.
The full lives and political beliefs of people like Claudia Jones, Frank Crichlow, Ira Aldridge, Jamal Edwards or Norman Beaton (read his autobiography, it’s amazing!) don’t make for the most comfortable reading for many, but they’re still phenomenal stories that more British people should know about. Plus it’s not all struggle! There are so many stories of Black British joy and activisim expressed through music, art, film & TV, partying and just Black people generally refusing to be anything other than their whole selves.
I guess it’s very difficult for someone with my politics and beliefs to fully appreciate Black History Month in this country because if what happened to Chris Kaba, members of the Windrush Generation, Stephen Lawrence or a handful of kids who went to a party in New Cross in 1981 and never went home, is any indication, this county doesn’t seem to fully appreciate Black people, at least that’s how it feels sometimes. But with all that being said, I do appreicate that we’re all learning and it’s valuable to kids in school to learn about extraordinary Black people, and I genuinely appreciate people who aren’t Black but still want to at least try and honour Black history."
What more can companies do to help support underrepresented professionals in the industry?
"No more unpaid internships! Try to imagine young underrepresented people trying to explain to their parents that they’ll be contributing to the house bills with “travel expenses and experience”. Pay them!
I’m joking, but also deadly serious.
I think the media industry is in an important place right now. With social media and the expansion of streaming and digital platforms, underrepresented filmmakers are finding new and more creative ways to tell their stories, so it’s our job as media professionals to do the work, find and nurture those talented creatives, and make it easier for younger creatives to have real, meaningful dialogue with us, regardless of who they know and what contacts they have. Think of how many cultural mainstays exploded online like Mo Gilligan, Nella Rose, Munya Chawawa, Kiell Smith-Bynoe, Mandem on the Wall, Remel London, Kayode Ewumi (Hood Documentary is still one of the greatest pieces of British comedy ever produced on any platform in my humble opinion) and so many others, the space is there, it’s up to our industry to acknowledge that. From comedians to make-up artists to video-essayists, there are so many talented people doing it themselves, using their smartphones, or sometimes even borrowing cameras and uploading stuff they’ve worked hard on purely because they love informing people, telling stories or making us laugh, we need to find and invest in those people.
I’ve experienced racism and bigotry in this industry firsthand, and so much of it is a byproduct of hiring the same kinds of people, having the same types in positions of power for too long, being allowed to reject the mere idea of adapting to an industry, and a world that is ever-changing. You end up hearing a lot of “Why can’t you say this on TV anymore?” or feeling out of place because you just don’t speak a certain way, or vibe with certain “banter”, and I don’t think people understand just how much that can set a person back. It definitely set me back early on.
Lastly, I think it’s also up to underrepresented professionals to organise, come together and use our collective platforms and gifts to help those that come after us. Many of us are already in group chats and forums where we discuss these issues, share opportunities and job vacancies, and think of ways we can make our industry better. If you want an example of how companies can do some good, look at how Netflix’s Top Boy started a mentorship scheme for roles from director to stylist to make-up artist; mentees from that scheme even went on to direct later episodes of Top Boy! The blueprints are there, our industry just needs to be serious and consistent about this."
Jake has also kindly provided us with a selection of resources to check out. These include audio books, autobiographies and more information about Aniboxx.
Norman Beaton’s Autobiography.
Claudia Jones Biography, recommend by her friend, Diane Langford.
Audio doc about the New Cross Massacre.