Boardroom battle

Boardroom battle

June 28, 2023


As ITVX original Riches arrives on ITV1, creator and writer Abby Ajayi breaks down a scene from episode four, in which the feuds and rivalries at the centre of the series come to a head in a boardroom showdown.

Riches tells the story of the Richards family. Twenty years earlier, patriarch Stephen founded a black hair and cosmetics business that would grow into a multimillion-pound empire. Our show opens with Stephen’s untimely death.

When the contents of his will reveal that Stephen has bequeathed the bulk of the business empire to the children of his first marriage, Nina and Simon, from whom he was estranged, the scene is set for a messy showdown as different factions of the family battle for control.

The children from his second marriage, Alesha, Gus and Wanda, expected to inherit everything, and as old hurts and betrayals are revealed, Stephen’s second wife Claudia is determined to do whatever it takes to wrest back control from the usurpers. But she meets a capable adversary in Nina, who returns from the US with a truckload of daddy issues and scores to settle with the woman she believes tore her family apart.

The territory of the show – feuding siblings, rivalries, bitter enmity – is as Shakespearean as it gets, and my goal with Riches was to take this territory and ground it in a very specific black, British milieu, using the gloss and fun of genre to explore contemporary questions around black ownership, black wealth and the politicisation of black hair and beauty. The older two siblings have made their lives in the US, and their return in the opening episode also introduces a cross-cultural element. We further leaned into this element of diaspora black lives by showing elements of their Nigerian cultural heritage.

I’ve always been fascinated by family businesses, both real and imagined, from the sisters in King Lear to the siblings in Dynasty to the Kardashians or the Guccis; the combustible mix of family and money and how tensions spill from boardroom to sitting room inspired me as I wrote the show. A scene that exemplifies this tension between the personal and the professional comes in the episode four boardroom scene, which I also directed.

The red and terracotta colour palette was inspired by papal conclaves

In writing the series, I was always clear that the first three episode would be building towards this set-piece scene where alliances would be fractured and new power alignments would emerge. The boardroom scene was always conceived to be a scene-stealer where secrets would be revealed and we’d deliver a punchy plot twist to drive us into the final two episodes of the series.

In the writing of the episode, my co-writer, Tumi Belo and I were careful to ensure that the plot and the unravelling of the business story were balanced with personal tensions among the siblings and our key players. This isn’t a scene about a business vote, though the vote is crucial in plot terms; it’s a scene about the fracturing of a family and how old betrayals manifest in the moment.

Click on the images below to read the scripts from the scene:

As the director of the episode, I had to put on a different hat to realise the ambitions of the script. In a show about a business, there were inevitably several office scenes across the six episodes, and a big challenge was that in our opening episode we’d already had a big roundtable scene featuring the same characters. The pilot director, Sebastian Thiel, had already delivered a tense, fabulous will-reading scene that delivered tension and mic-drop moments, so the question for me was how to make the episode four boardroom scene build on what had gone before and also feel distinctly different, surprising and propulsive.

The episode one scene is a post-funeral will reading. There’s a sombreness and starkness to the scene. Our characters are still reeling from the death and they’re mainly wearing black. Right away, I was clear that the colour palette of the episode four boardroom scene would feel very different. I wanted a colour palette that evoked smouldering, simmering heat that would mirror the emotional explosions to come.

I was inspired by images of papal conclaves, which are dominated by the colour red. This seemed to mirror the sentiments of the episode four boardroom scene: our major players gathering to make a seismic decision that would shape their future fortunes. Working with costume designer Linda Haysman, we came up with a colour palette for costumes that would utilise red and terracotta earth tones as our starting point.

The production switched to handheld cameras midway through the scene

Given our large ensemble, there are inevitable challenges in filming a boardroom scene that involves 12 speaking characters. With my DP, Dan Stafford Clark, we set about breaking down the script in detail: shot-listing, designing in detail the shots and how we would maximise using two cameras to achieve all the necessary setups in the time we had.

Our approach with two cameras was to capture the tension and looks and shifting dynamics in the room, and we were clear that we wanted to shoot in a way that felt fluid and dynamic and which would become even more urgent as we built to the crucial emotional turning point within the scene. Another big decision was to go handheld midway through the scene to mirror things starting to go off the rails and to punctuate a major revelation.

Work in post-production by editor Becky Trottman heightened the tension, as she found those moments and looks and camera moves that mirrored the shifting power dynamics. Vince Pope’s score is also an essential piece that pulled the scene together, with a subtle metronome effect that heightened the tension underpinning the scene.

The shooting of a 12-person boardroom scene had its challenges, but it was a crucial moment for the show because the revelations in that episode four scene are a propulsive engine that spins the story and the central character in a new direction and launches us into the climactic final two episodes of the series. We spent about two days shooting, and the cast and crew brought incredible energy to the scene. The finished product achieved the high drama, tension and twists that I conceived when I wrote it.

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