Riches creator Abby Ajayi and lead director Sebastian Thiel take DQ into the making of this ITVX drama, which looks at ambition, race and class against the backdrop of family conflict at the top of a black British business empire.
Fresh from working on US dramas such as How to Get Away with Murder, The First Lady and Inventing Anna, British writer Abby Ajayi is back on home soil with her first UK series.
Commissioned by ITV for its new streaming platform ITVX, Riches follows the stylish, privileged and super-successful Richards family, led by London-based business mogul Stephen Richards (Hugh Quarshie). After Stephen suddenly dies, his family are left in disarray when his estranged American daughter and son, Nina (Deborah Ayorinde) and Simon (Emmanuel Imani), land in the UK, leading to a power struggle for control of the family’s black hair and beauty empire.
Working with Shonda Rhimes’ production company Shondaland on How to Get Away with Murder was supposed to be a one-season job, but the chance to stay in LA and take advantage of further opportunities stateside was “undeniable,” Ajayi tells DQ.
Her five years in the US also got Ajayi used to the US writer-producer production model – where writers take a more active role through production than is often the case on UK series – and the experience inspired her executive producer position on Riches.
The biggest difference between the UK and US models, she notes, is financial, with US projects able to pay for a room of full-time writers to work on scripts over several months together.
“It is exactly the same thing as what we do [in the UK], except we do it by ourselves in our pyjamas, with beans on toast,” Ajayi laughs. “They just have more people and it’s much more of a business. What is different is the writer-producer model, where you go into pre-production, you go to every tone meeting, stunt meeting, make-up meeting and hair meeting, and then you go down to set and you’re the person working with the director and the actors.
“Then when the director goes off to their next job, you’re the person with your showrunner talking about it in post. Getting to produce your own episodes is the thing that’s most different. Then when you get to the point of creating your own show, I don’t know how I would have made Riches without having had those years of experience in the US where I produced multiple episodes of Inventing Anna, Getting Away with Murder and Four Weddings & A Funeral.”
Riches, Ajayi says, emerged from her desire to tap into the kinds of family stories that have always fascinated her, while the business side of the plot adds elements of urgency, tension, stress and conflict that can emanate from the boardroom and have personal and professional ramifications.
The writer also wanted to tell a specifically black British story, and through Riches was able to talk about black ambition, entrepreneurialism and “immigrant grit” in the way the Richards family has built its business empire.
“I was really excited to be able to tell a story that is very much rooted in family,” she says. “It’s grounded in those sibling relationships and sibling rivalries, which is a connector we all have. We all have that step-mum, mum, irritating brother, all of that stuff.
“But I do think it’s a great opportunity to talk about black ambition and mobility specifically in a UK context, and also the ways in which, certainly from my experience, a lot of immigrant families are part of this bigger diaspora. You have the Nigerian part of the family, you have the British leg of the family, you have those who emigrated to America and all the ways in which we’re this huge melting pot. I really enjoyed putting that perspective and that affluence on screen while exploring the emotional stakes in play.”
Ajayi spent a few weeks talking through her ideas with the show’s executive producers and the team at Greenacre Films (Unsaid Stories), which produces the six-part series in association with Monumental Television (Harlots), before starting work on the scripts. Fellow writer Tumi Belo, who worked on the show as a script assistant, co-wrote one episode.
“It was quite a task, but one of the joys of the British system is that when you have six episodes, you can conceive and create a whole world in those episodes. You can’t do that with 10 episodes; six is probably the limit,” Ajayi says of writing the show. “That’s what I enjoyed about it, telling a story from beginning to end and having that control.”
Setting the drama in London, Ajayi also acknowledges issues of race and class, and how the wealth, affluence and social mobility of Riches’ central characters doesn’t mean they can outrun racism, as seen when one character is pulled over by police in an unnecessary traffic stop. She also uses flashbacks to explore how older generations dealt with discrimination and the lessons that were passed down from parents to children.
“Those biases does not hold you back. In fact, you turn it into fuel and fire,” she says. “The Richards now have this massive business but, keeping it grounded and keeping it real, members of my audience will recognise being pulled over in your nice car or that moment as a kid when you realise that you’re sometimes different from your white peers. As a parent, at what point do you have that conversation with your children? That is something black parents have to grapple with.”
Having drawn on influences such as Dynasty, Melrose Place and Beverly Hills 90210, Ajayi jokes that she became a graduate of the “Aaron Spelling School of Maximalist Storytelling” when creating Riches, noting that when UK series tackle themes of wealth, affluence and class, they tend to be period dramas.
Riches, she says, was “an opportunity to write this grounded and yet slightly heightened, glamorous, luxurious British story, and to put a London on screen that I hadn’t seen before. I thought it’d be really fun to see London looking incredible, aspirational and fun. You do have the more substantive issues there, but on a winter evening, it’s just a fun world – and hopefully a family – to be part of.”
As viewers will see when the series launches on December 22, a huge conflict engulfs the Richards family when they take sides against each other in a bid for control of their business, Flair & Glory. With the characters jostling for position at the forefront of the drama and sharing extremely varied relationships with each other, Ajayi says a key part of development was figuring out the psychological motivations behind their actions.
“Over the course of the season, there are some people who we think we know but then something happens and you get different ideas about what formed them,” she says. “I don’t tend to worry about likeability so much as motivation. In a show like this, where we’re talking about generational stuff, about traumas forged through that immigrant experience, it was always important to be able to say, ‘This is what they do, but there is a reason for it.’ And that doesn’t mean they’re not going to fuck up – we just understand them in a big-picture way.”
Heading up the team behind the camera is lead director Sebastian Thiel, who started out making YouTube series before one such show – Just A Couple – was remade for BBC Three. He then directed BBC Three comedy pilot Dreaming Whilst Black, after which came the call to join Riches.
Describing the scripts as “refreshing,” Thiel says he had never seen a black family story like Riches, while he was also keen to push into directing drama for the first time. “I didn’t think this type of opportunity would come so soon because you tend to get boxed into comedy,” he says. “Another thing I really enjoyed about it is it’s led by strong women. That’s something I haven’t seen as much of, and especially strong black women in this environment. That was really fun for me.”
On set, Thiel was able to lean into the “sassiness” and comedic elements of the series, with a visual style that adds a pacy but luxurious tone to the series. His influences included House of Cards, Suits and Billions.
“It was about building that world from scratch,” he says. “How do these people’s houses look? What type of clothing do they wear? What type of performances are we having – really grounded, or heightened? All these different elements had to be built from the ground up to create this world. It really made me enjoy directing and I really like being in the first block, which is a bit closer to being the writer in a sense, because you’re building the world.”
Thiel also enjoys working with actors, having created reels for stars such as Letitia Wright (Black Panther) and Damson Idris (Snowfall) before they became familiar faces. He likes to rehearse and get to know his cast individually, finding out how they approach scenes and identifying the best way of working together.
“With this show, working with established actors on this scale was quite interesting for me,” he says, with Quarshie, Ayorinde and Imani joined by Sarah Niles, Adeyinka Akrinrade, Ola Orebiyi, Nneka Okoye, CJ Beckford, Hermione Norris and Brendan Coyle, plus British model Jourdan Dunn in her breakout acting role. “I was just looking at how they work and how I could collaborate with them effectively. I learnt a lot about how to simplify my language at times and how, for example, with really experienced actors, it’s good to let them know the frame of the shot and guide them through that.”
On top of the “huge challenge” of shooting during the pandemic, Thiel says he also had to battle against the self-doubt that came with handling a dramatic project for the first time – and one that included underwater scenes and working with a large ensemble cast.
“But I definitely got through that quickly,” he says. “It was just a really smooth and fun process. There were some scenes where we might have had a short time to film them or we might have to shoot an actor out but, even though it was intense, I enjoyed that.”
Ajayi had watched Dreaming Whilst Black and liked the show’s “confidence, energy and verve.” Then when she met Thiel, he shared some of the same references Ajayi had used in conceiving the series. The writer was also impressed by the way Thiel worked with the actors to create a heightened style that never fully tips over into soap.
“What I’d brought back from my American experience was that you have a tone meeting with a director, where you page-turn [the script] and talk about what’s important to you,” she says. “Being able to be an EP and have that relationship with the director about what we need to get is really important. He and Oli [Russell, cinematographer] did a great job.”
Fellow directors on Riches include Darcia Martin and Ajayi herself, who picked up episode four. Having worked with numerous directors in the US – Paris Barclay (Sons of Anarchy) and David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada) among them – she had developed an interest in directing herself, though she wrote the scripts without knowing which episode she would be helming.
“What are the rules? No animals, no children, no water… I had a scene with a child and water, and an intimate scene where we had an intimacy coordinator and it was absolutely freezing,” she says. “On top of Covid rules, there were a lot of challenges. We just had this phenomenal crew. I’m really proud of what we put on screen and certainly for me, as a first-time director, this couldn’t have been a better place to start.”
Meanwhile, for the team at Greenacre, Riches represents the chance to tell a story they have wanted to see on screen for a long time. “We’ve really wanted to show black people in different ways from what we’re normally shown on TV shows,” says co-founder Nadine Marsh-Edwards. “I haven’t seen a story set in the UK that’s set in the world of rich black people, so it was really important to us to show black people in Mayfair, in the posher parts of London, in the nice restaurants – we don’t see that.
“We were always very definite. We wanted to tell an aspirational story. We wanted to show audiences that we do have hopes and dreams and ambitions. We want our kids to see that – and if you don’t see it, how can you be it?”
“It goes back to who tells the story, because I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it’s a female- and diversely-owned company working with a black female showrunner, female execs and all black directors,” notes fellow co-founder Amanda Jenks. “Diversity is at the core of everything we do because just look at who owns the company.”
Distributed by Banijay Rights, Ricges is coproduced by Amazon Studios, with the series also airing on Prime Video in the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the Nordics and sub-Saharan Africa. Ajayi hopes viewers tuning in to the show are entertained first and foremost, but also see something with ideas about what women in power look like, what black ambition looks like and the obstacles along the way.
“Fundamentally, it is supposed to be deeply aspirational and it’s about how the people who love you the most can also do the most damage,” she surmises. “They’re all trying to save this business, but they’re trying to save themselves, and hopefully that’s a grounded, emotional message audiences will connect with while also seeing very well-dressed people with great hair and great wigs and London looking great. It’s cool entertainment but with a layer of something else.”