An Introduction by Imran Mahmood (Author)

You Don’t Know Me is a story told by a defendant in a dock, giving a speech to the jury. He is one of the thousands of young men, strangers to privilege and opportunity, who are caught in the net of the criminal justice system each year. For those young men, the court is a system designed to deal with them but not to communicate with them. Not to understand them.

This story, although fiction, hopes to reproduce the feeling that many defendants have when they are in court – which is one of being in enemy territory. As a defendant, you sit in a highly charged place and let complex and obtuse arguments of law wash over you. You aren’t required to participate. You aren’t required even to understand. And to make matters worse when you look around the court, you see nothing familiar. No faces are faces like yours. You sit there behind glass being managed and processed. Often oblivious. Often deliberately kept that way.

And when the court looks back – in particular the jury – it sees a defendant that it doesn’t know. There are no bridging points between their lives. In You Don’t Know Me, Hero, shouldn’t stand a chance. He doesn’t even have a lawyer who could lay themselves down as the bridge between his world and theirs. But to solve that problem he invites the viewer into his life and dares them to know him. Hero believes that if he can be understood better, he will be treated more fairly. And that maybe is at the heart of the story – to challenge ourselves to know our neighbours better, so that we may better see where and how society fails some people. So, we can see our similarities and close our eyes to the things that divide us.

Hero tells you about the things in his life that join us. He shows us the people he loves, because love is part of a common currency. He tells us about the pain of loss, because loss is on the other side of love and we know that world. And slowly, by this trick, he seduces us into his world and into understanding him. Into knowing him.

Interview with Samuel Adewunmi (plays Hero)

Hero (Samuel Adewunmi)
Hero (Samuel Adewunmi)

Can you tell us who Hero is, and where to find him in episode one?

Hero is a young guy, early to mid-20s. He’s a car salesman when we meet him in episode one. It’s the job of his dreams I guess, he’s always loved cars and it’s something he’s really passionate about, something he has a lot of information on and also something that he enjoys doing.

He’s got his family, his mum and his sister, who he provides for as best as he can. He’s got a flat. He’s doing alright for himself but nothing special. He does have a really nice car, that’s one of the perks of work. He’s just this average guy going through his life. He’s content, but he’s not necessarily fulfilled. He’s not necessarily happy. He’s just sort of doing his thing, plodding along every day like we all do, looking forward to the weekends. He’s a pretty private person throughout the show. We never really meet too many of his friends, and I think that’s really because he doesn’t have that many. He’s insular, maybe a couple of people here and there, but I think he’s very much a family man.

What does the job at the car showroom mean to him, do you think?

Like all of us, it’s a job. It pays his bills, it gives him a roof over his head and feeds him, but it’s also the realisation of a passion that he’s always had. I think he was never really that good in school. He’s an intelligent guy but with average GCSEs, probably didn’t even do his A-levels.

Being able to sell some of the best cars in the world is the actualisation of a childhood dream for him. He doesn’t really aspire to much more when we first meet him, he’s happy selling these cars. He gets a bonus at the end of the month and has a good relationship with his boss. It’s his haven, his comfort zone.

Can you take us through the scenes when we first meet Hero.

In one of the first flashback scenes, he’s seen cooking a dish for his girlfriend. As the audience we’re thinking this seems like a pretty decent guy cooking some pasta, he has a nice suit, how did you end up in court? That’s the question that’s on all of our minds. As the story unravels his life is turned upside down. His whole world is shaken, I don’t think he’s ever the sort of person that we’d consider to be on trial for murder. He tries to give a compelling argument for his innocence and tries his best to explain why he ended up there.

What changes in Hero when he meets Kyra?

The story is a love story, essentially. That’s at the heart of it. With all these extraordinary circumstances, it is really just this guy that falls in love with a girl and she, essentially, is the catalyst for what happens next. They meet on a bus and he’s completely mesmerised by her. She’s beautiful but she’s also really clever, really funny and really kind and caring. Those are the things that he’s really drawn to. She meets his family as well, and the fact that she gets on so well with them means everything to him. She also helps him to dream for more, even though she doesn’t really have much herself. Kyra’s a really nourishing spirit for him, at first.

Explain to us a little bit about his relationship with his sister Bless, and what makes that so important.

I think the book gives a nice insight into their relationship and it really does carry over into the script. There are certain events that happen that mean Hero becomes the man of the family, the breadwinner, the provider, a guide to his younger sister in terms of a male figurehead to able to look up to or come to for advice. He’s a shoulder to cry on or shoulder to lean on but as the story progresses, Hero increasingly looks to her for support.

There’s a genuine love and trust. They have a really strong sibling relationship, one where they can be really honest with each other when they say they can be really vulnerable with each other. And I just love Bukky – being able to play her brother was a really fun process.

Let’s talk about Jamil, what do you think he represents in show?

They come from similar backgrounds and people go down different routes. I think Jamil represents the guy that has no other option. He seems to be doing what he does to try and provide for his family, he still goes to college and he’s a bit flashier.

I think Jamil represents the everyman that just ended up going down the wrong path. Maybe he was attracted by fast cars and nice clothes and nice jewellery, but he is still quite a family man and cares a lot about the people in his life. He’s a bit more superficial. I think he could be painted to be a villain, but he really isn’t. He’s just a guy trying to get by. There are many moments where he’s almost trying to be a guardian angel for a Hero. He’s not a bad guy, and getting by just looks different for him, from how it looks for the average person.

The language is very important in the show, and the screenwriter Tom Edge has spoken about how actively involved the actors were. What was your involvement?

Every day – I was involved on a daily basis. I think it’s right for a show like this to work, it needs to be based on authenticity. For people to go on the whole journey, they need to believe in the love story of Hero and Kyra and to care about the family elements. It’s the same with the language, people need to believe that they are from where they say they’re from. Language is such an important part of how we communicate our ideas and our feelings.

We discussed Hero’s voice modulation, how he talks on a call would be very different to how he talks when he’s speaking to someone like Jamil or how he’d speak to Kyra would be very different to how he speaks to his mum. It just trying to find those subtle changes. Trying to figure out those sorts of things was a really fun process, really challenging as well.

On a practical level, as the show’s lead you were on set every day. How did you manage to sustain the energy throughout the process?

I’ll be honest, some days I didn’t. Some days I was really tired but I think it was one of my teachers who said some of your best work is produced when you’re tired because you have nothing left in the tank other than what is there. Those days, as challenging as they were, were a lot of fun to still do. This is something that I love to do anyway, and we were lucky to be working during the pandemic.

We also had a great crew and cast. Sophie, she was amazing. She has this lovely energy that just permeates every space that she goes into. Then you’ve got Tuwaine, who’s just a ball of energy and laughs. Bukky is a quiet person and everyone really loves her, and Roger was fully invested in the work. You could buy into that energy and ride that wave. The best thing about doing this job is working with people, that social element and knowing that we’re always there to support each other.

Interview with Sophie Wilde (plays Kyra)

Kyra (Sophie Wilde)
Kyra (Sophie Wilde)

What drew you to the project?

The script! Obviously I didn’t have access to the entire script when I auditioned for the role but from the outline and the character description, it just sounded like a really interesting piece. And I’m Australian so to be able to work in the UK and to work on a piece that feels very British in its nature was something that appealed to me in a lot of ways.

Tell me about You Don’t Know Me – what is the story?

At its core, it’s very much a love story between Kyra and Hero, and their relationship is the catalyst for the plot and everything that happens. The story is about love in a myriad of ways and how that manifests – whether that be romantic love or familial love and the lengths you will go to for the people you love.

Who is Kyra?

Kyra is Hero’s girlfriend. When we first met her, she’s kind of I mean, she’s a person who’s had a very hard life and grown up in quite a difficult setting, and that’s had an impact on her and the way she behaves. That’s forced her to become quite an introverted person in a lot of ways.

I think of her as a bit of a lone wolf at the start of the piece and very much self-reliant. Over the course of the story it’s kind of beautiful the way you see her come out, and that is very much a product of her relationship with Hero. He brings out a lot of beautiful qualities in her that she had previously shut down. Overall she’s someone who’s very empathetic, someone who loves family, and cares very deeply about people. She loves books, she is a book fiend!

What do you think the books represent to Kyra?

Books are kind of a means of escape, a means of accessing realities or situations that you can’t readily access in your personal life. And as someone who’s obviously grown up in a very difficult situation, it’s a means of escape for her. Each book has a very specific memory, and she remembers each book and where she was when she read them, and she associates them with different memories. They’re very important to her.

How would you describe the relationship between Kyra and Bless?

She very much sees Bless as family, as a younger sister, and she feels quite a maternal sense towards Bless and is very protective of her. They have a kind of mutual understanding of each other that even Hero doesn’t really have of Kyra or Bless in some ways. I feel like there’s a deeper connection between the two of them.

What or who did you draw on to get a better understanding of your character?

I definitely watched a lot of things to become kind of immersed in the general world of the piece, but I don’t know if I drew on anyone specifically. When I first got on set, Bukky who plays Bless, gave me a book, All About Love by Bell Hooks, and the preface in that is just incredible. I read it and was like, wow, this encapsulates the heart and soul of Kyra so well, her journey and everything in her life.

How important is family to her and also to you?

Family is everything to Kyra. Even as someone who has had quite a tumultuous relationship with her family and who’s had quite an absence of family, I still think it’s a vital part of who she is. In the show, you’ll see the lengths she’ll go to for her family and for the people she cares about. And as for me, I love my family. They are the best! I miss them so much.

What does the show represent to you?

It’s all about love! It’s all about love and the lengths you will go to for the people you love.

What did you do to master the London accent?

I had a dialect coach. It was the best experience ever because I love my dialect coach, she’s like my best friend! So I’ve been pretty much doing that the entire process from pre-production till filming, doing a couple of hours every week and that encompasses a wide variety of things in terms of learning about intonation and vowel sounds. I think it’s quite easy to nail the vowel sounds, but practically getting out of your Australian intonation and into a London intonation is really difficult. We looked at people like Michaela Cole, Little Simz, and listened to the way they talk and tried to emulate that. It’s a whole journey.

Cast interview with Bukky Bakray (plays Bless)

Bless (Bukky Bakray)
Bless (Bukky Bakray)

What drew you to the project?

The story, it’s always the story. One of my dreams is to play a lawyer and the opportunity to be in a courtroom and to be in something centred around a court case was fascinating to me. And when I read the novel, the narrative was really gripping. It was one of the first times I’ve read a book and was shocked every time I turned the page. The story was so compelling.

What is You Don’t Know Me about?

You Don’t Know Me is about a young man who is standing trial for a crime he possibly didn’t commit; he fires his attorney and decides to do his own closing speech. As he recites what happened, we interject into the past and see how events played out and why things happened the way they did.

How much of a love story do you think this is?

Yes, I think it’s a love story as it centres around human beings and love is always going to be there. It’s not the standard Romeo and Juliet narrative where you love and you lose, it has more of a likeness to real life. The dysfunction and friction in the relationship between Kyra and Hero is portrayed in an honest way.

Who is Bless?

Bless is Hero’s young sister but she is an old soul. Whenever I get into character, I always think about song lyrics and there’s a Jay-Z bar, he says, “I’m like a dog, I never speak, but I understand” – and I feel that’s how Bless is.

She’s not really a talker but she’s very observant, and she takes in the energy that’s around her. Since it’s just been Bless and Hero for so long, the bad stuff that happens to Hero is really affecting her because they are so connected.

How would you describe the relationship between Hero and Bless?

It’s weird as I have three brothers, but the relationship between Hero and Bless is so different from the relationship I have with my brothers. Hero and Bless are affectionate and understanding but in a very different way. They don’t talk a lot, but their discussions are always profound. It’s not typical brother and sister small talk, their dynamic is exciting, and I’ve never been in a relationship like that. I think Bless really looks up to Hero as an older brother. She’s trying to emulate him in a way.

What or who did you draw on to get a better understanding of your character?

Music, music! If I didn’t have music, I wouldn’t be able to act! Bless has a playlist and I always have music that I draw on. It’s the lyrics. There’s a lyric in a song called Ottolenghi by Loyle Carner, he says “trying to exist and hide your face” and I feel that Bless is a character who feels marginal to everything and she’s always trying to hide. She wears lots of baggy clothes.

Bless is constantly trying to hide from the rest of the world and that’s why she doesn’t really speak when she’s around the other protagonists in the series, but when she meets Curt it’s different. Curt and Bless are very individual but they’ve had similar experiences. She knows what is feels like to be alone and that’s why they’re drawn to each other.

What similarities do you share with Bless?

I feel that we’re both really artsy, and the music I’ve taken inspiration from for Bless has been music from my own playlist. I have very eclectic taste, so when I jump into character, I can just pick the tracks.

I believe that acting is just a heightened part of yourself. The design team put a guitar in her room, and I’ve been trying to learn the guitar, Bless is meant to be a pro at the guitar and I’m still trying!

How is important is family to Bless? And how important is family to you?

I think family is not that important to Bless and she wouldn’t know what it feels like to be important. I feel like with Hero, yes, they’re brother and sister, but what family means to her and what it means to other people is very different. She sees Hero as a really good friend but I don’t think she’s that close to her mother.

I think the difference between me and Bless is that I’ve learn to understand how important family is. And with family, you can’t help it, you’re stuck with them. One similarity that me and Bless do have is that we understand that family is just blood and it’s the relationships that you make with other people that can be even more profound.

What is the message of the show?

The judicial system is nuts?? I think – the belief in humanity. I hope people see the focus on it in this show and how people do actually care for one another. There are layers of caring, compassion and empathy throughout.

Behind The Scenes: Hero (Samuel Adewunmi) Jamil (Roger Jean Nsengiyumva)
Behind The Scenes: Hero (Samuel Adewunmi) Jamil (Roger Jean Nsengiyumva)

Interview with Imran Mahmood (author)

Where did the original idea for the story come from?

I was in court at the time and I was writing a closing speech. I had a very bright and enthusiastic client, who was giving me ideas about what to put in the speech, what he wanted to be covered. And so I was sitting there writing it, and translating what he was saying into what I would say, because we couldn’t do it the way he wanted, and he was obviously conscious of that. And so as I was writing it, I thought, what if a defendant had to give his own speech? How would it be different? What would it sound like? What would be the things that he concentrated on compared to the things I would find important?

When I do a speech I try and blend a number of different things. I’m trying to blend a logical argument, an ethical one, and a moral one. I’m trying to do all of that together, and I’ll try and concentrate on one more than the other. But if you’re a defendant giving a speech on your own account, you probably want to concentrate on other things. And I thought for him, he would probably want to concentrate on the things which were to do with him, the personal things that led him to the situation that he found himself in. He would say, take a walk in my shoes and walk with me a mile and you’ll see why I found myself in this situation. That’s why I’ve got a gun in my drawer and you won’t understand that answer unless you travel with me for a lot longer than you could in an ordinary speech.

How did you research his story? What made you think this is the character I’m going to choose?

Hero was in an alloy of all of the defendants and clients I have met over the years, and they all kind of share similar features. Hero is a man, a young man, who is from fairly deprived circumstances; he’s undereducated, he is lacking in all of the privileges that a lot of other people might find access to. So not only is he in the grip of that underprivilege but he’s also got his own personal circumstances going on.

When I was writing Hero, I was drawing from all of those stories that I had heard across the years to find what the common themes are. And that’s why in the book, Hero is unnamed. He doesn’t have a name, no one knows his name. And so we call him Hero in the show because we have to for the purposes of TV, to identify him. But he’s really an everyman to that extent.

How did your background in the legal profession influence your take on his court case?

I’ve been in the job for coming up to 30 years. So every bit of evidence that I have found interesting, every circumstance I’ve found interesting is kind of stitched into my consciousness / subconsciousness, it informs every scene. Would I be able to identify which particular case a particular idea came from? Almost certainly not, but it informs every scene, whether it’s an interaction where a lawyer is saying something or evidence is being portrayed in a particular way.

How did it feel to see that then translated to screen? What you were trepidations about somebody else taking on your vision, the thing that you had created?

We were so lucky to Tom Edge associated with it, because he’s not just an ordinary screenwriter at the height of his game, at the height of his powers. As far as I can tell he’s had his head and shoulders above almost everyone in the industry. So whatever trepidation there might have been was fairly quickly extinguished by that knowledge.

And then I had a chance to look at the scripts as he was writing them. I had always known that the TV was going to be a different proposition from the novel because that they’re doing different things and in the novel, we have a lot of time to explore the social issues layer by layer. We can deal with characters in a different way, in a much more considered way. In TV we’re doing something else, where entertainment is front and centre and everything else is there to enhance the experience.

So yes, I was very comfortable with the fact that they were going to do different things. And of course, once you hand over the novel to somebody who knows what they’re doing, you’ve got to trust their judgement because they’re the experts in the field. In much the same way, if somebody comes to me and asks my advice on something legal, they trust what I’m going to tell them.

You mentioned that Tom let you see what he’s writing, how much interaction was there between the two of you in terms of building the structure of the story?

Not loads, but whenever he wanted my input about particular a scene, if we were dealing with something court-based he might say, we’ve got to put this particular argument across, what’s the best way of phrasing it? Then I might help him with that. In terms of translating the story into his vision, that was all him. It was all Tom, doing what he does best.

Tell us about Kyra and what role she plays in the story.

The story is ultimately and fundamentally a love story, and what we will do for love and how strong a force love is, particularly in the lives of people who don’t have that much else. As a kind of propulsive force, love becomes so important and it’s so binding in communities where there is so much deprivation. It’s at the heart of the relationships.

Hero is a man who has always described himself as somebody who has fought hard to stay away from the gangs and the drugs and all the things that can pull a man deep into that darkness. And Kyra, for him, was the conduit through which he could achieve that, because she was always the light at the end of that tunnel. And so when he was labouring towards that goal, it was her that he was seeing in his mind’s eye.

Kyra herself, she’s not just a muse in that sense. She represents love in the story, she’s that force of nature. But she’s very much her own person, she represents a different kind of unfortunate circumstance in the lives of people like her. You’ve got this woman who is brilliant and bright, highly literate and quite academic and has this love for reading, which informs her every move and it’s kind of deep in her. And yet, she’s marginalised because of our circumstances.

There’s another interesting love in the show that we see and that’s between Hero and his sister, Bless. Can you give us an insight into that relationship?

I wanted to have all those big relationships representing different aspects of love. So you have a Hero and his mother, a very strong relationship imbued with love, but different from the one with Kyra. Hero and Bless also very different. Bless for me is the moral centre of Hero. She is his compass to guide him. They’ve grown up together. They’ve developed this spirit of brotherhood, sisterhood, friendship, and love as they’ve been walking their paths and they know right from wrong as a reflection of each other.

The story could easily be regarded as a comment on British society and particularly the situation of young black people in Britain. Did you try to avoid that cliché when you were writing the book, or did you actually say something that was wider than the story itself?

Definitely. It’s one of the frustrations I found working in the criminal justice system. You hear the statistics and it’s hard to make sense of them because they’re so wild in a way. There are a disproportionate number of young black people and young black men in the criminal justice system. We say criminal justice system, but what we really mean is ‘accused of a crime and convicted’. And yet we can dress it up as a justice system as if we’re kind of achieving some high moral aim. But what we’re talking about is criminality – and so why are they there? and it always offended me. 

It’s not the young lads from Mayfair who find themselves in the dock of Kingston Crown Court. It’s the people with nothing. And you know what we’re really saying when we’re criminalising them is, this is your fault that you were in this situation. But of course it’s not. It’s not a situation of their making. What we do is we strip them of every advantage and then we complain when as a result of that lack of anything, the lack of any kind of solid structure that they fall through the cracks. I mean, it’s not a surprise. In fact, it’s inevitable that they should do that. But what I found, frankly, truly offensive was that we were designing a system which was aimed at criminalising a condition that as a society we created for them. I mean, I’m still slightly heartbroken that this happens again and again and again.

How much of a light do you think that this show will shine on that, and do you think it could affect change?

Well, I think the war, if we can describe it like that, is a war of attrition. Of course, I’m not going to make any change, but it might as a grain of sand in the scales. And as long as there are other grains of sand going in the scales, from all directions, from the political classes, from the academic classes, from the arts, from all kinds of areas of culture, as long as that keeps happening and the swell of movement and that pressure keeps up, then hopefully it will. I think change is inevitable. I think the difference is coming. It’s just the question of when, it’s probably not soon enough.

You’ve managed to capture the voice of the young black people in Britain today. How did you and Tom approach it? How much research goes into that?

I think young people develop their own language as they should! It’s not confined to young black people, but young people, across the country, white, black, Asian speak in this way. It’s beautiful if you listen to it, and it’s lyrical and I’ve just always been attuned to that whenever I’ve heard it. In the novel, some of the words were invented by me because the language becomes dated very quickly if you use current slang. And as for Tom, he involved the cast and we engaged young people as consultants and they said it was pretty much bang on. But they might have been having a laugh at our expense. Who knows?

Interview with Tom Edge (screenwriter)

How did you approach adapting Imran’s novel?

The first step with the adaptation was reading Imran’s novel and falling in love with it. The producers had read it and were already there, they were so deeply invested in it as a book and as a project, I was already primed to enjoy reading it and I really did. I think the clever thing about the novel is that it’s framed as a speech given, delivered to the jury. It’s very seductive and you go on that journey.

Hero is talking to you. You feel like the 13th jury member in a way, listening to him, being persuaded by him, and having to ask yourself whether what he’s saying can possibly be true, or whether it is sophisticated self-interest in the face of a 25-year murder sentence.

I think one of the other really moving things to the book as well is it paints quite a delicate love story and it frames it with the question of who has killed Jamil, and whether Hero is responsible. But really, the thing that grabs you after a while is how Hero wrestles with the question of trust himself. Even while he’s asking the jury to trust him and believe him, the heart of the book asks whether you can trust and believe the people you fall in love with and how deeply you know them. So, I thought that was very playfully done.

There are constant layers of questioning. And while it’s for the audience to decipher who this protagonist is, he is also attempting to discover the truth of the people around him and the people he has loved. I thought it was beautifully rendered and that formed the core of the approach, really bringing out those elements to the fore.

And of course, the challenge of taking a picture painted in words, a long speech given to the jury, and finding out how to render that in the form of a drama. To ensure it is as immersive when it’s done in sound and pictures, as it is when it’s unfolding in your head.

What’s the process between you and Imran to make sure that you’re maintaining the truth of the book? What was that relationship like?

Imran, from the very beginning, was clear that he trusted me to adapt the novel and that I should feel at liberty to make whichever changes were required. He has continued to be wonderfully collaborative. He’s also been very helpful at every turn, especially with the legal stuff. Not having a legal background, I tend to make up judges screaming “you’re out of order” and brawls in the jury box! It’s probably more informed by American drama than an understanding of our judicial system. So he was great as a kind of check and balance on that.

What I would say is that one of the things that I think Imran and I agreed on really early was what the soul of the book was. I think that once he understood that we shared a view of what really matters in terms of how we feel about the protagonist, thereafter, how we got there was that was a matter of process and trust. I think if we differed widely on that, then I perhaps wouldn’t have been the right writer for it.

What research did you do to make sure that the language was correct and current?

I think on almost everything I write, the question of language emerges and it’s always something that has to be addressed. On another project [BBC One’s Vigil] I’ve been writing about the Royal Navy, and there too, there is a really particular way of speaking naval jargon, both kind of formal and informal, a way of giving orders, a way of doing things and I needed plenty of help there from naval advisors, to get that precisely right.

With You Don’t Know Me, there was a very similar thing going on, as there’s an instinct that you have for the language that you want to tell the scene, but there isn’t an assumption that you’ve got that right or that that will sit naturally with the actors. It’s a very collaborative process.

On the one hand, we had advisers to help govern and steer that, but we also have a good relationship with actors and asked them actively to make sure that the language felt like it sat well. And if they had grown up in similar areas, to bring that experience and to allow that to inform the nuance of their character’s dialogue. Sam our director was also very good at that, making sure that the language felt like it flowed naturally.

Can you introduce us to Hero and tell us how you wanted to portray him in the scripts?

The protagonist of You Don’t Know Me is a young man in his mid-20s who works as a car salesman. He has a strong relationship with his mother and with his younger sister, and he has a girlfriend, Kyra. His ambitions are limited, but are ones that he’s happy with, he wants to give his family a good life, to look after his girlfriend, to be a good son and a good brother.

His experiences with school have been fine. He’s an everyman. He expects his life to be made up of gradually working his way up the chain at the salesroom. He’s good at his job and it’s not an unreasonable thing to expect to move in with his girlfriend after a while. The things that he has his mind on are where they might go away on holiday this year. This is how he sees his life going and his life is profoundly disrupted when one day, out of nowhere, his girlfriend goes missing. As he tries to find her and tries to discover why she went missing, the little ties that have bound his life together are completely broken apart.

When we meet him in court, he stands accused of murdering a boy who lives locally and who is a drug dealer and who would seem to have no connection to Hero the way he lives, his life, or indeed, the disappearance of Hero’s girlfriend. The story that Hero then lays out for us is his last-minute explanation given in court, when his opportunity to give evidence formally has been declined. It’s his attempt to convince the jury, beyond what the prosecution have told them and the mound of evidence to suggest that he’s guilty.

In the book, Hero is unnamed, and I think for Imran, that’s because he wants him to stand as an everyman. The character has specificity in terms of where he’s from and what his life is made up of.

But there’s a political bent to some of what Imran is exploring, which is how the assumptions that we might bring to a young black man in the dock charged with murder mean that we might be quick to judge him and quick to decide that we know exactly who he is. And in withholding his name, I think Imran points us towards the universality of the story.

You could argue that You Don’t Know Me is ostensibly a love story. Can you introduce us to Kyra and tell us about her, but also how her presence helps to reinforce that love story aspect?

Hero’s girlfriend, Kyra, in some ways, carries the tropes of a classic femme fatale in the noir tradition. She’s a woman who seems to be reluctant to talk about her past and where she’s from. What truly matters to her is books, and she has her nose in a book all the time.

Hero will later have cause to reflect on whether she worked hard enough to answer any questions that he might have had, but also says in counterpoint that when you detect resistance from someone, it feels like it’s unfair to push and prod, and to demand that they share things that discomfort them.

In the story, Kyra forms a major part of Hero’s happy but relatively unexamined life. She’s beautiful. She loves reading. They get on well together. Their days have a simplicity, and it’s only really when the life they have together is broken apart, through her disappearance and the subsequent revelations about why she disappeared, that he truly gets to know her on some level.

And that’s a really interesting game that the book and the adaptation plays: the question of how and when you get to know someone, and once you know the truth of them, whether that changes how you see them and perhaps what you’ll do for them.

What makes the love story so poignant?

I think one of the things I really loved about Hero in the book was his relationship with Kyra and the instincts that he has for her. People talk about emotional intelligence, and I think one of his gifts is reading people closely. That’s not to say that he’s any kind of people detective, but I think it’s the same things that make him a good salesman, a good son and a good boyfriend, is the capacity to perhaps understand what someone needs and to find a way to help them, and I think Kyra enables him to do that.

At the beginning of their relationship it’s in a limited way, and I think one of the things that I really enjoyed writing about them was how he comes to question whether he was drawn to a beautiful girl first and foremost, but he does finally come to know her, the totality of her. I think it’s the fact that he sort of loves her better for that, despite the complications that mark out their relationship as being special.

I think we root for them initially as they’re two beautiful young people falling in love with each other, but later because we see how they are prepared to give up the world for each other and for the others that they love around them.

We also see another interesting sort of dynamic between Hero and his sister, Bless. Can you explain the importance of that?

In the book, a lot more detail is given about Hero and Bless and their shared background, and we didn’t necessarily have the time and the space for that, we wanted to focus on their relationship as we find it today, but there are notes scattered throughout.

One of the things Hero does early on is to tell a story about how he went out to find his sister’s dropped hairband. It was a cheap, old, stained hairband but it mattered to her and even though he is perhaps a little embarrassed to make too much of it, we understand quickly that he is the kind of kid who would go out and look for three hours in various London parks to find some abandoned scrunchie because it matters to her.

I think Bless loves Kyra as well, and it’s obviously a different relationship, but it’s close to sisterly and we see the depth of the affection there. So she matters in this story and to more than just Hero.

There’s a moment where Hero is so hurt by what he discovers about Kyra that he is ready to call that relationship done, and it’s Bless who makes the argument that loving someone substantially and honestly and in the best way possible, means setting aside your own hurts and pains and helping them if they require that help, even if they’ve broken your heart.

She acts as a strong moral voice in that regard, and I think in the end, Hero sees that about his sister as well. She becomes the way that he can measure how he feels about the things that he has done.

His little sister remains his moral compass even though he must take responsibility for tracking her into those difficult places with him.

As part of the screenplay you’ve had to create scenes and scenarios that weren’t in the book. How true do you have to be to the book to make sure that they don’t feel out of place?

I think, when approaching the adaptation of the book, what I’m always trying to get to is the feeling that the book generates. The book can offer the voice of the protagonist as he tells you how he felt at various points, but unless we cover the world in voiceover, we have to kind of look to dramatise those moments and find a way to see him through action, and so some invention is a necessity.

But it’s not sort of invention for its own sake. It’s never trying to simply find something for the camera to do. It’s trying to find a way to articulate in a very different medium, to summon the same emotions as the book.

Those were the things that govern the shape of the adaptation, even if events differed and there was some invention, from innocence to being pulled into a kind of nightmare, to someone who experiences the profound grief and the bewilderment of not understanding how to help someone else.

And then finally, into somebody who makes some profound choices about what he is prepared to do to protect the people he loves.

I think the book offers us a portrait of a young man who is given a series of impossible decisions to make and navigates them as best he can, always questioning how far he’s prepared to go, and at what point his desire to help the people he loves turns him into someone that he ultimately won’t be able to live with. 

I was aiming for the adaptation to deliver those feelings and those emotions and to take the audience on that same journey.

The book clearly has a very strong political message about the nature of British society and the legal system. How much weight do you have to give that when you were adapting the story?

Imran has a lot of experience as a criminal barrister, and that’s what he drew from when he came up with the idea for this book.

One of the things that I was really struck by when talking to him, and I think he comments on this and in the book’s introduction as well, is that so many times Imran has dealt with clever young people who he could readily see in a different life.

These people would have been doing great things, they’d have been using their talents to achieve a huge amount and instead, but events conspire to restrict their view of what’s possible.

He has come to have a great deal of affection for a lot of the people who he’s represented. There is that note of real regret that by the time they are in his charge their choices have narrowed and are narrowing further. There is that sort of thread of anger that runs through the book but it’s also very human and very empathetic, and we try to carry that forward into the adaptation.

It would be reductive to simply offer a world where gangsters have drugs and guns and knives and all the money and there is nothing more to them. Instead, we’ve tried to honour the book’s intentions by laying out the complexity of some of these choices, how for some people, it is a lack of opportunity. While there is greed and a desire to have more and to get ahead, the way in which they use crime is a shortcut to get to those places is no less plausible than the shortcuts that wealthier or more privileged people frequently avail themselves of.

I hope in characters like Jamil we see that complexity, that desire to keep his options open and to move quicker than the world perhaps will allow him to, and to be a good son to his parents and to keep their respect and to try and find his way through that.

We also see the hubris of imagining that you can make the choices that he makes and emerge unscathed, and that too is Imran’s experience by the time he sees people in court. They have not gotten away with it, even if they walk free.

Interview with Jules Hussey (series producer)

What were your first impressions of the story when you came to this project? What was really exciting about it?

What really engaged me when I read the script was firstly the universality of it. The fact that it’s really a love story. It’s about identity. It’s about stereotypes. It felt like a really timely story, but it’s also just about a man who falls in love with a woman and makes the wrong decisions and that’s what really drew me into it.

Can you set the story up for us so that we understand where we are and what world we’re in?

We are in South London, Camberwell, and we are with a young guy called Hero, who’s worked very hard, he loves his family. He’s a very successful car salesman. People trust him. He’s honest. He’s really stayed away from the gang culture that surrounds him. He’s aware of it but he’s deliberately avoided it, kept a low profile and his life is going well. Then he’s on a bus one day and he sees a young woman reading a book and his life changes from that point on.

Due to loyalty to family members, on her part and on his, and his loyalty to her, he makes decisions which get him and her into a very tricky situation. As a result, he finds himself in the dock for murder. He fires his barrister and presents the closing speech to us, the viewers. At the end of the day, we have to decide. Is he guilty? Is he not? Is he a victim of circumstance? Is he a victim of love? And that’s where we are with a young man who’s never named. Having been pulled out of his very clean-living life into the dark side of South London.

How do you go about casting the show? Did you use the novel as inspiration?

We didn’t go exactly to the description of the characters in the novel. It’s all about the performance and who in the room really wows the casting director Gary Davy, the director Sarmad Masud, and exec Ruth Kenley-Letts. It was about getting those people in the room and seeing that passion, that belief, people that we could watch and really believe in, and seeing the chemistry between some of the characters. It’s all about the best person for the job and the person who believes and can portray that character.

The cast is full of brilliant, rising stars. How exciting is it to be able to see them develop over the course of the production?

They’ve developed enormously. I mean, in the middle of our production, one of our cast (Bukky Bakray) received a Bafta! It’s been fantastic. I saw Samuel in a film a few years ago called The Last Tree and was wowed by him. I was on an RTS panel for a film called Sixteen, which Roger starred in, and then watching Bukky, and bringing across Sophie from Australia, she’s a really exciting talent. All four of them are at different stages, but all rising fast in their careers and getting all those energies in the room together was fantastic. Also seeing them mentor and support each other has been great.

You Don’t Know Me is portraying today’s London, and yet was filmed in Birmingham. What made you choose Birmingham as the location?

Why Birmingham? Having researched a number of cities in the UK, Birmingham is England’s second city and is incredibly diverse. It’s huge. The architecture is very similar in many places to London. So we worked with Sindy from Film Birmingham very closely, recceing with our location manager Rebecca, and discovered that we could find Camden streets, tower blocks, all sorts of areas that really worked for us. We originally intended to shoot a week of shots in London, but that came down to a couple of days because Birmingham worked so brilliantly.

This story has council estates, high-rise flats, a courtroom environment. What makes it not a gangland drama?

It’s the relationships, it’s the family relationships. Our designer Robert Foster brought such character into sets. You walk into the sets and you don’t see a stereotypical Peckham or Camberwell block. You can immediately walk in and sense the character of Kyra, of the mother, of our lead actor, Hero. You walk into a world where you’re making assumptions, and when you open the door and it’s not what you expect. And even the court setting is not traditional wood panelling, it is very modern. We wanted to surprise people.

Why did you decide to build some of the sets rather than film on location?

In practical terms, the pandemic has played a massive role. The amount of people that are involved in a scene is maybe 20 people, and physically having that amount of people in the space in an actual location, even a courtroom location is quite difficult under pandemic conditions. We’ve upscaled the flats to give us the space to work.

You filmed the show during the pandemic, how did you cope with Covid restrictions that were in place?

It was tough. There are financial and practical issues and time issues, allowing for testing, slowing things down to enable fewer people to be on set at a time. I think the biggest impact is the effect on people’s mental health and stress levels. That’s been a really big learning curve, to be working with people who haven’t been working for a year, who we are imposing quite strict regulations on and trying to guide them through it. It’s about everybody being honest, supportive, and communicative.

You have adopted a comprehensive training programme across this production. Can you tell us a little bit about the driving force behind this?

For me, coming to Birmingham as a regional production base, it was important to be aware that there’s so much potential here that isn’t actually being developed. We worked closely with Film Birmingham and we wanted to expose people to what we’re doing, but we couldn’t have them on-site because of Covid, so we developed an extensive remote training programme.

We reached out to groups for carers, disability organisations, who work with neurodivergent people. Our 10 participants were involved with remote schemes and met with the heads of department all the way through the process. Every day they got a call sheet, every script amend, every schedule and every week they got a one-hour session with a head of department and they can link it all together. And then we did have one day when we could bring them on set on a non-shoot day and it was just so exciting to see their reactions and how much they enjoyed the experience of being there.

Do you think this scheme will set a precedent for other productions?

Very much so. Film Birmingham, and the BBC specifically, are excited by this. This scheme is unique because it’s not reaching out to the usual suspects. We’ve reached out to people in other areas of work, we’ve got members of my crew who’ve come out of other industries that have been shut down during the pandemic. We’re developing in all departments in different ways.

I think that’s unusual and I think it’s been great Snowed-In Productions have come on board with that.

What message do you think the show is trying to bring to the British audiences?

I think they need to come away thinking, ‘I shouldn’t make assumptions about people’. It’s not always what you think. Just stop and question your assumptions. It’s actually something that Kyra says to Hero a couple of times, you don’t know why people are where they are. You don’t know what’s happened in their lives to put them there. I think that’s such an important message that Kyra gives him and which the show gives to us. Don’t jump to conclusions. Just stop and think. You might be right, but actually you’re probably going to be wrong. Or you won’t know the full picture until you’ve watched all four episodes.

About You Don’t Know Me:

Starring Samuel Adewunmi, Sophie Wilde, Bukky Bakray, Roger Jean Nsengiyumva, Tuwaine Barrett, Yetunde Oduwole and Nicholas Khan.

You Don’t Know Me is a four-part mini-series produced by Snowed-In Productions.

Executive Produced by Ruth Kenley-Letts, Neil Blair, Jenny Van Der Lande and Kate Crowe. Produced by Jules Hussey and Rienkje Attoh.

Executive Produced by Lucy Richer and Nawfal Faizullah, BBC Drama.