Riding around London in a beat-up Lada are an unlikely team: A maths genius, a beautiful heiress and an unflappable taxi driver who speaks no English.
They are some of the colorful cast of characters in Londongrad, a new drama airing on Russian television this week that depicts the English capital’s diverse Russian community.
In a first for Russian TV, 80 percent of the scenes were filmed on location in London, the makers say.
The fast-paced series premiering tomorrow on CTC tells the story of a “concierge” agency set up to get super-rich Russians out of scrapes — for a hefty fee, naturally.
In the first episode, the agency’s boss, Misha, discreetly fishes the drunken playboy son of a wealthy Russian official out of a police cell.
Misha, played by up-and-coming actor Nikita Efremov, is a brilliant mathematician who dropped out of Oxford, disgusted at the class system.
Passing for a Londoner in his scruffy parka, Misha likes to joke about his fellow countrymen just off the plane.
At the Heathrow airport arrivals area, he scans the passengers with a cynical eye and lists the typical types from a Moscow hipster — “trying too hard” — to an oil executive coming to buy a pad in Mayfair.
Unusually for Russian television, the show was scripted by two US writers, Michael Idov and Andrew Ryvkin, who both have Russian roots and speak the language fluently.
They said they tried to avoid the cliches of peroxide blondes in leopard print or oligarchs owning soccer clubs.
“Everyone was expecting that and that’s precisely why Andrew and I didn’t want to go there, because it’s just not interesting enough,” said Idov, a novelist and former editor of the Russian edition of GQ magazine who lives between Moscow and Berlin.
“It does paint a more diverse picture of Russians in London, as it steers away from the stereotype that we all have six to nine zeroes in our bank accounts,” said Ryvkin, who worked on television and film projects in Russia and wrote for British newspaper the Guardian before moving back to the US recently. “The show definitely sports some leopard print, though.”
Much of Londongrad’s dialogue was written and filmed in English as the Russian characters interact with British people.
However, Russians are set to miss out on the nuances, because all of the dialogue was dubbed over into Russian by the channel.
This decision “pains me,” Idov said, but he failed to persuade the channel to use subtitles instead.
He praised the channel for not making any changes to the script, despite the freeze in relations with the West since the pilot was filmed in 2013.
“Not a word was censored and no one has ever come to us and said ‘Come on guys, let’s make it a little more patriotic or jingoistic’; and thank God for that,” Idov said.
The only addition to the show was a swaggering tagline to the title: “Londongrad: Look what we’re made of!” implying that Russians are somehow outsmarting the British.
The writers said that in the current climate of anti-Western sentiment, they believed the channel needed to put this spin on the show — even if it is not reflected by the content.
“I think it’s the only way to sell a show about Russians abroad nowadays, as tensions between the West and Russia are at an all-time high,” Ryvkin said. “You need this assertive rhetoric to reinforce whatever stereotypes Russians have of themselves.”
The idea of the show is quite different, Idov insisted.
“Obviously the show is not about the Russians triumphing over the West in any way. It’s a show about Russians sticking together, ” he said.
While the first episode shown to journalists is broadly comedic, the show as a whole is more of an adventure drama, the makers say, with even an element of tragedy.
Londongrad deals with the phenomenon of some — not all — Russians abroad. It’s about the people who cannot, for the life of them, integrate,” Ryvkin said. “They live there for decades, they speak the language, they may even have British citizenship, but they’ve never left Russia.”
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