A comedy-drama aimed at teenagers about Russian expat life doesn’t sound like the cutting edge of television – but somehow, it is. Londongrad is a new series by the independent Russian channel CTC. At a glance, it looks like nothing revolutionary. Scratch the surface, though, and you’ll find a carefully constructed piece of work, breaking down political and cultural barriers between Russia and the West. First broadcast in Russia in September, it had its UK premiere on 20th January at the RichMix Cinema in London, as part of the Dash Arts Café series on the Post-Soviet space.
Londongrad is an agency that “solves problems” on behalf of Russian expats in London. Whether it’s collecting a young musical prodigy sent against his will to perform at the Royal Albert Hall, removing compromising files from an office that’s about to be raided, or tracking down a wealthy government official’s runaway daughter – Londongrad can help. “These agencies do exist,” explains lead writer Michael Idov, “They don’t do things that are quite as colourful as what our fictional agency does – but that’s what TV’s for.”
The Londongrad agency has three core staff members: Oxford graduate Misha who, unable to fit in with either the Russian expat community or the Brits, founded it as a way to earn money; Stepan, a taxi driver from the Russian provinces with a beaten-up Lada Zhiguli and an astounding eye for detail; and the aforementioned government official’s daughter, Alisa, who has fled to London where “nobody knows [her] name”. All three are astute, sharp-witted and resourceful. With the assistance of Boris Brickman, a Russian lawyer emulating a British aristocrat, they help anyone with enough money out of the scrapes they get into while residing in the UK’s capital. Londongrad blends together fast-paced dialogue, gentle self-mockery and good, old-fashioned chases to form a gripping and endearing picture of London and its Russian diaspora.
The agency’s clients and other peripheral characters will all be familiar to anyone who knows Russia even slightly: the oligarch’s wild son, constantly getting into trouble with the law and trying to buy his way out of it; the “nouveau-riche” couple who come to London, visit only the Harry Potter museum, and then complain that it wasn’t as good as Turkey; the dubiously-connected businessmen who need their files cleaned up and their visas guaranteed. “We wanted to engage all these stereotypes […] so that people who know Russian London can play a guessing game,” says Idov. The subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) irony with which Londongrad portrays these tropes provides a refreshing change from mainstream Russian media, which tends to take itself too seriously.
The show’s very existence is a feat of logistics. It’s the first Russian television series to be shot almost entirely on location, in London. All the lead actors are Russian, and yet around half their dialogue is in English. Almost all the British characters in the show are played by British actors.
Politically, it’s an even greater achievement. The past two years have seen mutual distrust between Russia and the West growing to proportions unseen since the Cold War. In that time, Russian television – many would argue – has become a widespread tool of soft propaganda. When Idov was instructed simply to write a show about “Russians in London”, producers no doubt expected a picture of Russian expats ill at ease in the capital and pining for their homeland. But, disenchanted with existing Russian portrayals of the West and vice versa, he decided to go down his own route. Londongrad’s core protagonists don’t struggle to adjust to life in London, nor do they seem to feel any nostalgia for Russia. Equally, London is neither a quirky place filled with bowler hats, afternoon tea and Sherlock Holmes, nor Russia’s political enemy. It’s simply a city like any other, albeit – to feed the show’s drama – with a heightened sense of speed and danger.
Going against the grain and producing a show that depicts the West in a completely apolitical light was, according to Idov, “revolutionary in 2013 [when filming began] and downright dangerous in 2015 [when it first aired].” Surprisingly, though, Londongrad passed all their censors. The second challenge was garnering interest from the Russian population, who tend to dismiss anything Russian-made out of hand in favour of British and American shows.
Despite all these challenges, the show has become hugely popular in Russia – and not without reason. At home, it’s served to show that Russia is capable of producing high-quality, intelligent and witty television. If given a proper airing in the UK, perhaps it will now challenge British viewers to rethink their view of Russian émigrés.