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The success of Sky drama Bulletproof is impossible to dispute. When it launched in 2018, it pulled in Sky One's biggest audience of the year, and three years on it's just been confirmed for a fourth season.
On paper, it's everything you'd want in a crime drama. Partially inspired by US hit Bad Boys, the buddy-cop franchise follows the journey of two organised crime detectives, Aaron Bishop (Noel Clarke) and Ronnie Pike Jr. (Ashley Walters), as they pull off cinematic stunts and tackle hard-hitting subjects, from drug rings to sex trafficking.
So, why, then, did it take a whole eight years to get commissioned?
"Because people didn't think two black males in a lead role would sell," Ashley Walters tells Tyla over a Zoom call.
"It would have been easy for us to make a show that's already out there, but the fact is it took us eight years to get this show on the screen because people went against it... people didn't think it would work".
Noel and Ashley's vision from the get-go was to create a series in which they could play "good black role models" - a feature they say is too often neglected by production teams reluctant to veer into unfamiliar TV territory.
"We had both played characters that were on the wrong side of the tracks, so to speak, and felt that good black role models were really underrepresented on TV in general," the Top Boy star says. "And that's why we came up with this idea.
"We wanted to create characters that kids could look up to for once, that weren't out there doing violence all the time, and I think we've done that without making them cheesy and without making them too earnest."
When Bulletproof finally got commissioned by Sky, Kidulthood creator Noel says they went into meetings with non-negotiable guidelines, determined not to fall into the same old typecasts.
For one, the pair would never be afraid to showcase their platonic bromance, something "which often is taboo, especially in our community.
"They will also never betray each other, and Pike's marriage can't break up, because we're fed up of seeing that representation [on screen]."
The biggest stigma to get past was the idea of two black men playing law-abiding policemen, he adds.
"We've been conditioned - people of a certain class or a certain race - to accept ourselves on screen as a specific thing. So, people didn't even wanna see us on screen playing police because they couldn't quite get their heads around it.
"When we first started out, the amount of messages we got saying 'Oh, what, you're feds now? I can't watch you lot as police, I wanna see you guys running from police.'
"The difference now is we have transcended that, so that it's not really about them being black, it's about Bishop and Pike, and that's really what we wanted.
"It's just about the characters. They just happen to be black."
It's not hard to see how Noel and Ashley have managed to achieve this. Even through a Zoom screen, their obvious chemistry shines through to the point where it's hard to see where they end and their characters begin.
Much like Bishop, Noel is the goofy one - animated and cracking jokes - while Ashley laughs at his co-star with the same mixture of fondness and bemusement we see etched across Pike's face during the show.
"Were like brothers," Ashley tells Tyla, before Noel chips in: "I'm genuinely proud to say [there's] a lot of people who row a lot, and we don't".
"100 per cent. Its all love, man," quips back Ashley. "Sometimes your little brother or your older brother niggle you a bit, but our strength and friendship and the power we have together is what makes this show so amazing.
"Ask anyone that works on a Bulletproof set, they've never worked in a environment like that, its always happy, always a vibe and we are always in stitches, to the point that sometimes directors can't film, they just have to join in."
It's not all fun and games, though. To make the series as slick as possible, the pair also do the majority of their own stunts, which has so far resulted in Noel tearing the macerator of his medial collateral ligament and trapping a nerve in his neck, after being punched in the face.
"When it comes to driving and fight sequences and whatever, Noel's taken a lot of knocks, and I've been hit in the face a few times," Ashley admits.
"We're always interested in doing as much as we can ourselves. From a production point of view it's always better.
"One of the main conversations we have before we start filming, is like, 'Stunts... they weren't big enough last time... [let's make them] bigger.' We're always trying to up that."
They promise even more of this in the upcoming instalment, Bulletproof: South Africa. In fact, the pair assure us the three-parter will be bigger and better than anything they've delivered before.
The show will see Bishop and Pike heading off on a well earned holiday, only for it to be interrupted when a little girl goes missing. From then on they set off on a mission to find the perpetrator, and - like any good detectives - any relaxing is quickly forgotten in favour of their jobs.
"For the special, we got to spend a good 10 weeks out in South Africa, which was amazing," Ashley says. "It just worked. It changed the levels. As soon as you turn on that camera, it was just cinema... it all came together".
"We think people are going to be really pleased," Noel adds. "Although its only a three-parter, it's definitely special. It's definitely worth it."
They're speaking to Tyla just days before the fourth season of the show is confirmed by Sky. But even during the interview it's clear they know they're onto a good thing, and have no plan on taking their feet off the gas.
"We might do another big [season], then another small one, then maybe a movie," Noel teases, coyly.
Whatever is to come, there's undoubtedly a lucrative future for Bulletproof as a franchise, but the actors will always be acutely aware of the graft it took them to get there, as two black men.
While pitching the show, both felt the brunt of society treating them differently - and it extends beyond Bulletproof, too.
Noel recently questioned why none of the cast spoke up for him when he was snubbed from the movie poster of 2019 comedy film Fisherman's Friends, despite playing a leading role. Plus, just last year on a TV show he worked on, the Doctor Who favourite was forced to speak up and demand more diversity, after being faced with an all-white crew.
"They will call you difficult, they will call you angry, they will call you all of those things, because when you're at the forefront, you have to accept that you're the one that's batting your head against the glass making change," Noel reflects.
Do they feel like their struggle has made it easier for others?
"Listen, there's still a lot of change to be made and a lot of change to happen," Ashley replies. "There's a lot of boxes being ticked in the right places, but it doesn't necessarily mean that attitudes are changing from the inside.
"Just seeing Noel in meetings and how forceful he was really pushes home, 'When are things going to change if people don't take a risk?'
"It's not about the monetary value, its more about those viewing figures that knock other huge shows out the water - they're undeniable.
"And hopefully in the future when people come in to try and do a show with two black leads, they're going to have to think twice about saying no, because obviously it's worked before, and Bulletproof has been shining beacon for that."
Bulletproof: South Africa is to air on Sky One on Wednesday (20th January) and will also be available on SkyGo and NOW TV.
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