By Hazeez Balogun
Bimbo Manuel is the true definition of a Nollywood veteran. He started his acting career with stage plays, voice acting for radio and television shows. He has played unforgettable roles in the popular TV series Checkmate and Ripples. He is also is part of the movie industry in Nigeria where he has won many awards and been nominated for many more. Today, he features in the popular TV drama, Tinsel, in which he plays Dan Ade Williams. He is also an industry activist who speaks his mind on issues plaguing the industry. Hazeez Balogun interviewed the legend on the occasion of his 56th birthday.
Hazeez Balogun: You were part of the AMVCA that just took place, what is your take on the organisation and do you think such awards are necessary for the Nigerian movie industry at the moment?
Bimbo Manuel: Starting with the organisation, let’s talk of the truth that some of us knew what was going on behind the scenes and saw one or two errors. Asides that, in terms of the aesthetics, I think the show was absolutely beautiful. It was very well put together. It is also a kind commentary on what we are becoming as an industry. Even though we still carry around quite a bit of the South African burden around our necks that reminds us that most of the concept and organisation still comes from South Africa. That does not mean that we do not have a huge representation in the total organisation.
In terms of the awards itself, is it necessary, does it have an impact? The answer is yes. Beyond money, there is no reward system in the industry. Everywhere in the world such awards are acknowledged reward systems, something everyone in the industry looks up to. It is like sports. Imagine an athlete training all year round without any event to compete in. There's no point to that sort of training.
Some people that I have met actually dedicate themselves and their works to the awards. They produce their works in order to meet the standards needed for the awards. So in other words, such awards improve the quality of the jobs that we do. It ups the ante.
HB: You just celebrated your birthday. How old is Bimbo Manuel?
BM: Everyone knows my age. I am 56 years old.
HB: You were silent when the debate of Nollywood at 20 came up. What is your stand on it?
BM: I was not silent on the issue. As far as some of us are concerned, the issue of Nollywood at 20 is dead and buried. Even those who sat down mischievously and decided to celebrate Nollywood at 20 have decided to acknowledge and accept the fact that it is not so. They celebrated Nollywood at 20 because for them, that was the point where they could put a marker, because that was for them where the history of film in Nigeria began. It was when they started work. But the truth is, there are some people who have made films, grew old and died before these people celebrating Nollywood at 20 was born.
Having said all that, we have all sort of agreed on a truce. People have gone back to their camps and it is business as usual. But the truth is that, a lot of people have been hurt in the process. Even if they demand nothing, there are people who should make an effort to acknowledge the error of history that they made. Otherwise, we will all carry on as if nothing happened. I was at he intercontinental event, and I saw some major movie makers who could not take what was going on anymore and they all walked out. Some said that was childish, but again, you need to see things from their point of view. But like I said, we have gone past all that now.
HB: There is a story flying around that you had problems with Mnet and you were kicked off Tinsel, and that is why you have not featured in it for a while.
BM: It is not true. In the first place, I have not received any letter or notice from Mnet that I am not a part of Tinsel anymore, so it cannot be true. In fact, I signed a fresh contract not too long ago. I am a writer myself and I understand how television series work. Sometimes you want to build some characters up and you want to avoid competition from other quarters, you let some stories subside and that is what is happening. I leaving Tinsel is not something that my fans should be worried about. I am still a part of Tinsel until I receive notification to the contrary. If you follow the drama, you should know that the character that I play is on honeymoon.
HB: Since Second Chance, New Masquerade and some other good shows ended, there have been very few quality television dramas. What do you think caused is responsible for that?
BM: After those once that you mentioned, we still had some good TV dramas. We had Behind The Clouds, Mirror In The Sun, Ripples, Checkmate, Supple Blues, Fortunes and I was in quite a number of those. It’s true that we have not had anything as big as what we have in Tinsel. Tinsel is even on a bigger scale that all of those mentioned. How do I mean? In the days of all those dramas, it was just television and it was just NTA. People would rush from work to go and watch. Now the competition is stiff. There are many other attractions, you have the cinemas, you have much more television stations, you have cable TV so the competition is there. So for Tinsel to have this impact despite the competition, it suggests that it is an incredibly big show.
It gives us more than entertainment, both from a professional point of view and the member of the public point of view. It helps to open up the space. All of us are beginning to realise that we can produce television dramas on such a scale. Tinsel is an over 90% Nigerian production and that makes a big statement on what we are capable of if we get our act together. Also with Tinsel, there are a lot of people waiting in the wings who know that the business is lucrative but do not trust the structure. But when they see a production like Tinsel, they start to believe that it is possible. They start to talk to people asking, “Can we also do that?” Since Tinsel started, many other quality productions have started coming up. Look at Emerald, it's a big production.
HB: The use of studios to shoot movies and soap operas seems to be non-existent these days, producers would prefer to shoot in someone’s living room. Is that laziness?
BM: The reason is obvious. To shoot in a studio you need money. Some professional studios go for about ?450,000 per day, and those are not even the major ones. Where would you get that kind of money from to shoot a series? This is not a movie that you can shoot in one week. With Tinsel for example, you shoot every day of the week. To shoot a job like that, you need to have your own studio, if you don’t have that, you should have an endless supply of cash. Since nobody has that, people just make do with what they have. It is not their own doing, they too wish they could shoot in the kind of studio Tinsel is shot in. Since they cannot, they make do with what they have.
We must also be fair to them because their jobs are getting better. Despite the challenges of having to shoot at people homes and other awkward places, they are getting better. Our professional crews are getting more conscious and more insistence on those basics of film making. Now you see sound men who will refuse to shoot if the conditions are not right because their name is on it. You know you have lost your next job if the sound you did on this one is bad. So our professionals are becoming conscious of the need for good output. It is becoming better.
HB: Some say it will help if the government builds a studio filmmakers can use at reduced rates.
BM: Why would the government do that in the first place? It is low end business for government. A studio is just a warehouse big enough to accommodate multiple sets. Why would government want to be involved with that? People soliciting for that are not only asinine but very unimaginative. These are the people that will go to Abuja to meet the president over crappy little ideas. How many jobs can you shoot in one studio when you can talk about policies? It should be about getting banks to loan money, about assuring those who have money to invest in the industry. I heard those that went were asking the president to build a secretariat for the Actor’s Guild in Abuja. How many films are shot in Abuja? How many actors are in Abuja? Must everything be in Abuja? I don't get it. When there a million and one questions you can ask the man.
HB: What would you have asked for?
BM: Let him make shooting easier for filmmakers. The government should create policies that allow us to get easy access to public spaces to shoot. We should be able to go to a court for example and be granted access to shoot in a court house, if that is what the producer wants. If you need to close a road for a few minutes to shoot, permission should be easily given. Film makers should get easy access to Airports, roads, and other public places to shoot. Those are such policies that we should be pursuing. Permits should be given easily and not take months.
We do not need the government to come and put money in the industry. The industry on it’s own is worth more than half a trillion Naira. It can run by itself, all we need is policies that will allow us do our jobs easily. The copyrights commission should be strengthened, the policies that bounds the censors board should be revisited in order to be friendlier to the film makers. The Nigeria Broadcasting Commission should be empowered, so that they can do their work well. No film can be broadcast without the permission of the owner, and proper remuneration should be given. When we have all those policies in place, the industry will run on its own. With such policies, when I borrow money from the banks to shoot a film, it is sure that I will make back the money back, repay the debt and still have money in my pocket.
HB: Maybe if veterans like you run the Actor's Guild, things could change.
BM: I don’t believe so. Anyone can head any guild. What is requires is savvy, and understanding the challenges of the business and vision. When you go there, you are not going there to just bare the title but to activate the thoughts you have. Ronald Regan is an example, he was the head of the American actor’s guild, but her really did not act in a lot of films. You can count the number of films he was in but he ran the guild successfully.
HB: Will you run for the AGN presidency?
BM: I will not. I know what happens there. It’s not simple politics they play there. It is filthy, I will not go there. My father will turn in his grave if I ever decide to live on the level those guys live in to get to those positions.
HB: When did you develop the passion for acting?
BM: Not that I was really passionate about acting at first. I was more interested in the arts. Ironically, the subject I had the highest grades in were science subjects. I never knew I would end up an actor. I wanted to be a DJ because I loved music and they played great music then. I did night clubs, put parties together so people thought I should go to a radio station. I was asked to go to OGBC for an audition. I went and passed. Acting also came as a chance for me. Later I went to the University of Port Harcourt to study theatre arts with Ola Rotimi. For the first three months I was there, I did not quite grasp what I was doing there. My first performance was The Gods Are Not To Blame. We toured the East with the play. From there I moved to Hopes Of The Living Dead. Daniel Wilson, Hilda Dokubo and Gogo were all part of the crew then.
HB: Do you miss stage acting?
BM: Though I just played on stage last week, I still miss being on stage today. You cannot understand the feeling except you are on stage. I moved away from stage plays because it was unlike school where you perform regularly, and do 20 shows in a row. But later, it became frustrating when we had to perform once or twice only. At that time as well, there was the competing reality of maintaining one’s self. There were some needs I desired for myself and the remuneration of the stage were not meeting those needs.
The pay then was very poor. I had done some plays in NTA that I got paid ?20 per episode. And you do not get the pay so easily. You would have to fill a pink form which will go through all the offices for approval and then it take months to get paid. Sometimes it took up to nine months to get your money. I was going through my old files recently and I saw some of those forms there. If you add up the money it could be like ?2,000 in all.
HB: Your parents must have struggled with you being in the arts.
BM: Not really. I had an unusual situation with my parents. Before I went to school to study theatre arts, I had done some work and was already sustaining myself. In other words, I was independent. Also, I had parents who just wanted me to do something because they thought I was too wild. For me to go to the university to do anything at all was satisfactory to them. My father was also a very liberal man. One day he called me and asked what I was studying in the university, I told him theatre arts. He asked, those people that sing and dance? I said yes, and he instantly moved on to another topic. And we never discussed it after that.
HB: You have been a star for over 30 years and you must be used to stardom by now. What has it taken away from you?
BM: I am a very private person. I want to be able to walk the streets and connect with people on the street and do what people do on the street, but after a while I have learnt that doing that will very quickly demystify you. You cannot even predict the way people will react when they see you. I have been pulled away from my wife a couple of times and no matter the amount of struggle you put into it, they would not let go, so I have to play along. It could get a bit uncomfortable.
One also appreciates that it is the fan that appreciates you that does all that. They do not even know how to behave when they see you. They try to express everything they feel at the same time. There are some who also can control themselves. They shake your hand and give you compliments. Sometimes it gets out of hand. One day I was with my daughter and some guy and his wife dragged me into an electronic store and bought me a sound system. It was awkward for me. Though I don’t need that, but what can I do?