I have never been a fan of shows that focused on aristocrats and their shenanigans, as I often found them to be overly idealized. But then, that was until Africa Magic’s telenovela, “Battleground” came calling.
Apart from having a job that requires I pay attention to TV, I noticed my twitter timeline blowing up daily with the hashtag #AMBattleground. I finally caved into the online fever, and it has been an addictive journey ever since, having me craving for more.
“Battleground,” a family drama that traffics in relationships, betrayals, infidelity, politics and romance, is set to air its 100th episode on Friday, September 15, 2017.
It is woven around your typical Nigerian story - a wealthy man cheats on his wife, secretly marries his side chick, has kids with both women, and following a set of events, his two worlds suddenly collide.
With almost every character on the show having their flaws and complexities, ranging from Chief Badmus, Adaora, Cissy and almost every other person, the story draws you in and gets a hold of your emotions.
This is apparent in the taking of sides by the viewers, as we have had factions on social media such as TeamAdaora, TeamCissy and the team of the moment, TeamTenka; the team insistent on fueling chemistry and love between Teni and Emeka. Long story cut short, BattleGround is relatable.
“The characters feel real. They are telling stories that connect to Nigerians in a way that is Nigerian, but intellectual quality,” The Executive Producer of the show, Femi Odugbemi said to me during my visit to the set.
“You watch Battleground and if you’re not a Nigerian, you learn a few of our peculiarities. You learn that we understand the world of the wealthy in the words, the clothes, the house, the structure.
“There’s no disconnect between what we are saying and what the viewers are seeing. I call that respect for the intelligence of the viewer.”
The telenovela is basically the ingenuity of a team of young talented actors, writers, crew members and production staff, who pump out five episodes a week to entertain and retain its passionate fan base.
In “Battleground,” there are several first-time actors, including Nonso Bassey (Dr Emeka), Chike (Mayowa) and Ron Mgbatogu (The General). Just like “Tinsel,” which had Odugbemi as one of its producers, “Battleground” will create household names.
“I am like someone who loves to find the talent, yes, but to find the talent is not as important as to give the talent an opportunity to do stuff,” Odugbemi explained.
“So, my own speciality is to be able to challenge a talent till they are able to rise up to their best self.”
As the dreaded General on “Battleground,” Mgbatogu plays a vital role - his exit or death could mean the end of the political tension on the show.
Odugbemi had met Mgbatogu during his days at Lowe Lintas Advertising where he was a producer and the latter, his boss. While Mgbatogu had worked as a Radio Personality, acting was an unfamiliar territory until “Battleground.”
“To see that he can act and actually find him a role? It’s the only joy in what I do,” Odugbemi said.
There’s also Lanre Olupona, who works on “Battleground” as the DOP. Lanre was the assistant cameraman on “Gidi Blues” until the main cameraman upped and left.
Lanre was assigned the task to complete the job. And guess what? "He delivered. But he worked harder than any DOP would ever.”
For Odugbemi, it takes more than talent to get to the top. Character, persistence or the little things that make the talented unsuccessful are important.
“I know thousand talented people; they are in ruin. How many of them can die and say that they really did get the best of their talent? Really, it’s not so much about the talent, it’s about the character. And when talent and character collide, you get an incredible explosion.”
And this was what happened with The General, who in his first weeks of resumption, arrived early on set and was also the last to leave.
“He sat at a place until he memorized his lines. He looked at younger people who are actors for direction, he was humble enough to learn. He would ask everyone questions. This is his first acting gig and it’s a starring gig. If you look at his character - the statistics come in weekly - he is the one everyone doesn’t want to die.”
There are also young designers like Ade Bakare, who designs for Shaffy Bello’s Adaora and Ini Dima’s Teni.
None of the crew members is Odugbemi’s age mate. However, the telenovela has created a creative environment free from competition.
“There’s something about a creative environment, it’s the one place where there’s no seniority. I can make a thousand films and the person who makes their first film make a better or more successful film. For me, that’s great about the art.”
He does not consider himself a mega creative guy that has it all. He is an energizer who relishes the idea of creating energies and spaces for young creatives, who are really talented and committed and have the character to run the distance of the race.
For him, that is the legacy he is building.
To ensure the success of “Battleground,” Femi Odugbemi, who worked on “Tinsel” as a producer, took something from the show with him - work structure. It is this structure that has allowed "Battleground" survive.
“When we were starting “Tinsel,” we were in the dark. We went to Egoli in South Africa with the entire team because, yes, there had been drama series in Nigeria long before, but there had never been a daily soap shot in the studio. It’s not the creativity, it’s the structure."
“It’s the idea that it runs like a factory, like a company. It’s kind of structured, but it’s the structure that lets it survive because people are here from 6 am in the morning to 1 am. It’s really quite intense here. If you don’t have a structure, you will be in trouble.”
Because it is moronic to look nice and have no content, “Battleground” is a show that had its story pieced together before it even kicked off.
“The story to me is the missing link. Technology makes a lot of possibilities in terms of how the things look. Almost everything you see today looks nice.”
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Social media platforms, especially Twitter, has evolved the way viewers interact with their favourite TV shows and characters, and headed to its 100th episode, Africa Magic’s “Battleground” has become a huge hit, trending daily on Twitter since its debut.
The cast and crew have been able to create conversations with their audience, constantly getting feedback from this audience. The result is something called online/ offline loop; where you start off the story but you’re not ending the story - you’re not the final creator.
“You’re only the one who sets the ball rolling, and you set it rolling but it goes online and comes back to you as a feedback on which kind of stories and characters are working. So when you go back to writing, you’re writing with the input of your audience, and they recognize it when they see it back again.
"It just sort of creates an emotional bond with the viewers that I find is really good for the actors, because they get a feedback that makes them do more. They can also feedback to you online. We are creating an interesting bubble of conversations, which I think is the new way to do content.”
Alongside its online fan base is a fervent following in the real world. Almost everybody that watches it offers something, including themselves for a “waka pass” role.
“We have these women in Isale Eko selling clothes who follow Battleground, and they keep sending messages like “if you want to shoot in the market, I have a very big store.”
Unlike most shows, "Battleground" wasn't one of the most hotly awaited TV shows of the year as publicity kicked off barely two weeks before its premiere. However, at 100 episodes, with critical acclaim and an online and offline success, “Battleground” is everything but lucky.
“You cannot say that we are lucky. It [Battleground's success] means that we have some kind of structure that is working. I have been a judge of the EMMYS and the section was telenovelas. I kind of have an idea - I don’t let you give me episode one only, or episode 10."
'We do a dip from different places for one single reason: we want to see how your story evolves, we want to see if your actors get better as it went, but we want to see if your process is consistent and that you didn't do 10 good episodes and 90 horrible ones.”
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As a filmmaker, Odugbemi has surrounded himself with people who would tell him the truth about his works and this has to a great extent contributed to the quality of his deliveries.
“They don’t play. They will buy you a bottle of wine to help your ego, but they will tell you. I will only go to someone that will give me feedback.
"Don’t tell me “I like it.” What is it about it that is working or not working? That is also one of the things that I tell young people, surround yourself with people that really matter.
“They keep you humble but they keep you good. You will never get a false sense of how good you’re.”
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After a tour of the set, one thing was clear to me, it’s more toil than relaxation behind the scenes of “Battleground,” as the reward for hard work is more work, as some would say.
But the off-screen relationship between the cast and crew makes it an easy task.
“I wish you came on a day we had everyone around” Nonso, who plays Dr Emeka said to me. "It’s fun working with everyone.”
And it was fun and an insightful experience for me on the set, witnessing to a reasonable extent, firsthand, the level of work that is put in by everyone there, and believe you me, it is no small feat. I left with an increased level of respect for the contributors of the show.
Hence, now, when I sit to watch this beautiful story being played out on my screen, I don’t just see the beauty, I see the sweat underneath, and appreciate the beauty even better.
I have no intention of being unhinged from this addiction anytime soon, caving deeper into its cravings and waiting on the sidelines of the Battleground until it completely plays out.