The mama of comedy, Roberta Durrant, switches over to crime and gangsters

2015-05-08 13:24


Johannesburg - Roberta Durrant has over the past 30 years helped put South African TV and film on the map. Productions such as Sgudi Snaysi, Going Up, Khululeka, Stokvel, SOS, Madam and Eve, Scoop Schoombie and Stokvel earned her the title of Mama of Comedy.

Such is her comic timing that, last night at the launch of the drama series, Durrant joked that if she was “much, much younger” she would not mind going after the young Anga Makubalo, who plays the lead role of Ntando, an intern lawyer who gets swallowed up in the life of gangsterism after a gang leader kidnaps his fiancée.

City Press caught up with the veteran TV producer to talk about what the channel has dubbed “the most dangerous love story to hit our screens in recent times”.

Please tell us about the new crime drama, Z’bondiwe

Z’bondiwe is set in Soweto, and it deals with the gang warfare between two gangs: the Mambas headed up by Axe (played by Bongani Maseko) and the head of the Vutha Boys, Ntlonipho “Killer” Nxasana (played by Mbulelo Grootboom).

Their rivalry comes from the past because Axe’s father Jackson murdered Killer’s father when Killer was a boy of 11. He saw his father hacked to death before his eyes.

Into the mix comes a young lawyer, Ntando Mabatha (played by Makubalo) who has to infiltrate the Mambas in order to rescue his fiancée from the Vutha boys. The series questions how far would someone go for love, but also the extreme behaviour that obsessions can lead to.

How does it tackle the issues of crime that South Africa is facing at the moment?

Ultimately the series concludes that crime does not pay in the end; that damage begets damage and violence begets violence.

How was it making, creating and producing Z’bondiwe?

Creating a gangland drama is always very exciting, because there are shoot-outs, fights, special effects and stunts with lots of action. In this instance, we had a wonderful gathering of actors, who became part of the Z’bondiwe family and Paw Paw Films (Penguin’s sister company) is very happy with the end result.

What does Z’bondiwe bring to the table as far as the debate on crime is concerned?

Crime is often a result of social circumstances. Being born into certain circumstances and having a difficult childhood can result in a life of crime if you take the low road, but that there is always the choice to do better, rise above your circumstances and take the high road.

We seem to be telling stories that gloss over crime and offer no comprehensive solutions. How can this be avoided and what role does film and TV have to play to deal with crime and other social ills?

Z’bondiwe did not set out to be an educational drama. Its objective was to create an entertaining gangster series set in the world of gang warfare.

Nevertheless, through research and making sure that our characters and story beats are authentic, we have been able to pose certain questions around crime, criminality and justice. The series is socially relevant. If the viewer can identify with the characters and the story, then the stories’ social relevance does communicate.

You have worked in various TV formats – sitcoms, dramas and short films. Which medium is your first choice?

My first love is dramatic narrative, but I also enjoy comedy. I believe the genre of studio-based sitcom has become too static a visual medium to really have an effect on today’s viewers.

However there still is a lot of room to do comedy sketches, location-based comedies and romantic comedies. But as all of these genres are narrative based, I enjoy both comedy and drama.

How different is Z’bondiwe from other projects you have done?

Every story is different because we have a different set of characters and a different set of circumstances. And characters and their interactions determine the story. However, this is the first gangland drama that I’ve worked on.

Who must viewers look forward to and which character will they fall in love with?

I certainly think that the viewer is going to fall in love with both our key protagonists: the young lawyer, Ntando Mabatha and his fiancée Roxanne Nozulu (played by Zola Nombona).

But then, the viewers are also going to love and love to hate some of our gangster antagonists, such as Ntlonipho “Killer” Nxasana, his right hand Jakes Masilo, (played by Israel Makoe) and the head of the Mambas, Axe, and his younger brother Lebo (played by Mpho Sebeng). Those are our key antagonists.

Who brings out the best as far some of the cast members are concerned?

I cannot single out any cast member because I feel everybody raised the bar with their brilliant performances.

What other projects are you working with?

We are about to embark on the second season of a romantic comedy, as well as the second season of another drama series and, later in the year, I hope to be directing a second feature.

Who has been the best actor you have worked with in your career as producer, director and creator?

I worked with too many excellent and talented actors over the years to be able to single out anyone in particular.

Has South African TV progressed or has it regressed as far as putting out quality shows are concerned?

With the new digital equipment that is available at competitive prices, the technical standards of our work have increased by leaps and bounds.

We still remain constricted with budgetary limitations, but nevertheless we manage to put out world-competitive, quality programming.

What are some of the challenges you face as a filmmaker, that make it difficult to do your job as creators?

Budget remains a constraint, but this is probably the world over. The development of technical crew also remains a challenge and we still don’t have enough competent writers in South Africa despite the efforts of everyone – both producers as well as the National Film and Video Foundation – in terms of training.

Which TV genre faces the most challenges?

I find that comedy in South Africa has regressed instead of progressed. The likes of Sgudi’ Snaysi are still some of the best sitcoms ever produced in the country.

Why is that?

Comedy is the most challenging medium. And not everybody can do comedy. You have to have funny bones. In recent years there has been wonderful stand-up comedy, but as I have said, I seriously believe that the studio-based sitcom genre is too static and not appealing to the user generating youthful audiences of today. However, there is lots of scope for sketch comedy, location based comedy, romantic comedy, as well as comedy shows.

» Z’bondiwe promises a no-holds-barred crime and drama-filled encounter with Soweto’s biggest gangs every Tuesday at 9.30pm on

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