The BBC are known for their hard-hitting serials, not to mention a period drama or two. The latest piece of brilliance to be added to their mini-series arsenal comes in the adaptation of Andrea Levy’s Man Booker prize shortlisted novel ‘The Long Song’. To be aired over three consecutive nights, the period drama takes us down a route rarely visited by the broadcaster.
Directed by Mahalia Belo, the series is set during the final days of slavery in 19th century Jamaica, the story follows the strong-willed, young slave July (Tamara Lawrance) on a plantation owned by her odious mistress Caroline Mortimer (Hayley Atwell). When a charming new arrival to the island, Robert Goodwin (Jack Lowden), becomes the new overseer, July and Caroline are both intrigued by his seemingly revolutionary determination to improve the plantation for the slaves and mistress alike.
The adaptation took seven years to come to fruition; it started its life as a feature at Film4 at the same time Steve McQueen’s ’12 Years a Slave’ was in development, however Film4 thought it had filled its quota of slavery projects and discarded the project only for the BBC to pick it up and give it the time it needed to tell the story as it should be.
Whilst its hardcore line lies within the story of Slavery and the British involvement, it’s a nuanced portrayal of the identity of those that suffered at the hands of their white oppressors with humanity and depth whilst making sure to add an air of warmth and wit.
“It tells a story we aren’t familiar with” Writer Sarah Williams stated. “I think in a way its Andrea’s tribute to a group of people who have been denied a voice through history. It’s not just about slavery, it’s a brilliant book about the human condition, it’s a great story about a person living there life during a particularly appealing time, it works on every level. It’s filled with enormous humanity, emotion, warmth and humour” Williams continued.
Leading the cast is ‘Undercover’ actress, Tamara Lawrence taking on the role of the feisty and determined slave and housemaid July. Conniving and spirited, July gives her slave owner Caroline Mortimer a run for her money.
Describing her character, Lawrence said; “July is strong, she finds a way to survive, she finds agency and she finds status where she can. She uses what she can to have one-upmanship on Caroline.
[July] is in a subjugated position in world history but in her own self-esteem is a queen. I think she sees herself as very royal. If she were to track her ancestry back she would probably come directly from African monarchy”
On the arrival of the show, Lawrence stated: “I’m glad it’s coming out now, I’m hoping it will be a klaxon to the British population in helping them realise it wasn’t just an American atrocity, we have culpability from this country as well”.
In a role we seldom see, Agent Carter’s Hayley Atwell stars alongside Lawrence as her downtrodden yet a vindictively cruel owner, Caroline. A bully through her own insecurities, Caroline took on July as a young child, forcefully taking her away from her mother.
“Caroline does awful things, and she is hysterical in some ways and overreacts to the wrong things,” Atwell says on her character. “Her sense of reality is totally distorted from what’s actually going on around her. I think is based very much on fear, throughout the course of that journey we get to see that shift and that change in the human side of her, which she is very much a product of her own environment and circumstance. Although she is the sister of the plantation owner, she has no power or rights, she has no money, and she has nothing that gives her independent identity”.
Atwell goes on to explain why she thinks Caroline acts the way she does, “She gets the sense that the slaves are smarter than she is and they know something about her that she doesn’t know about herself”.
The series also features TV veteran Lenny Henry. Henry takes on the role of Godfrey, head of the house slaves, he rules the house with an iron fist but has a big heart.
On why he wanted to be involved in the series, apart from being a friend and colleague of author Andrea Levy, Henry stated;
“I wanted to be part of this story because I think the retelling the story of Slavery and the British Empire’s involvement is something that needs to be known. This is stuff we didn’t learn at school, we learnt about Clive of India and the triangle but we didn’t learn about Bristol, Liverpool and Manchester and Preston and all those ports that were built from the profits of slavery, the Black Country’s involvement in the industrial revolution. It was something I wanted to be a part of because it’s going to be our roots. I hope the days after seeing this there will be a conversation”.
‘War & Peace’s’ Jack Lowden also stars in the series as Robert Goodwin, the new overseer of the plantation, whose revolutionary ideas intrigue both July and Caroline.
Other cast members include: Doña Croll (EastEnders) as Old July, Sharon Duncan-Brewster (The Boy with the Topknot) as Kitty, Ayesha Antoine (Chewing Gum) as Molly, Arinzé Kene (King Lear) as Thomas, Ansu Kabia (Murder on the Orient Express) as James Richards, Jordan Bolger (Peaky Blinders) as Nimrod, Joy Richardson (Children of Men) as Miss Rose, Madeleine Mantock (Charmed) as Miss Clara and Leo Bill (Taboo) as John Howarth.
Told from July’s perspective as she looks back over her life; it’s a powerful story that doesn’t feel like it’s trying to preach its poignant and almost forgotten history through wit and defiance in the face of lost hope.
The Long Song will air on BBC One at 9pm on the 18th of December over three consecutive nights until the 20th December.
Watch the trailer for ‘The Long Song’