Monday, 14 December 2009


While everyone else was frothing at the mouth in a frenzy of national mediocrity at the hype and con-trick that is The X-Factor (and shouldn't Marvel Comics sue for the name?) I was watching part 2 of the BBC1 drama Small Island, based on Andrea Levy's highly praised novel of the same name. I came upstairs after it had finished and Susan, who was watching it intermittently (during the ad breaks for X-factor), said she thought it was disappointing as it just stopped and she felt there should have been more. I knew what she meant and on first thoughts agreed with her. On second thoughts, I changed my mind.

The thing is that we had the wrong idea of what it was about. We believed it would be an intelligent but soapish story about the early years of black immigrants in post-war London when it fact that was only part of the point and the present sequences just covered a span of 6 months (in 1948, the year I was born)). The flashbacks, particularly in part 1, spent a lot of time in Jamaica and even in part 2 the present was often shown in flashback making a couple of things a bit confusing.

What it was really about is dreams and illusions and their shattering by harsh reality. It does have weaknesses but still manages to be a highly superior piece of British drama at its near-best. It also touches on aspects of the post-war years which need to be looked at more. The lives of newly arrived immigrants from the Caribbean is an important part of recent British social history and their experiences deserve examination so that both black and white communities can see how it has changed contemporary society. The blatant and casual racism the drama depicts is genuinely shocking to a modern audience.

And just for the record, great performances by Naomi Harris as the proud and stuffy Hortense, Ruth Wilson as Queenie who has a weakness for charming black men, David Oyelowo as witty principled Gilbert, Ashley Walters in a minor but important role as Michael the charming philandering black man who can't resist an attractive white woman, and Benedict Cumberbatch as the compassionate but repressed Bernard, Queenie's husband. It's worth noting that in many ways, Hortense and Queenie are mirror images and the title refers both to Jamaica and England.

If you didn't see it, catch a repeat or watch it on BBC I-player while its available.

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