As much as I love watching traditional English costume dramas on Sunday evenings, it’s such a breath of fresh air to see the BBC daring to do something more contemporary and stimulating. It was in September that I first heard that BBC were going to adapt Andrea Levy’s award-winning novel about the racial prejudice and hardships faced by Jamaican immigrants in 1940s post-war Britain. After seeing that it had such a distinguished cast – Naomie Harris (Pirates of the Caribbean), David Oyelowo (The Last King of Scotland), Ruth Wilson (Jane Eyre) – I couldn’t blummin’ wait for it to be aired (took its time, didn’t it?). And when it finally did appear on the small screen…
Forget the sumptuousness and the atmospheric details: the characterisation conjured up by Levy in her novel were just magical in this drama. Well, for me, at least the couple Hortense and Gilbert were. Hortense, a school teacher who leaves Jamaica in order to fulfil a life-long dream of utopian life in England, was exactly the haughty, headstrong and determined woman I pictured in the novel. Her husband Gilbert, an ex-RAF serviceman who returns to England for a better life, was also exactly the man I expected him to be: passionate, charismatic and proud. Despite the drama being somewhat rushed and simplified, the development of the couple’s relationship is quite organic and extremely poignant.
The acting was spot on, not just by Harris and Oyelowo, but also Wilson who plays Queenie, Benedict Cumberbatch playing Bernard and Ashley Walters who plays Michael. Wilson is not quite who I expected to play Queenie, but her performance was excellent. The only problem I had with her character was that, in a way, she became the ultimate heroine at the end of the drama. What was the deal with the present-day scene at the end? It gave Queenie more importance than was due and so appeared to take much of the credit owed to first-generation immigrants who endured such hardships, determined to build a better future for the coming generations in Britain. Not only was she more likeable than she should be, but she also did not have that underlying sense of superiority she has in the novel, especially towards Hortense.
I also think it was a shame that the BBC couldn’t afford to film in pre-partition India as well Jamaica, following Bernard’s service in the RAF in the sub-continent and shedding light on the effects of colonialism elsewhere in the world. Ultimately, Small Island is not just about Jamaicans; the title is ironically referring to Britain – a small island with a huge, crumbling empire. The length of the drama not only meant that the storyline and issues discussed in the novel were fairly simplified, it also meant that scriptwriter felt the need to employ a narrator in order to slash important and potentially profound dialogue, state the obvious with his ridiculously unconvincing philosophy and otherwise be, well, just bloody irritating!
I should probably stop before I get carried away with the ‘it’s a shame’ list. Although it could have been better, I really did enjoy this drama: the beautiful filming, the flawless performances, the honest portrayal of racial prejudice in Britain…and of course, Gilbert and Hortense. After watching this drama, I have officially decided that they are my most favourite literary couple ever…after Jane and Rochester, of course!
I sincerely hope to see the BBC take on more contemporary literature soon, something more British and less English.