Almost 20 years since its initial publication, Malorie Blackman’s Noughts + Crosses has finally made its way to the screen. The much-lauded story depicts an alternate history where Africa colonised Europe, including the UK, creating an elite ruling class of Crosses (black people) that oppresses Noughts (white people).
Against this backdrop, a forbidden romance develops between privileged cross girl Sephy (Masali Baduza) and nought boy Callum (Jack Rowan).
While the young adult novel introduces the pair as childhood sweethearts about to embark on school life, in the series, they are in their late teens and haven’t seen each other for many years.
This change was clearly made to enable the casting of older leads, through whom more mature stories could be told – however, the execution is a little wobbly. Callum and Sephy go from barely recognising each other to being madly in love, with the screenwriters seemingly relying on Romeo and Juliet as storytelling shorthand.
The dynamic between them shows promise at various points, but the underlying feeling is that the show rushes into its romance without laying the groundwork first. Bad relationship advice by anyone’s standards.
This isn’t helped by Rowan and Baduza’s not entirely convincing on-screen chemistry. There are moments of endearing awkwardness, such as when they go on their secret first date, but it’s never really apparent where exactly their deep connection stems from.
Nonetheless, both characters are likeable and through their perilous circumstances, the show builds some solid tension.
Indeed, a feeling of genuine danger pervades Noughts + Crosses – established in a dramatic opening scene and enforced thereafter by its formidable antagonists.
On the one side, for instance, there’s Sephy’s paranoid – and current – boyfriend Lekan (Jonathan Ajayi), whose severe insecurities give him a frightening unpredictability. And on the other, there’s Callum’s volatile brother Jude (Josh Dylan), whose burning fury at the cross regime leads him into a bad crowd.
Meanwhile, Sephy’s father, the high-ranking politician Kamal Hadley (Paterson Joseph), pulls strings from above. His political scheming comes across as rather menacing, although it is somewhat undercut by his unsubtle speeches; in reality, they would surely keep him squarely on any Prime Minister’s watch list.
This is a prime example of how Noughts + Crosses can be heavy-handed at times, perhaps owing to its transition from young adult novel to post-watershed drama. That’s not to say that there aren’t powerful moments and ideas, but much of the dialogue seems clumsily scripted.
In view of which, it’s difficult to work out what age range the series is targeting. Some of the clunkier exchanges might be less glaring to younger viewers, yet the mature themes and later time slot could well prevent them from watching.
The show strikes a stronger note with its production design however, presenting a radically different version of London influenced by hundreds of years of African culture and fashion. Filmed in Cape Town, the city feels believable and lived-in, while the detail in costumes, hairstyles and architecture is reminiscent of Marvel’s Black Panther, albeit a smaller scale version.
With these exceptional elements, Noughts + Crosses feels like a series on the cusp of greatness. But it doesn’t quite get there. It’s an entertaining watch – and a valiant attempt at an adaptation of Blackman’s beloved books – but it’s not as profound nor as heart-wrenching as it could (or should) be.
Noughts + Crosses airs on BBC One at 9pm on Thursday 5th March