You wouldn’t normally associate the word “funny” with a TV show about slavery (or at least, one that wasn’t wildly offensive). But BBC1’s new drama The Long Song is so finely-tuned and carefully-balanced that it’ll break your heart – and make you laugh at the same time.
Set on a sugarcane plantation in Jamaica in the final bloody days of slavery and then in the uncertain early days of freedom, The Long Song is adapted from Andrea Levy’s award-winning 2010 novel of the same name. The drama stars Tamara Lawrance as spirited slave girl July (renamed “Marguerite” against her will), with Hayley Atwell as her ridiculous and deeply insecure mistress Miss Caroline. It is the strangest kind of double act.
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Another familiar face is Sir Lenny Henry, who plays a slave called Godfrey. Sir Lenny counts novelist Levy as a friend and colleague, and it was her “subversive” book which first got him interested.
“It’s a fantastic mixture of heartbreaking and humorous,” he says at a screening in London. “And both are stronger for being next to each other, I think.
“Anybody who’s been oppressed or felt oppression, or is the descendants of people who have been oppressed – there is humour at the core of their experience. There’s humour in surviving terrible, terrible things, because if there was no humour you would just give up… you would just keel over and die.”
And so Godfrey risks a rude comment to his mistress that makes the other slaves laugh, even though the cost is a humiliating slap across the face. Then, knowing better than to openly fight back, he plans a small rebellion instead, swapping the fancy table linen for a soiled bed sheet at his owners’ big Christmas dinner. At heart, Godfrey is a man of pride – and his quiet humour helps him maintain that inner dignity.
But The Long Song is ultimately the story of July; in fact, the drama is really a series of flashbacks as Old July (played by Dona Kroll) writes her memoirs many years later. And of course, the violence goes much further than a slap in the face.
Despite all the humour in the darkness, the realities of how slaves were treated in this British colony are harrowing. And The Long Song does not shy away from that ugliness in any way whatsoever.
“It was very painful researching things,” Lawrance says. “I was very angry looking up a lot of the British colonial history, but I think it’s important that this story’s coming out, because hopefully it’s going to be a bit of klaxon to the British public. That it [slavery] is not just an American atrocity – we have a culpability as a country as well.”
One particularly painful scene involves a public hanging of a slave, while one of the executioners munches loudly (and indifferently) on an apple. We also see – in vivid detail – the violence and casual cruelty of plantation slavery; of routine rape and whippings and humans treated like cattle or worse. And in one particularly gut-wrenching moment, we see seven-year-old July taken away from her mother simply on her mistress’s whim.
But this isn’t a documentary, and it isn’t “preachy” either. More than anything, it is a drama about these particular characters and this particular moment in history.
“The challenge was, I guess, in fighting my own preconceptions of what a slave was,” says Lawrance. “And I met with Andrea, and she actually said she didn’t want to write a story of people who were these mythical objects of abuse, people who just took an inordinate amount of torture. I started to realise that it’s easy to see a slave as a ‘character’, but a slave isn’t a character. July is a character. Molly is a character.
“And so I had to then go from there, and realise, ‘Oh actually, she’s in these circumstances but she’s still driven by other things. She’s not driven by being a slave.'”
And as a character, July is wonderful. She is adept at handling and manipulating Miss Caroline and finds power where she can; as Lawrance says, she may be “in a subjugated position in world history, but actually in her own self-esteem is a queen.”
The Long Song also focuses our attention on a pivotal moment in history which has rarely been explored in fiction or on television. What was it like to experience the final days of slavery in Jamaica? To live through the Christmas Rebellion of 1831? And then to wake up and find yourself suddenly “free” and “emancipated”, and yet still be in the same place where you fell asleep the night before?
With wonderful acting from Lawrance and Atwell, a brilliant story from Andrea Levy, and sensitive screenwriting from Sarah Williams, this drama may be airing right at the end of the year – but it truly deserves a spot on the list of best dramas of 2018.
In the UK, the three parts of The Long Song aired 18-20th December 2018 on BBC One.
In the US, the series is currently airing on Sundays at 10/9c on PBS.