BBC One's intimate and important Windrush scandal drama Sitting in Limbo couldn't have been more timely
Writer Stephen T Thompson brings a "clarity and intimacy" in telling the story of what his brother Anthony Bryan went through, says Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff
By: Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff
Sitting in Limbo couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time. After a week of UK-based Black Lives Matter protests, the BBC One drama bleakly captures how the Windrush scandal, now so mythologised that it appears on protestors' placards, affected individual black British lives to devastating effect. The subtle undertone of the drama is, however, that the audience doesn’t even know the half of it.
Based on a true story, the film gently draws us into the world of Anthony Bryan (Patrick Robinson), a proud, affectionate man who works as a painter-decorator in London. His world is sun-dappled and wholesome; not wealthy, but happy. He has a joyous, bubbly family, is in an adoring relationship with Janet McKay-Williams (Nadine Marshall) and enjoys heading out to watch Spurs win the (occasional) match. For many black Caribbean families settled in the UK, his life will look familiar – the West Indian front room, the music, the love.
But something is there. In every scene, you can feel the unsettlement and insecurity just around the corner. It is masterfully drawn out by longing strings, and the cool palette, if not always in dialogue. And it doesn’t take long for the immigration officers to come banging on Anthony’s door, demanding that he comes with them. Degrading him and barely letting him put his clothes on before he is dragged off to an immigration detention centre 120 miles away and told that he is no longer welcome in the country where he has lived since he was eight years old.
The scene of his initial detention – with Anthony looking back from the window of the van at his partner, who runs out into the street in her dressing gown – reminded me softly of that scene in 1977 miniseries Roots, where Kizzy is dragged away from her family after being sold to another slaver. It might sound dramatic, but we would be wise to remember that black British Caribbean people wouldn’t necessarily be in this country if it weren't for those historical binds. The show is suggestive of this in other delicate ways. After eventually being released from the detention centre, there is a moment where Anthony stares out at the great, grey Atlantic seas his ancestors once traversed.
Robinson plays Anthony with stoicism and poise. You move with him and feel thankful that his sense of dignity and very Jamaican attitude toward people “knowing his business”, ultimately don’t get in the way of him eventually regaining his voice, telling his story – just as he did in real life; first to the journalist Amelia Gentleman and then at the House of Commons.
But the actor who shines brightest here is Marshall – her portrayal of defiance and love in the face of adversity is immensely captivating. As Anthony closes, up, struggling with what appears to be PTSD in the wake of his near-deportation, Janet opens up, holds him, helps him to carry his load.
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Sitting in Limbo was written by the novelist Stephen S Thompson, the younger brother of Anthony, who watched in horror as his sibling was locked up in detention centres and dragged through the courts. Anthony had moved to the UK when he was just eight, and ultimately, as the film shows, spent three years battling the immigration services after becoming a victim of the Tories' hostile environment policy. That this was written by someone so intimately connected to the characters feels important to note; there is a clarity and intimacy in the retelling which feels remarkably true to life.
Perhaps the one failing of the show is the choice to depict an almost nostalgic Britain, where the barber Anthony visits has a hand-painted sign and the detention centre he is locked up in looks like it hasn’t been modernised since the '60s. Because of this, some of the urgency of the issue is lost until the last sequence of the show, where we see him appearing on Good Morning Britain and see Theresa May’s insincere apology to the victims of the scandal. Until this point, it would be easy to forget that the bureaucratic nightmare that Anthony went through was just a few years ago.
But if the drama itself doesn’t leave you boiling with anger due to its slightly relaxed pace and faded palettes, then the ongoing facts of the scandal should. The Windrush Lessons Learned review, released during the pandemic to limited press coverage, revealed that the Home Office is a racist organisation that has formalised the inhumane detention and removal of an immense number of vulnerable people, and continues to affect the lives of British Caribbean people. And, as of May 2020, Anthony Bryan still has not received any compensation for the trauma he went through.
There's a scene which was cut from the broadcast version of the drama, thanks to its pre-watershed start time of 8.30pm – but you can see it in full in the version on iPlayer. As Anthony says while being discharged from the detention centre by yet another unfeeling immigration officer: “F**k this place and f**k this country.” Absolutely f**king fair enough.