Steve McQueen: It took “a lot of effort” to get Small Axe made

The director's anthology series consists of five individual films.

Steve McQueen on the set of BBC's Small Axe

Small Axe writer-director Steve McQueen has said it took “a lot of effort” to get the anthology series made, which explores the struggles of London’s West Indian community.

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Comprised of five self-contained films, each one tackles a different time in Black British history between the late 1960s to the mid 1980s, telling factual stories with a cast that includes both Hollywood stars and newcomers.

Yet despite having McQueen on board from the start, who earned international recognition and an Academy Award for his work on 2013’s 12 Years A Slave, getting Small Axe made was no easy feat.

During a press event promoting the launch of the series, the filmmaker was asked why the series has finally made it to the screen at our current moment in time.

“Because we made it happen, that’s why,” he answered. “It wasn’t a miracle, it wasn’t a gift from the heavens, it was a lot of effort to get these stories out. I’m grateful to the BBC at the beginning, because they supported us through this process for 11 years… It’s been amazing, there’s been a lot of support for this.”

One of the challenges that the production team faced was gathering the necessary information to tell these true stories with accuracy, as most had not been comprehensively recorded before.

Steve McQueen and John Boyega on the set of Small Axe
Steve McQueen and John Boyega on the set of Small Axe
BBC

“These stories didn’t exist in written form,” executive producer Tracey Scoffield said. “We’re not basing them on books or articles from magazines, we had no shortcuts and Helen Bart, our researcher and associate producer, had to go into the communities and really get these stories.”

It was a “long process” that required funding to be secured before the scripts could be completed, an unusual situation in the television industry which proved to be another hurdle in the planning stages.

Scoffield added: “Where we found it difficult was getting the funding for a concept, an idea, with Steve behind it but with no scripts. The BBC were prepared to develop it but Steve very much wanted to know that it would actually be made. We didn’t want to be developing it for years and years and then not actually get it made. 

“BBC Studios came on board to fully finance the production without scripts, which was exceptional and that’s the nature of the BBC, to support an idea and to fund it, to make it happen. With them funding the project, we were able to go ahead.”

Although the Black community has historically been underrepresented on British television, Scoffield also assured that there has “never been any resistance” from the BBC over the stories featured in Small Axe.

The series of films kicks off with Mangrove starring Black Panther’s Letitia Wright, about the nine individuals wrongly arrested and charged with incitement to riot after a protest against racial discrimination in 1970.

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Small Axe premieres on BBC on Sunday 15th November. While you’re waiting, visit our TV Guide to see what’s on tonight, or check out our guide to new TV shows 2020 to find out what’s airing this autumn and beyond.