The Long Song, (BBC1, 9pm) is an adaptation of Andrea Levy’s Man Booker shortlisted novel and tells the story of July, a slave growing up on a Jamaican plantation in the dying days of slavery. The first episode takes place against the backdrop of the ‘Baptist War’, or ‘Christmas Rebellion’, a slave revolt that increased the pressure for abolition.
Superbly scripted and acted, the series stars Tamara Lawrance as July; Hayley Atwell as her mistress, Caroline (shown above); and Lenny Henry as Godfrey, the head slave of Caroline’s household. Tamara Lawrance and Lenny Henry in particular give compelling performances, their suppressed rage leaching out of them, even as they seek relief from their ill treatment through humour. Powerful moments of emotion punctuate this drama: July’s forced parting from her mother, their all-too-brief reconciliation, and the horrific reckoning that follows.
Equally compelling is the evolving relationship between Caroline and July, the subtle shifts in the power balance between them as July seeks to manage and manipulate a woman who is her intellectual inferior.
At times, The Long Song is hard to watch. Its depictions of slavery’s cruelties are raw and unflinching: rape, a child taken from her mother, hangings, floggings, murder. From the first appearance of July’s mother, her face covered in scars that need no explanation, the viewer knows this is not an adaptation that will flinch from the hard truths of history. Nor should it. Too often our narrative of slavery is told through the prism of William Wilberforce and slavery’s subsequent abolition, rather than our active participation in it for nearly three centuries. We owe it to ourselves and communities on all sides of the Atlantic still living with slavery’s enduring legacy, not to look away.
In The Long Song, the horror is lightened by moments of humour, much of it at the expense of the slaves’ masters. One great moment comes as the slave owners discuss the slaves’ inability to organise themselves effectively, whilst dining at a party entirely organised by slaves. Tamara Lawrance and Lenny Henry deliver their side-long glances and cutting remarks to great effect, the transition from humour to horror and back again contributing to the feeling of a world on the edge, amid great uncertainty. The single off-note of the production for me, were Caroline’s Mrs-Bennet-esque wails, often over-the-top and sometimes irritating.
My own novel, Blood & Sugar, examines the slave trade from the British end, set in Deptford, then a slaving port on the Thames. Yet several of my characters had spent time on the plantations, and I studied the Caribbean side of the notorious ‘triangle’ during my research. One of the aspects of The Long Song that impressed me most was that in the course of an emotive human drama, so many of the complexities of the historical record were fully explored.
As well as the brutality they faced, slaves had families and friendships – though these relationships could be torn apart without warning at their masters’ whim. They enjoyed secret parties and love affairs, religious ceremonies and political meetings. Some entrepreneurial slaves earned money in their spare hours from artisanal crafts, with a few, like July’s lover, Nimrod, even saving enough to purchase their own freedom. Hierarchies existed between slaves, perpetuated by their masters: house slaves were superior to those in the field; the former often mulatto slaves, who were considered higher status due to their lighter skin. July’s attempts to assert her own status in this way might make for a flawed heroine, but one no less likeable, and more believable for it.
The Long Song also touches upon the imperfect lives of the slave owners, looked down upon back home in Britain for their lack of manners and culture. The plantation is sumptuous, but oppressive – an incestuous society sweltering in tropical heat. Caroline’s lack of eligible marriage partners and her boredom are a match for her brother’s financial ineptitude. His eventual suicide, unable to live with the madness and the murder around him, does nothing to detract from the suffering of slavery’s true victims.
Debate about Britain’s role in the slave trade is growing. Cities with a history of slavery are starting to examine their record more closely, with ongoing debates about statues and buildings immortalising slave merchants and plantation owners. The Long Song is an excellent contribution to that debate, as well as a moving and witty exploration of life on a plantation. Last night’s episode ended with the arrival of a young, handsome, new overseer, who proclaims that the days of slavery are over. Viewers can’t help but share July’s opinion that things are unlikely to be so simple. I cannot wait for the next episode to find out.
Laura Shepherd-Robinson was born in Bristol in 1976. She has a BSc in Politics from the University of Bristol and an MSc in Political Theory from the London School of Economics. Laura worked in politics for nearly twenty years before re-entering normal life to complete an MA in Creative Writing at City University. Blood & Sugar will be published by Mantle (Pan-Macmillan) on January 24 and is available for pre-order now.
From The Long Song: Carlos Rodriguez/Heyday Television via BBC Pictures