Thursday, February 18, 2010

Small Island - Q&A with the Producer

On 7th February, there was another screening of Small Island at the Imperial War Museum, followed by a Q&A with the Producer, Vicky Licorish.

This was part of the ongoing Black history presentation series with Tony Warner of Black History Walks.

In case you have not had a chance to see it, Small Island was a film commissioned by the BBC, based on the novel by Andrea Levy. It will be screened again by the BBC and on PBS in the States, and Tony is planning to screen it again at the Imperial War Museum.

Small Island
depicts the lives of Black men and women from the Caribbean during and after the war, and their interactions with white people whom they meet when they come to Britain.

This was a very beautiful, lavish programme. It was clearly produced with love. The Producer spoke about her commitment to honouring the book. She made sure that Levy was involved with the film from a very early stage, and in every aspect of the production.

The film tells the story of Gilbert, who comes to Britain to fight in the RAF and befriends Queenie, a white woman. After the war, he returns to Jamaica, where he meets and marries Hortense. He then goes to London, arriving on the Emperor Windrush, and sets out to make a life here.

The story is filmed in muted colours and we get a sense of London before, during and after the war, struggling with rationing and austerity. Queenie finds that her horizons are narrowed by the war, although it broadens Gilberts.

I thoroughly enjoyed this film. It answered some questions that have always been on my mind, such as, why did African Caribbean people (they identified themselves as West Indian at the time) feel so strongly that England was their mother country? Why were they so determined to come here to fight and die for their country?

Tony raised similar issues in a recent presentation, Why Fight for England? I will blog about this soon.

In the film, Gilbert explains that he and all the people he knew in Jamaica were taught at school about Britain, all of the cities and towns here, and all of the industries. But when he arrived in the UK, he found out that most of the people here had never heard of the Caribbean and had no idea where it was. So while the Black people adored their mother and came to assist her in her hour of need, as he says, "she doesn't care a fig about us".

Many Black people experienced a similar sense of disillusionment when they arrived on these shores.

Another question I had, which was not answered by the film, was, why did Gilbert not tell Hortense, his bride, what it was really like here? He told her there were light bulbs in every house and, in fact, in every room. But he did not tell her she would experience racism on a daily basis. Nor did he advise her that she would not be able to pursue her chosen profession as a teacher here unless she retrained.

He states that "things were better during the war. They needed us then".

Hortense is horrified to find that the house where they live is infested with mice. "They're bombed out too," Gilbert explains. "There's been a war".

Period details like that are very poignant to those Black British people who have lived here since that era, and those of us who have read and heard about those days.

Vicky Licorish explained that the BBC kept wanting to make Hortense's character more likeable, but she insisted that the character remain as she was - haughty and snobbish. Licorish stated that we all know a Black woman like Hortense (and some of us are that Black woman).

When she was halfway through the book, Licorish knew she wanted the film rights. The book won the Orange Prize, the Whitbread and the Commwealth Prize.

Licorish was proud that the film was produced alongside other BBC period dramas based on literature by Dickens and Jane Austen.

To see more dramas like this, we should write to the BBC, both to complain and to praise. One person we can write to is Ben Stephenson, the Head of Drama.

The executives working on a project are normally all white, as are the team. Licorish stated that the power is behind the camera and she would like to see more young Black people working in TV and film production.

In my book, Black Success Stories, Trevor Phillips talks about how to pursue a career in TV.

Click here for the next Black history presentations with Tony Warne

Click here for London Black History Walks.

Click here to read more about Black history films in London.

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