I read Andrea Levy’s novel Small Island a few years ago and really loved it. It joins the ranks of books about different immigrant groups who have come to Britain since the last war. Brick Lane by Monica Ali was about immigrants from the Indian subcontinent, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka about Ukrainians, my own novel The Black Madonna of Derby about Polish immigrants and Levy’s take on the arrival of immigrants from Jamaica.
As the story skips back and forth in time and place between England and Jamaica, I wondered how the adaptation would fare. I was not disappointed. Set before, during and after the Second World War, the BBC’s version of Small Island is a brilliant realisation of the novel.
Hortense (played by Naomie Harris) is a young girl living in Jamaica. She is illegitimate and forced on the kindness of strangers, yet she is proud, very ambitious and is determined to fulfil her dream. Queenie, (Ruth Wilson) a young girl who has come down to London from her parents’ northern pig farm to live with her aunt, is also proud, ambitious and determined to fulfil her dream. Both girls marry men they do not love in order to realise their hopes.
Charming but irresponsible Michael (Ashley Walter, late of Hustle) is loved by Hortense but he joins the war effort and ends up in England where is billeted at the home of Queenie. In the meantime, Queenie has married stiff and boring Bernard (Benedict Cumberbatch) in order that she can stay in London and not return to the hated pig farm. Add kindly, idealistic Gilbert (David Oyelowo), who Hortense marries after the war just so she can come with him to England, into the mix and you have a complex pentagon of love, lust and ambition.
The story moves from hot, dusty, colourful Jamaica to austere wartime England with its streets blacked-out to fool the bombers, food rationing and ever-present danger of death. Michael arrives and lonely, affection-starved Queenie has a romantic night with him before he is posted away.
Gilbert is sent to the north of England and comes full of idealism to help the Mother Country. He meets Queenie, who has returned home temporarily to avoid the bombs, and she treats him with kindness. Elsewhere, though, he experiences hostility and racism. When Gilbert and Queenie stand together in a queue for the cinema, American GI’s shout at him to get back with the other blacks. Gilbert shouts, ‘I’m not American, I’m Jamaican and there is no racial segregation here. I can stand where I like’. This, of course, does not go down well.
I loved this drama right from the get go. It draws the viewer in immediately as the characters are so alive, the scenes so vivid and the clothes and sets appear so authentic. There will more pain and heartbreak to come in the second part but such is the pleasure in following this story, I can’t wait to watch it.