The Long Song: Director, Writer and Cast talk about the Upcoming BBC Drama Production

In this brand-new BBC adaptation of the 2010 Andrea Levy novel by the same name: The Long Song was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in the same year and won the 2011 Walter Scott Prize. The adaptation takes us to 19th Century Jamaica, (shot in The Dominican Republic) this period drama is a story about slavery lead by the indignant strong-minded slave and lovable July played by Tamara Lawrance. Taken from her mother at an early to live in the “big house” with her  chaotic slave-owning mistress Caroline Mortimer played by Hayley Atwell.

The Long Song
BBC The Long Song –  Kitty (SHARON DUNCAN BREWSTER), July (TAMARA LAWRANCE) – (C) Heyday Television – Photographer: Carlos Rodriguez

The story: Set during the final days of slavery in 19th century Jamaica, the story follows  young slave July (Lawrance) on a plantation owned by her odious mistress Caroline Mortimer (Atwell). When a charming new arrival to the island, Robert Goodwin (Lowden), becomes the new overseer, July and Caroline are both intrigued by his seemingly revolutionary determination to improve the plantation for the slaves and mistress alike.

During a time of social unrest and turmoil, this powerful story is told from July’s perspective as she looks back over her life; the tone is funny, defiant and indomitable. It’s a story about the injustices that humans inflict upon each other and the unexpected ways in which people’s humanity sometimes overrules their prejudices.

The Long Song
BBC Programme Name: Hayley Atwell (Caroline) The Long Song –  Photographer: Carlos Rodriguez

Alt A was lucky enough see the first episode at a preview screening this week with some of the key cast, Tamara Lawrance  (July), and Hayley Atwell (Caroline) and Sir Lenny Henry (Godfrey) and director Mahalia Belo and writer Sarah Williams.

Essential and central to the three-part drama which airs on the 18th of December for 3 consecutive nights is Lawrence who told us.

 “I was gifted and lucky to be given the opportunity to play a role like this just on paper as an actor the role has so many nuances and complexity and that in itself is brilliant when I got the part I thought well OK I have to do it (laughs ) no pressure I guess the challenge was fighting my own preconceptions of what a slave was and I met with Andrea who said she did not want to write a story of this mythical character who were objects of abuse, it was easy to see a slave as a character but a slave is not a character so I had to learn that she (July ) was in these circumstances but she is driven by other things. I can’t imagine living in the time, but July is stronger than me she is someone who finds a way to survive and status where she can, she uses one up-man-ship. She is a queen if she was to trace her ancestry back she would come from an African Monarchy”

Atwell talked about her character and the relationship Caroline has with the other characters. She said:

 “Andrea gives Caroline and July the ability to  change and adapt and the relationships and the dynamics to change, at one point Caroline does awful things  and is hysterical in some ways and she over reacts to the wrong things, her sense of reality is totally distorted from what is actually going on around her which is based I think very much on fear. But we do get to see the shift and change and the more human side of her”.

7 years in the making there was reluctance among the industry to perhaps take on another slavery project. It initially started life as a feature on which Williams said she found “challenging” to adapt that “great big book into feature”.  Starting out with Film4 who were already in development with 12 Years A Slave, it was not taken up as they may have felt they had their “quota of slavery  projects”. But Heyday Productions took it on. Sir Lenny Henry commented on why it is an important story and how he was got on board.

“It is important to be informed and watch these things going forward it is an amazing piece of work and I am happy to be involved. I had already read The Long Song as I am a fan of Andrea’s work and she said you should read The Long Song but I said I had already read it so she said you should read it again( hint hint, Godfrey) then I found out this was happening and I wanted to be part of this story, as the retelling of slavery and the British Empire’s involvement in slavery is something we need to know as this was not something we learnt in school, I went to Bluecoat Secondary Modern and I learnt about Clive of India and the triangle and we did not learn about slavery. We didn’t learn about Bristol and Liverpool and Manchester and Preston and Carlisle, and all those ports that were built from the profits of slavery, the Black Country’s involvement making irons and chains and guns for the slave trade ”

Director Belo said on directing The Long Song.

 “Andrea’s novel was so rich, every page had a brilliant image, for me it is about centering the project with the inner world of July and when I say July I mean the old July as well (Dona Croll plays the older July telling that story she remembers) the young person she was in the moment so a lot of the language we used was to try and see the world from July’s eyes so she is the queen in the middle of it all. And she has these moments of beauty and she has real experiences and I like,  there is a moment in the novel where she felt she was flying with Nimrod (her male love interest) and I thought you know let’s make her fly, let’s give her that moment, it is what it means to be human to have an imagination and give her that dignity as well”.

Williams who wanted to keep the adaptation as “true to the book as possible” said.

“It is a very important book and my note to myself was don’t muck it up, to me it was a golden opportunity if you are a writer be handed a book like this and I felt my job was to be as invisible as possible because the book really speaks for itself. It just  not just a book about slavery is a book about the human condition”.

The cast includes Doña Croll as Old July, Sharon Duncan Brewster as Kitty, Ayesha Antoine as Molly, Arinzé Kene as Thomas, Ansu Kabia as James Richards, Jordan Bolger as Nimrod, Joy Richardson as Miss Rose, Madeleine Mantock as Miss Clara and Leo Bill as John Howarth. The Long Song airs on BBC One on Tuesday, December 18, Wednesday 19th December and Thursday 20th December at 9pm. If you like this or anything else on our website please share or follow us on social media. It helps us to spread the word about creative diversity and the talent.

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