“This island is too small if you have big dreams”
Andrea Levy’s 2004 novel Small Island was inescapable at the time, it seemed like everyone I knew had read and loved it but though it went on to win prizes, I wasn’t as big a fan of most of it. That said, I did love much of this television adaptation in 2009 which came just after Ruth Wilson’s superlative turn in the Donmar’s A Streetcar Named Desire as I began to realise how special an actress she really was. The story focuses on the experiences of two women – Queenie Bligh and Hortense Roberts – as the economic and social impact of World War Two ripples out through London and Jamaica.
Naomie Harris’ Hortense is a young Jamaican woman with heady dreams of becoming a teacher in what she sees as the idyllic land of England yet is devastated to find the gloominess of reality, alleviated only once she meets a man called Gilbert; and Ruth Wilson’s Queenie is a working class Yorkshirewoman who moves to London to escape the family farm but with little real prospects. When her job falls through, she accepts the marriage proposal of the attentive Bernard Bligh – Benedict Cumberbatch in full-on English mode – to avoid having to move back but when he leaves for WWII, huge changes are set in motion for all concerned.
Queenie converts the marital home into a boarding house and takes in some airmen including a Jamaican one – who turns out to be Hortense’s childhood sweetheart – and Wilson’s timeless beauty serves her wonderfully as a woman ahead of her time in subverting societal pressure and accepting the increasing racial diversity in London. From Cumberbatch’s bashful nerdishness to Ashley Walters’ cavalier pilot, hers is a deliciously luminous presence when bouncing off male attentions, but is equally adept at sketching the platonic relationship that develops between her and Gilbert, a lovely David Oyelowo, again against public perceptions of what was acceptable.
But the story is not just Queenie’s as it switches between all of the key personnel. Naomie Harris presents well the starched primness of Hortense’s intense shock at her dreams being dashed and the discovery of how racist this Britain is that goes some way to explaining the extremity of her behaviour and Oyelowo has some lovely moments as Gilbert returns to Jamaica post-war but finds that England is now where his heart lies. And as all the characters are reunited again, yet more surprises are in store.
So much of the show is just excellently done and it is an endlessly fascinating look at a part of history that is often neglected, not least by period drama on television. My one annoyance was the use of the narration device which was frustrating in its need to reduce everything to soundbites. But the shifting timeline keeps us on our toes and alive to a time of huge shifts which proves highly watchable.