Friday, 11 December 2009

Small Island

I finally got around to watching the first part of the BBC's adaptation of Andrea Levy's novel Small Island today. Now the BBC comes in for a lot of criticism, much of it but by no means all of it justified. But say what you like about the Beeb, it does come up with productions like this every once in a while.

This was terrific stuff and terrifically expensive too I would imagine. But the money was there to see in the production values and a superb cast. It was beautifully shot too (memo to AA Gill, the TV critic who pretends to know about these things, this is what great cinematography looks like). The scenes of grimy and dark wartime Britain were beautifully realised in a kind of sepia tint, especially when contrasted with the colourful vibrancy of Jamaica.

Small Island is a simple tale which relies on quite a lot of coincidence - although there are plenty of the literary classics which do the same thing - its set against the backdrop of momentous events which changed the world we live in. Empire, race, prejudice, mixed race relationships, Britain's place in the world, ambition and war, it's all covered here. It doesn't say anything particularly profound, it doesn't do anything particularly original. It even had the cliched scene of them sitting around the radio listening to Neville Chamberlain tell the country we were at war. But mostly its about love and sex and the compromises we make for both as most great stories are.

I loved it, and that was after I came to it out of curiosity more than any preconceived idea about what it was about and whether it was for me. It's good to see a period drama which doesn't involve horse drawn carriages and bonnets for a change. But it's still an epic story.

Of course part of the story resonated for me anyway. Mixed race relationships and long distance relationships are not unknown to me and neither is unrequited love. But what made it so enjoyable, apart from the beautifully atmospheric way it was shot, was that cast. I fell a little bit in love with Naomie Harris as the sweet, ambitious and starry eyed Hortense, and my passion would have been all consuming had it not been for the presence of the utterly brilliant and lovely Ruth Wilson, for whom I fell a couple of years ago when she more or less defined for a generation the role of Jane Eyre. Those two stole it for me, but they were more than ably supported by another young actor going places, David Oyelowo, and Benedict Cumberbatch who is also becoming a television fixture.

I can even forgive this production the blatant way it more or less copied a scene from that other wartime tale, the Oscar winning John Boorman film Hope and Glory. Let's just call it a tribute.

The first part of Small Island is still available on the BBC I Player and no doubt will soon be available on DVD. I can't recommend it highly enough.


I have never been able to hear the name Hortense without thinking of Kenny Everett. I'll explain. Maurice Cole, aka Cuddly Ken, aka Kenny Everett - the late, great genius of pop radio - used to include in his shows for various stations a short comedy series called Kremmen of The Star Corps. Captain Kremmen was a heroic space age character who fought baddies alongside various other characters all voiced by our Ken. It was full of spectacularly bad gags and we all loved it.


Carla (the pneumatic assistant and lover of Kremmen): Captain, captain I've been graped.
Kremmen: You mean raped?
Carla: No, there was a whole bunch of them.

And in one episode, which I've always remembered for some reason, there was the following exchange:

Professor: Look over there, Captain. Is that Hortense?
Kremmen: No, she looks perfectly relaxed to me.

I thank you.

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