This Noughts and Crosses review contains spoilers.
Noughts + Crosses Episode 1
Every generation has its Romeo and Juliet. The fifties had Tony and Maria finger-clicking around the Upper West Side, the nineties had Leo and a young Carrie from Homeland in a pair of angel wings, and the noughties had both High School Musical’s Troy and Gabriella breaking free, and Sephy and Callum, the star-cross’d lovers of Malorie Blackman’s young adult series Noughts + Crosses.
Adapted from the first of Blackman’s five acclaimed novels, this six-part BBC series brings Sephy and Callum’s world to the screen for the first time. It’s not our world, but a version of it in which Europe’s colonisation of Africa happened in reverse. Blackman imagined a version of the UK hewn by racist segregation seven centuries after the Aprican continent invaded Albion and enslaved its people. Now, Albion is divided between a ruling class of ‘Crosses’ who control the country’s power, wealth and culture, and an oppressed class of impoverished ‘Noughts’, some of whom belong to a growing resistance movement.
That’s the context for this race-themed take on Shakespeare’s teen tragedy. Sephy Hadley, a Cross, falls for Callum McGregor, a Nought. Can their love transcend bigotry or will its flame be extinguished by intolerance?
The adaptation clears the first hurdle by casting Jack Rowan (Peaky Blinders, Born To Kill) and newcomer to UK screens Masali Baduza in the lead roles. Beautiful and sympathetic both, they make a luminous couple on screen. The casting is generally strong, with Paterson Joseph ably flipping from warmth to chill as Sephy’s politician father, and Helen Baxendale instantly likeable as Callum’s mother Meggie, beloved housekeeper to Sephy’s family.
And what a house it is. True to Romeo And Juliet’s first act, episode one revolves around a lavish party at which the teens meet. It’s an eye-popping riot of music, beauty, colour and glamour that shows just how good the Cross world has it. Costume designer Dihantus Engelbrecht and co. celebrate African patterns, shapes and prints in every shot, paying homage to tradition and showcasing modern style. That same celebration continues throughout the design of Cross-centric London, from the gargantuan statue on the Thames skyline honouring African womanhood to the Black models in the beauty ads and the Yoruba language on public buildings.
It’s a beautifully rendered world that pays attention not only to the architectural identity of a Cross-ruled Albion, but also to the ways the dominant culture bleeds into others, even in a segregated dystopia (the Nought kids wear wax-print patterns and their hair in beaded cornrows despite being surrounded by anti-Cross, pro-Nought graffiti. Influences like that are drawn up from the soles of your feet).
Attention has also been paid by writer Lydia Adetunji to the many subtle ways that people can be made to feel other. When Sephy tends to a cut on Callum’s hand at the party, the plaster is – of course – matched to her skin tone and not his. When her alpha boyfriend Lekan (Jonathan Akayi) attempts to humiliate Callum at the party, he mispronounces his name as Cay-lum – another everyday reminder of where the power and status lie. After all, why should Lekan have to learn how to pronounce a complicated and foreign Nought name?
The world is sharply observed and convincingly built to make a few points very well: racism is real and systemic and grounded in centuries of geopolitical injustice. Those with power are rarely aware of their privilege. Violent oppression breeds yet more violence… Through Sephy and Callum’s story is also the idea that love and commonality are the only ways out of inequality. Important messages all.
Important messages though, rarely equal great drama. While there’s plenty to recommend this vibrantly constructed series, so far its characters stand at too-regular intervals along a straight line from good to bad to be truly engaging. Their roles are too pre-defined and their actions too predictable (of course Jude is going to fall for Dorn’s invective, of course Lekan is a bully, of course Dorn was going to use poor Danny to light the match on Albion’s tinder box. We’ve seen versions of it all before).
It might be down to mis-selling. By ageing Sephy and Callum up by a few years, Noughts + Crosses hopes to broaden its appeal from young adult to a primetime audience, but the story and its (admirable and vital but also simplistic and conspicuous) purpose haven’t been aged-up with them. Like the BBC’s other fantasy His Dark Materials, it falls somewhat between two stools, not quite young adult, but also not quite as grown-up as it needs to be for 9pm on BBC One. The iPlayer box-set release straight after episode one feels like a better fit.
As part of the genre of speculative fiction that seeks to explain the severity of real-world injustices to white westerners by supposing it was all happening to them and not to other people (see also: The Handmaid’s Tale), it’s an instructional drama, and a very likeable one. Even if it sometimes falls short of subtlety or complexity, its purpose in prompting audiences of every background to imagine themselves in another skin is still vital. There’s a reason we can’t stop retelling Romeo and Juliet; depressingly, its story of division overpowering love never loses relevance.
All episodes of Noughts + Crosses are available to stream now on BBC iPlayer.