This review contains spoilers.
When Caroline Mortimer (Hayley Atwell) spies a pretty young slave girl named July, she decides to take the girl and train her up to be her lady’s maid on the Amity plantation. Dragged away from her mother, Kitty (Sharon Duncan-Brewster), July (Tamara Lawrance) grows up to become a mischievous teenager, while learning how to manage Caroline. However, life at Amity is about to change when the word comes that slaves shall soon be granted their freedom by the Crown and the Christmas uprising of 1831
The Long Song is adapted from Andrea Levy’s gorgeous novel of the same name and the most readily apparent aspect of Sarah Williams’ reworking is how well she has captured the tone of the narration. There is a wry edge to it, the voice of an older woman looking back on a different time with the kind of wisdom that bestows as well as the hint of bitterness and sadness that flares up during the worst of the memories. Though the audience is granted only glimpses of her physical performance, Doña Croll’s delivery of the narration strikes that bittersweet balance perfectly, switching between levity and sorrow as the story shifts and changes.
Storytelling and its importance is at the heart of it all, from the framing device of the older woman writing her narrative, to the title cards that signal different stages of July’s story. Importantly, it’s storytelling from a perspective that viewers of period dramas don’t often get to witness, that of a slave herself. Williams allows a knowing nod to this at the start of the episode by explicitly stating that this isn’t a story about a white woman trapped on a plantation and waiting for her love to arrive. Director Mahalia Belo alludes to this visually during this sequence. Caroline’s tantrum is witnessed in wider shots with any closer shot of her obscured slightly by a lace curtain. It is July who is given the direct close-up and a fourth wall break that tells us instantly that this is her story and not the kind of nineteenth century tale we usually get.
In that way, The Long Song joins Amma Asante’s Belle in presenting its audience with a view of the British Empire’s heyday told from a different perspective of someone raised within it and directly affected by the racism and oppression that fuelled it. While Belle was more like a conventional coming of age/marriage plot, The Long Song feels more like a survivalist’s tale. The slave characters in The Long Song are subject to a constantly changing world, sometimes second-by-second. They must learn how to deal with their masters, as July does, or how to hit back against them in the smallest of ways.
Sir Lenny Henry’s sublime performance as Godfrey is a prime example of both this deference and the sense of defiance that bubbles up in response. His facial expressions shift only slightly. It’s in a slight roll of the eyes or a cynical hand gesture. The master and mistress don’t necessarily notice it, but it’s there. The scene in which Godfrey conspires with July to put a soiled bed sheet on the table for Caroline’s party, rather than the Irish linen, is a wonderful slice of conspiratorial mischief. In her Afterword for The Long Song, Andrea Levy talks about the importance of these little acts of rebellion on a day-to-day basis as evidence that amongst the violence and horror, there are very human moments of defiance and humour. Not to mention the gnawing of leftover ham bones.
As a central character, July embodies all of this, as well as functioning as the audience’s way into this unfamiliar world. Tamara Lawrance’s performance sparkles at the heart of this first episode, deftly switching between July’s playful manipulation of her mistress to the horror of witnessing the violence meted out to her fellow slaves without cause or provocation. Her adversarial chemistry with Atwell’s rather more pathetic Caroline is a delight too, an exercise in fluctuating power dynamics and a warped co-dependence.
It’s a strong start to The Long Song and as a period drama that enjoys playing with convention and defying expectations, which is a welcome sight as part of the BBC’s Christmas season. Jack Lowden’s brief appearance as the new overseer, Robert Goodwin, sets up the course of the next episode and where July’s story will take us next.
The Long Song continues on Wednesday the 19th and Thursday the 20th of December, at 9pm on BBC One.