Small Island

Andrea Levy’s epic novel, Small Island, was written in 2004 and became a firm favourite with readers and critics alike. Now BBC viewers can experience the story of West Indian immigrants in Second World War London on the small screen, thanks to Paula Milne and Sarah Williams’ two-part adaptation for BBC One.

In it, Benedict Cumberbatch plays Bernard, whose Earl’s Court home is turned into a boarding house by his wife Queenie. Bernard, who is a product of an age that placed signs in their windows saying “No Irish, no coloureds, no dogs”, is shocked when he returns home from a tour of duty to find Hortense and Gilbert, two Jamaicans, lodging under his roof.

Benedict has made a name for himself with impressive performances in films including Atonement, Starter For Ten and Saving Grace; and on television in Stuart – A Life Backwards, To The Ends Of The Earth and Hawking, among others. He is no stranger to playing characters that are not immediately likeable – in Atonement he played the seducer of a young girl. But he saw past Bernard’s “grey” exterior: “My character’s story is very much about the love of a single woman and the redeeming force of that love.”

Benedict explains that Bernard, whose father is a veteran of the Great War, signs up because of his wife: “Queenie demands that Bernard stand up and prove he’s a man. Up to this point all he has done towards the war effort is try to preserve the status of his area by refusing to let the bombed of East London come and live there, because they will bring down the tone.”

It’s hard to see any redeeming features in that description of Bernard, but Benedict insists that it’s not the actor’s role to find fault: “The golden rule is to never judge your character – you think subjectively about him so, while you can’t necessarily excuse his actions, you can reason them through an understanding of the circumstances and what motivated him: I think Bernard is very much a man of his time.”

That time was one of fear and protectionism, rationing and suspicion. “The Victorian world that Bernard’s father had fought for in the First World War had disintegrated in his eyes. Bernard has a snobby streak and it’s that snobbery that’s the soft underbelly of fascism, it’s where all that prejudice lies in the sniffy, curtain-twitching, proprietorial behaviour of little England.”

Benedict also reveals that the potential difficulties of playing Bernard were what drove him to accept the role: “I was quite nervous because in the book Bernard shares a quarter of the story – you go to war with him, and in India you see what makes him into the man that can’t bear to bring himself home to face disgracing his wife, instead taking himself into a ridiculous exile in Brighton. But in the film, the audience only knows as much as Queenie, so Bernard remains an enigma until he returns. When he does, the way he and Queenie console one another is terribly touching and very moving – that’s really what drew me to the project.

“It takes quite a long time to come around to Bernard’s perspective – even in the book. You see a man struggling to come to terms with his weaknesses and faults through trying to please his wife. And there are some small heroics involved in that – he has to lose everything first: his father, his wife and all of his dignity. I don’t think he’s ever going to become somebody who is able to admit equality with the West Indians but he will do his damnedest for the love of this woman.”

Despite being set in the Forties, Benedict feels the story has something recognisable to offer modern audiences:

“It’s a very important story to be telling now because it’s a part of our history which we haven’t explored enough, we are very good at revisiting our Colonial past or the Regency or Georgian periods, but we’ve neglected this highly relevant chapter which is about understanding where everyone’s come from and the beginnings of multicultural society.

“The issues of race, class, belonging and identity raised in the films are very current. We are living in a time where, through terrorism or recession, the borders are being shrunk and people are getting more of a ‘Small Island’ mentality again.

“It’s also relevant because we are living in an age when a black man is President of the most powerful nation on Earth and his legacy stands as a testament to the journeys of people like the characters in Small Island.

“Migration is going on today, as it was then – the West Indians who came to England then had fought for the ‘motherland’, as they called it. Queenie says ‘I don’t get why you guys want to come over here, you’ve got this incredible exotic paradise that’s your home and you come to this hard, dull, grey, prejudice-ridden country.’ The amount of hope people must have had, that this would be a brave new world for them and a new beginning: but they were welcomed very grudgingly – it’s quite disgraceful.”

Benedict’s character research encompassed studying the novel and some general investigation as well as looking closer to home: “Having the book is very helpful because you’ve got a blueprint and a hell of a lot of background – you’re not creating from scratch or trying to fill in gaps; everything you are doing is a contraction of the expanse of the novel, so you can always go back to it for information.

“I also went to the Imperial War Museum and looked into neuralgia and other forms of shell shock to do with Bernard’s father and what he was suffering from.

“My own grandfathers were a submarine commander and a ‘desert rats’ tank operator in the Second World War. I can also identify with the era through my grandmother, who was in a kind of time capsule until she died a couple of years ago – we would have family Christmases at her house and the memorabilia and the decorations were very evocative; it’s definitely a period I can assimilate and imagine very easy.”

Benedict also talks affectionately of his time filming in Belfast and Dublin, and describes the impressive care taken over the creation of the world of Small Island: “The sets in Belfast were astounding; we filmed in the painting halls where parts of the Titanic were painted, they are down on the docks near Samson and Goliath, the two huge yellow cranes that dwarf the skyline. The sets were breathtaking – the scale and the detail of decoration were just extraordinary.”

His first reaction on walking onto the Dublin street used for the film’s exteriors is one he may hope Small Island’s audience emulates: “There was smoke billowing down the road, nothing but a fire hose, some people running and a light in the corner of the road and it just looked stunning – it was like taking a step back in time, it took my breath away.”

British rapper, musician and actor Ashley Walters stars as the charming Michael Roberts in BBC One’s adaptation of Small Island, adding to his television credits which include Hustle and forthcoming BBC drama Five Days.

Ashley was particularly attracted to a role in Small Island as it represented a big change to previous roles such as in Bullet Boy, for which he was named Best Newcomer at the British Independent Film Awards, or BBC Three pilot West 10 LDN, that have been set firmly in the present day.

As Ashley explains: “The fact that Small Island is ‘period’ is amazing for me because it’s something that I’ve never been involved with before. Also, half my family is Jamaican and this story is essentially a story about Jamaican people, and it’s portraying a part of history that I was not that familiar with myself. I haven’t had a chance to talk to my own grandparents about it, so it was filling me in, in a lot of senses.”

Ashley describes his character Michael as “a very well educated young man from a well-to-do family in Jamaica”, but who has high hopes for himself, big aspirations that not necessarily what his family would want him to do or to be.

“It gets to the point where the road he wants to take becomes very different from the road his family expects from him – which forces a gap between them. He is forced into the army and that brings him over to the UK, where he’s trying to integrate like a load of other Jamaican people. In a sense, he finds it a lot easier than the others and uses his charm to get himself through most situations.”

Given its historical context, Ashley hopes the drama will give people a sense of their own history and background – particularly the younger community. “It’s so important that especially young Jamaican people, and even the older Jamaican people, watch it, so they can feel represented.

“Underneath the story, the romance, there’s a truth there, and this is a period of time where you’d expect a lot of black people to retreat maybe and leave, flee from the abuse or the stigma that was attached to them. But what you find is that this is a time where black people seem to be very strong and stuck through a lot of nasty situations to give me and my generation what we have today, and that’s very important.

Michael Roberts is an integral character in Small Island, connecting the lives of two very different women – Hortense (Naomie Harris) and Queenie (Ruth Wilson). Ashley talks about those two central relationships between the characters, saying: “The only similarity is that he loved both of them, but in two different ways. Hortense he loved more as a sister, that sort of sibling love that you have, and Hortense finds it very hard to understand that or to see that in Michael. He does care about her a lot and he’s very protective of her – but as a big brother, whereas with Queenie, I think he falls for Queenie.

“Whether he says it or not is a different thing. There’s a scene in the film where basically he says to her: ‘Let’s run away together and be together’, but because of the current climate and for them to be together in England is just…it doesn’t seem possible.”

The character of Michael weaves in and out of the story of Small Island, his impact felt on the lives of all the central characters, which was a challenging role but one that Ashley relished, describing it as: “Amazing! Really and truly. It’s one of those roles that you really appreciate, because you’re very integral to the piece but really you don’t see much of me. I have a lot of powerful scenes that have an effect, and there was the chance for me to sink my teeth into something challenging because the less you’re in a film, the more you have to, when you are on screen, make that impression and make it count.”

One of the aspects of filming a ‘period’ piece for Ashley was the wardrobe, saying of his costumes: “I loved them, loved them! The RAF costumes, the flying uniforms, they were amazing, very authentic. This is my first period drama so I think other people must have had this experience, but nothing really comes together until you put on the clothes and you’ve got the haircut and you just look right, then everything else just falls into place.”

Naomie Harris’s mother, Liselle Kayla, was the voice coach for the actors, teaching them how to get the period Jamaican accent just right, and Ashley had to learn the mannerisms of the day for the role. Ashley explains: “Michael’s a very well-spoken Jamaican, so the accent isn’t too intense, it’s understandable.”

Ashley believes the appeal of Small Island will be universal, as he explains: “The strength of Small Island is the fact that it deals with heavy issues in a way that is appealing to watch, and it’s a story that people can relate to no matter what colour you are.

“There’s a love story there, more than that there’s a love triangle – a square if you want to call it! That side of things is going to pull peoples’ heart-strings. The way Small Island balances the two is a beautiful thing.”

Queenie Bligh is one in a million. At a time when landlords were putting up signs that read “No Irish, no coloureds, no dogs”, Queenie, played by Ruth Wilson in BBC One’s adaptation of Andrea Levy’s multi-award-winning novel, Small Island, opened her door to Jamaican lodgers, and was almost oblivious to the prejudice they experienced every time they left the house.

“Queenie is a wonderfully vibrant, colourful, bold character who, in some ways, is quite naïve and wide-eyed to the world and to London, and she’s quite blind to the prejudice that’s all around her,” says Ruth, who has also appeared in the BBC dramas Jane Eyre, in which she played the lead role (and which saw her nominated for four Best Actress awards, including a Bafta and a Golden Globe), and Capturing Mary. “I would describe her as being colour-blind in a metaphorical sense because she treats everyone as equal.

“She feels slightly like an outsider in London herself, because she comes from the North, from a completely different background to most people that live in the city, so she thinks she never belonged there, and that’s why she embraces outsiders. She’s got compassion and empathy for people who are looking for somewhere to stay and that’s really important to her.”

Queenie has moved to London from her family’s pig farm in Yorkshire and marries banker Bernard, despite the fact that he is “dull and not really what she’s looking for”, according to Ruth, who has recently starred in a West End production of A Streetcar Named Desire, alongside Rachel Weisz.

“Queenie is on the up, she’s also looking to improve her life and trying to scale the ladder of society. She would love someone who is exciting and mysterious and successful, but she settles for second best with Bernard. He’s a middle-class guy and she’s from a working-class family background, so she moves up the ladder but he’s not the right companion for her.”

It’s not an ideal way to start a marriage and, given that they began married life on the eve of the outbreak of the Second World War, and that Bernard soon leaves to serve his country, it seems as if the couple are doomed. And rather than pining for her husband while he’s away, Queenie uses his absence to her best advantage: “I’m sure there were a lot of Queenies who realised that war was a horrific state of affairs but that there were benefits to it – it was a chance to be needed and useful, and to feel like you had some kind of purpose in life.

“For Queenie, it gives her freedom and independence; she uses the house and starts renting out the rooms, which gives her complete independence. She’s got responsibility and she’s earning an income, so she’s quite a modern and pragmatic woman. She’s also an incredibly compassionate and funny character.

“Queenie opens our eyes to what the realities of living in London during that period were,” adds Ruth, who admits that the Second World War fascinates her. “I love that period of British history because it just seems so removed from our daily life, having bombs dropped on your house. I live in a square in London and ours is the only Edwardian building remaining from before the war. Everything else in that square got bombed. It’s amazing, the south of London, where I live, was completely destroyed. It’s just totally alien and that’s what I find so fascinating, that people survived and they are still alive now.”

She says that, although her grandparents are no longer around, they had fascinating stories to tell of their own experiences of the war. “My granny lived in Ealing, in London, during the war and she was bombed. She lived in a top flat and the house was bombed at the bottom, so her flat was just jutting out and she was very lucky to have lived.”

In Small Island, among those who Queenie offers a home to are Gilbert (David Oyelowo) and Michael (Ashley Walters), two Jamaicans who come to England to help with the war effort.

Within days of meeting him, Queenie shares a passionate night with Michael. “He just completely awakens Queenie’s spirit and the person she was. She’s an incredibly spirited person who marries someone who slightly squashes that, because of the way he is, so she compromises who she is because of the lack of opportunities available during that period, but then Michael reawakens that passion in her.

“He’s an interesting character because he’s quite a cad. He has an amazing charm and openness about him and he’s mysterious and all those things that Queenie is massively intrigued by. He’s just someone who needs to move on and is constantly looking for the next opportunity. He’s a free spirit and I think Queenie would’ve loved to be like that but the choices she made early on don’t allow her that.”

Add to Queenie’s feelings for Michael the complications of Bernard returning home from war, years later, after being presumed dead, and she is a very confused woman. “Bernard and Queenie weren’t a hopeless couple,” says Ruth. “There’s got to be something there that could work, because otherwise you lose sympathy for the characters and you don’t understand the plight of the conflict so much.

“When Bernard doesn’t return that’s an added blow to Queenie – she’s married and yet has no husband and can’t move on. She can’t get closure.”

Ruth says that her mum provided a valuable source of research when preparing for the role of Queenie as she experienced similar prejudices when she dated a black man in the Fifties. “She came down from Norfolk and moved to London when she was 17. She lived in a hostel for a while and got together with a man from Trinidad and Tobago, and she helped him find alternative accommodation and they still had the signs – ‘No Irish, no coloureds, no dogs’ – and people would turn them away.

“I asked her what attracted her to him and she said the music, the mystery and the energy, which was in contrast to the conservative Brits. For her, it was mysterious, alluring, intoxicating and exciting, something completely new, so I think Queenie felt exactly the same with Michael.

“But it’s fascinating – you realise you can relate it to the modern day in terms of when your country goes through a state of war or economic depression, there’s always a scapegoat that gets punished because people lose jobs or haven’t got as much money or the consumer goods they usually have so they end up blaming someone – outsiders. It’s a fascinating story that repeats itself, over and over again.”

Andrea Levy’s multi-award-winning novel Small Island was first brought to the attention of David Oyelowo by actress Nikki Amuka-Bird, who also features in the stellar cast of BBC One’s adaptation of the modern classic.

“Quite a few years ago, when the book first came out, a friend of mine, Nikki Amuka-Bird [who plays the character of Celia in the BBC drama] told me about an amazing book that should be made into a film. When I eventually read the book, it just blew me away. I had never read anything like it and, thankfully, I was one of the people being considered for the role I ended up playing. It ticked a lot of boxes for me.

“I found the adaptation to be very, very true and very good for crystallising everything that was great about the book, so I just had to be a part of it.”

Set against the backdrop of the Second World War, David plays Gilbert Joseph, a Jamaican volunteer in the RAF who has returned to Britain after discovering there are no opportunities for him back home. While in Jamaica, he meets prim school teacher Hortense, played by Naomie Harris, who has long-harboured a dream to go to England, and agrees to marry her and accept her offer to pay for him to travel to England on the SS Empire Windrush. Once he has settled in London, he is to send for his wife to join him.

Gilbert sees going to England to fight for the Allies as an escape from the impoverished and destitute life that he’s living. Having encountered bouts of racism throughout his stay in London, however, Gilbert has few illusions left about the wonders of the “mother country”.

“Gilbert is a truly honourable man,” explains David. “His marriage to Hortense is one of convenience but he absolutely believes in the sanctity of marriage and having made certain promises, he sticks by them and that is something I try to aspire to in my life, so I loved that quality about him.

“He could easily have gone off gallivanting while his wife was stuck in Jamaica, but he doesn’t. He remains true. I think that’s the overriding quality of Gilbert – he is rough around the edges but a very true individual. What you see is what you get with him, and that was wonderful to play.”

As Gilbert is Jamaican, and David born and bred in the UK to Nigerian parents, was it difficult to maintain the accent?

“It wasn’t difficult, but it was definitely something that I had to work hard on before starting the drama,” explains David. “The Jamaican accent is a tough one, but a modern-day Jamaican accent is quite different to the Jamaican accent about 60 years ago, because the way Jamaicans spoke in the Forties is far more aspirational – the Queen’s English was something people aspired to emulate, whereas now the influence on Jamaica is far more American.

“We actually shot the Jamaican sequences in Jamaica and it was very clear that we were having to do a kind of Jamaican that was different to what we were hearing on the street. We watched a lot of archival footage and, if you hear Jamaicans that are very old now but were sort of in their prime in the Forties and Fifties, they talk quite differently, so that was something that was quite tricky to maintain.”

As far as David is aware, he doesn’t know of any relatives who were involved in the Second World War, certainly not in the same way the Jamaicans were.

“My origin is Nigerian and so I very much had to bring myself entirely to this experience. I’m sure my Jamaican contemporaries, or black Brits who have their ancestry in Jamaica, would probably be able to pinpoint uncles or grandfathers, but I had to come to it with new eyes because it’s very much outside of my experience.”

Having already seen some of his scenes in Small Island, David has no qualms when it comes to watching himself on screen and divorces the self-criticism from actually seeing it for what it is.

“I personally have no problem,” says David. “I seem to be able to disassociate my insecurities. I know a lot of actors – some of the best actors in the world – can’t bear to watch themselves and I have to say I can’t relate to that.”

David cites working with director John Alexander as one of the highlights of his Small Island experience.

“I thought John was fantastic,” says David. “I really enjoyed working with him and he’s a very collaborative director. It was wonderful to go to work knowing that your opinions and your creative inputs would be acknowledged and, more often than not, implemented.

“Getting to do what I think was my fifth BBC drama with Nikki Amuka-Bird – we’ve done Shoot The Messenger, Five Days, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, Born Equal and now Small Island – was another highlight for me. And filming in Jamaica was great, too.

“One of the things the BBC does better than anyone is period drama,” says David. “However, this is a period drama with an entirely different slant – you have all the great costumes and that great period to look at, but it’s from a perspective that I haven’t seen on the BBC before. It contextualises so much of modern-day cultural Britain by showing you one of the big influxes of one of the now indigenous populations of Great Britain – the Jamaicans.

“And for a lot of people, including me, it was something I didn’t know, so not only do you have the entertainment value of this adaptation of an unbelievably great book and great characterisations, but also just a different period drama than I think people have seen before.”

Small Island is the second job David did back-to-back with Naomie Harris, who stars as Hortense.

“We did a BBC Two drama called Blood And Oil,” he says. “So we literally went from that to Small Island. I adore her as a person and an actress as well, so it was great to work with her again.”

One of David’s early TV roles was as Danny Hunter in BBC One’s spy drama Spooks, who met a rather untimely demise. He has a rather impressive list of other film and TV credits, too, including The Last King of Scotland, Derailed, Five Days, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, Shoot the Messenger and As Time Goes By.

In 2000, David became the first black actor to portray an English monarch for the Royal Shakespeare Company when he played the title role in a production of Henry VI Parts I, II and III – a role which won him the Ian Charleson Award in 2001 for outstanding performance by a young actor in a classical theatre role.

Immediately after filming Small Island, David started work on a film called Red Tails, which charts the story of the Tuskegee Airmen – the first black fighter pilots for America in the Second World War. As opposed to playing someone in the RAF, David plays a US Air Force pilot.

“It’s George Lucas produced,” says David. “However, unlike Gilbert, who never fulfilled his dream of flying, my character actually gets to fly a lot in this!”

Naomie Harris is an actress who made the crossover from child television star to Hollywood actress seamlessly, starting her screen career in well-loved children’s television show Simon And The Witch, and going on to star alongside Johnny Depp and Keira Knightley in two of the worldwide smash hit Pirates Of The Caribbean films.

Naomie, who stars as the proud, ambitious Hortense in the BBC One adaptation of Small Island, was drawn to the project through her love of Andrea Levy’s award-winning, best-selling novel.

As Naomie explains: “Coincidentally, I was at the 2004 Orange Prize for Fiction Award ceremony when Andrea Levy won. We all got given a copy of Small Island in our gift bags at the end of the night, but it took me a year to get around to reading it as the cover picture on the book looked very serious and I thought I don’t want to read anything too heavy right now. When I finally read it I cried with laughter. Andrea manages to deal with a heavy period in history with a brilliantly light touch. Small Island is without a doubt one of my favourite books.”

As well as being an engaging love story, the story also appealed to Naomie on another level, with its backdrop of the Windrush providing an opportunity to touch on a part of history little told. “The Windrush era is a very important part of British history as it helps us understand how and why we became the multicultural society we are today, and also helps us understand the history of race relations in this country. I wanted to be part of a drama bringing attention to that period of history.”

Naomie, who counts Danny Boyle’s hit zombie movie 28 Days Later and Michael Mann’s Miami Vice amongst her film credits, explains that all is not what it first appears on the surface of her character Hortense, who is determined to fulfil her dream of leaving Jamaica and living in England. “Hortense is a very complex character. She appears outwardly to be incredibly proper and haughty, but inside she’s really a naive and frightened child.

“She has lived most of her life wholeheartedly believing the myth that the British have all the answers and offer an example of the best and only way to live. So, she adopts all of these British mannerisms, and looks down her nose at anyone who doesn’t do the same. But when she starts to realise that her faith in the British may well be misplaced, you see that without all her airs and graces she’s very fragile, very innocent and actually has a very pure heart.”

Playing a character so multifaceted made it a challenging but enjoyable role, and Naomie developed a real affection for Hortense. “I absolutely loved playing Hortense as there are so many sides to her, and as an actress I got to make choices about when to show those sides.

“I loved her haughty, manufactured way of being as I could have fun with how prim she is, and then I loved her journey in which the facade cracks and you get to see the true essence of who she is – and you realise that she’s actually such an innocent.”

Small Island is a story that will resonate with those who faced, or whose parents or grandparents faced, similar experiences to central characters Hortense and Gilbert (David Oyelowo) upon arriving from the West Indies to create a new life in England after the Second World War.

Naomie hopes a drama exploring this period will encourage audiences to think about their own heritage. “I think the piece will definitely help West Indians understand their heritage, and hopefully encourage them to explore this heritage further by questioning their parents and grandparents. By understanding our history we gain a greater sense of belonging, and self-acceptance.”

The 28 Days Later star also hopes that it will throw light on the part the Windrush played in the beginnings of multicultural Britain. “I really hope that we as an audience see how far we’ve come in terms of race relations and have a deeper understanding of our history, which will hopefully make us more understanding and accepting of our cultural differences.”

Filming the drama prompted Naomie, whose own grandparents have a similar story to that explored in Small Island, to contemplate her own personal and family history. “Being part of this project has definitely made me reflect on my own history. Hortense and Gilberts’ story is very similar to that of my grandparents and while playing the part I couldn’t help but empathise with what they went through – all the hopes and dreams they had, and when they got to this country they experienced such ignorance and hostility.

“It made me feel so grateful to them for the struggle and sacrifices they endured so that now I can have the freedom and ability to make all the choices I want today. During my grandparents time in this country their choices about professions, education, even where they could live were limited by their race, and also the fact that they were immigrants and so didn’t understand fully how the country they’d entered worked.”

For the Jamaican scenes in the drama the cast shot on location in Jamaica for a few days, which took Naomie back to her childhood. She says of the experience, “I haven’t been to Jamaica for 17 years, so it was a very nostalgic experience working there, all the smells, the food… It brought back so many memories from my childhood. It’s also always more fun filming on location because the crew and cast get to bond more, and we all chilled by the hotel pool after work.”

Working with David Oyelowo, who is an old friend of Naomie’s, made the shoot a particularly fun one – though it did lead to some awkward moments on set when it came to Gilbert and Hortense’s more intimate scenes! Naomie said of working with him on Small Island: “This is my second job with David O now and he was a friend before we ever worked together, so it was very easy working with him. He has an incredible wit and so always keeps me in stitches… but filming our ‘love’ scene was one of the most embarrassing moments of my career…

“Normally, when you have to do a kissing or lovemaking scene, you don’t know the actor you’re playing opposite very well at all so it’s easier, but with David I know his wife, his children and I also know he’s a very devout Christian so I felt awful about kissing him – it felt like breaking an ethical code! I kept offering him my cheek to kiss instead of my lips until our director said: ‘Naomie, this has to be passionate!’ I said: ‘But it’s like kissing my brother, it feels all wrong!’ – totally killing the moment for poor David!”

There were also some fun moments with co-star Ruth Wilson, who plays the strong-minded Queenie – and one off-duty night in particular that sticks in Naomie’s memory. “Ruth Wilson was my neighbour when we filmed in Belfast so I got to know her pretty well. She’s a phenomenal actress and a lovely lady!

“I’m obsessed with Lionel Ritchie so I got us tickets when he was playing in Belfast. Ruth says she had to focus on Lionel and not look at me during the concert as I went crazy! I knew all the words to his songs and sang along with tears in my eyes clutching my heart… very embarrassing!”

Summing up Small Island, Naomie concludes: “‘Different, but the same’ is the message of the piece for me – we have differences because of our cultural heritage, but ultimately our shared humanity makes us the same.”

Adapted from Andrea Levy’s best-selling award-winning novel, BBC One’s two-part drama Small Island is an epic love story about the determined pursuit of dreams in the face of seemingly insurmountable barriers.

Set against the backdrop of the Second World War in a time when landlords would put up signs that read “No Irish, no coloureds, no dogs”, Small Island follows the interlocking lives of Londoner Queenie (Ruth Wilson), the young Jamaican couple who become her lodgers, Gilbert and Hortense (David Oyelowo and Naomie Harris), Queenie’s husband Bernard (Benedict Cumberbatch) and the mysterious and handsome Michael (Ashley Walters).

From the heat and hustle of life in Forties Jamaica through to the devastation of London in the Blitz, Small Island is an ambitious yet personal tale, which deftly touches on the weighty themes of empire, prejudice and war with a gentle touch and a warm, uplifting generosity of spirit.

Small Island is written by Paula Milne (The Virgin Queen) and Sarah Williams (Becoming Jane, The Secret Life Of Mrs Beeton) and directed by John Alexander (Life On Mars, Survivors). Executive producers for Small Island are Alison Owen (Elizabeth, Proof, The Other Boleyn Girl), Paul Trijbits and Paula Milne.

The producers are Joanna Anderson, Vicky Licorish and Grainne Marmion. The executive producer for the BBC is Lucy Richer, Commissioning Editor, Independent Drama Commissioning.

Small Island is a Ruby Television production in association with AL Films for BBC One, co-produced with WGBH and made on location in Northern Ireland with the assistance of Northern Ireland Screen.

The key cast includes:
Naomie Harris – Hortense
David Oyelowo – Gilbert
Ruth Wilson – Queenie
Benedict Cumberbatch – Bernard
Ashley Walters – Michael
Hugh Quarshie – Narrator
Karl Johnson – Arthur
Nikki Amuka-Bird – Celia
Shaun Parkes – Winston
Denise Black – Auntie Dorothy

More content about Small Island will be published, as transmission approaches, on this page: www.bbc.co.uk/tv/comingup/smallisland

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