The run up to Christmas can be stressful, but it's also a time to look forward to some stellar festive telly. What I'm most looking forward to is screenwriter Sarah Williams adaptation of Andrea Levy's hefty tome, The Long Song. Directed by Mahalia Belo, the three-part drama is set to be one of 2018's most ambitious dramas yet. But what happens in The Long Song book, and how does it compare to the series?
Written in the form of a memoir, The Long Song tells the story of July, an elderly Jamaican woman living in the 19th century who recollects her experiences as a young slave girl on a sugarcane planation. Born to Kitty, a slave woman raped by Scottish overseer Tam Dewar, July’s life was fraught with tragedy before she eventually found freedom, after the Baptist War in 1831 where thousands of slaves rebelled against their captors and fought for their liberty.
The memoir moves from past to present day, amusingly documenting the squabbles between July and her son Thomas, who wants to publish his mother’s book. Levy’s use of comedy intertwined with the realities of British colonial history allows some reprieve here and there in the novel but doesn’t take away the meaning at all — it solidifies it and makes the characters feel real. Born to Jamaican parents who emigrated to England on the Empire Windrush in 1948, Levy's writing is often an exploration of her own history.
“My inspiration for wanting to write The Long Song is that I had to write it,” she said in a press release sent to Bustle UK. “I had to write that period if I was looking at my heritage. Without it, there’s a big omission and I couldn’t allow that to happen."
What Levy didn’t expect was to find innate similarities with her own family and her characters after finishing the novel. Eerily, her niece discovered that Levy’s great grandfather was born a slave, after a plantation attorney had a child with a housekeeper called Minnie, much like how July was welcomed into the world in the novel. “I didn’t want to write it […] because I knew it would be one of the most harrowing things to research that I would have ever done in my life — and it proved to be so,” she said. “It was very, very difficult to research it. It brought a lot of sadness, a lot of anger into my life.”
However, The Long Song also allowed Levy to open up debate and conversation about the impact of Britain's past on today's climate. "My motivating factor, apart from wanting to understand my own heritage, wanting to place that heritage full square in the middle of the British psyche," she explained in the press release. To "have a conversation and actually allow people to — which they are beginning to do — to really talk about slavery in a different way."
"I want us to be able to really look at this in order that we can get rid of racism. In order that we can have equality, in order that we just see that we are all just clinging to the planet, all of us."
And it looks like William's and Belo's adaptation will pretty much follow the same beats, with a few differences here and there. As Belo explained in the press release, "it's a story that begs to be told. It's bright, it's funny and it's dark — it's speaks about what it means to survive trauma and what it does to a person."
The Long Song is a story that you need to experience, whether through print or the small screen. I can assure you I'll be spending this festive season doing both.
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