Viewers are being “lulled into a false sense of security about black people in period dramas” because of “the Bridgerton effect”, according to the writer of a historical drama spearheading the launch of ITV’s streaming service ITVX.
The Costa award-winning author Sara Collins said she wrote The Confessions of Frannie Langton, about an enslaved Jamaican woman in London, as a “black Jane Eyre” to fill a gap, as there were not enough stories about the reality of black people’s history.
Collins said her gothic romance was “entirely different” from the “colourblind” casting of Netflix hit show Bridgerton: “This is colour-focused casting. Bridgerton is a fantasy; it’s a nice fantasy but what really interests me is we don’t lose sight of the truth.”
Collins applauded Bridgerton for helping audiences become “acclimatised” to seeing more diversity in historical dramas, but said she was concerned people being “numbed to how difficult” it was” for black people in Britain in the past because some may think “but weren’t we queens and dukes?”. She called this “the Bridgerton effect”.
Speaking at the launch for her series in London, Collins said: “A lot of people are probably being lulled into a false sense of security about black people in period dramas”, but that in The Confessions of Frannie Langton “we’re trying to navigate a kind of truth that history hasn’t told completely and that’s why it’s important”.
She added: “I was left with this question, why hasn’t a black woman been the star of her own gothic romance? So this is Jane Eyre if Jane Eyre was black and had shagged the mad woman in the attic and maybe killed Mr Rochester.”
Set in Georgian London, The Confessions of Frannie Langton is the story of an intelligent Jamaican woman brought to England who is accused of a double murder after falling in love with the wife of the eugenics-obsessed scientist she works for.
Collins said she wanted to avoid the “stereotypical, stale, boring old portrayals of slavery” that were “all about stories of physical suffering”, deliberately including a scene in a spanking parlour, so “the only people being whipped in this show are white men”.
She said she thought it was the first TV love story with “slavery as its backdrop”, while the director, Andrea Harkin, added, “This is not your average period drama … a story like this is so overdue; we haven’t seen a character like Frannie on screen.”
Karla-Simone Spence, who plays Frannie, said she felt she “owed it” to her character to show the trauma she had faced, while the producer, Carol Harding, said it was interesting that ITV was doing this as a commercial drama.
The four-part drama comes as ITVX revealed a lineup that industry analysts said was designed to help ITV “fight back” against the global streaming giants – spending an extra £160m on new shows such as the black drama Riches, A Spy Among Friends, starring Damian Lewis and Anna Maxwell Martin, and Litvinenko, in which David Tennant plays the poisoned former Russian agent.
ITVX replaces ITV Hub and will provide viewers with what Carolyn McCall, the chief executive of ITV, described as a “more personalised viewing and advertising experience”.
Nick Waters, the chief executive of the media analyst firm Ebiquity, said: “It represents a real opportunity for television as a whole to fight back. We can expect younger audiences that have left linear TV to be drawn in. With new shows scheduled to drop every week it will provide the freshness of content … audiences crave.”
• The Confessions of Frannie Langton broadcasts when ITVX launches on 8 December
• This article was amended on 24 November 2022 to clarify comments made by Karla-Simone Spence about her motivation for playing Frannie Langton