The 50 best TV shows of 2020, No 3: Small Axe

Steve McQueen’s five-film anthology based on real people and events celebrates Britain’s Caribbean history, enriches our national story and is a television landmark

So much of 2020 has been spent discussing, debating and disputing history, from the removal of statues (“erasing our history” as the complainers would have it) to the reassessments of Britain’s legacies of slavery and colonialism, all prompted by the resurgence of Black Lives Matter. In this context, Small Axe couldn’t have picked a better moment, or found a better means of expression. Far from “erasing” British history, Small Axe enriches it. It fills in gaping holes in our national story that many of us barely even realised were there. It will doubtless stand as Steve McQueen’s magnum opus, and a landmark of British television. Yet this five-film series represents just a glimpse of that missing history: the experience of Caribbean immigrants in London, from the late 1960s to the 1980s. The fact that this was virtually uncharted territory tells its own story.

When it comes to social history, there’s a tendency on British TV to adopt a dry, sober docudrama mode or to dramatise the story to death with reams of dialogue, slick editing and grandstanding overstatement. Small Axe does neither. Its stories are based on real people and events: the trial of the Mangrove Nine; a typical all-night reggae party in 1980; the early career of trailblazing policeman Leroy Logan; the hard coming of age of the writer Alex Wheatle; and the story of a smart 70s schoolboy branded as “educationally subnormal” (based on McQueen’s own experience). But they are full of emotion, passion, feelings, day-to-day experiences, food, music, conversation, dance, sensuality – life.

So much of that life comes from the marvellous performers. Some of them are already familiar, such as John Boyega and Letitia Wright. Some are undervalued veterans, such as Shaun Parkes, Llewella Gideon, Steve Toussaint, and others we’re likely to hear more of (Sheyi Cole, Amarah-Jae St Aubyn, Micheal Ward, Naomi Ackie to name a few). Many are young black Britons playing characters who could be their own parents or grandparents. There’s a commitment and a conviction to their performances.

But credit must go to McQueen as Small Axe’s chief instigator and creative leader. Despite being an established, Oscar-winning director, he is still something of an outsider, it seems. He brought an artist’s sensibility into cinema and it stands out even more on the small screen. Shabier Kirchner’s superb camerawork is wonderfully fluid, intimate and intuitive (note how each film is shot on a different format). The production design is spot on yet aesthetically coherent. And McQueen gives ample space to dialogue-free moments that conventional television would have impatiently cut away from: waiting in the sunlit backroom before the verdict in Mangrove; the extended dancefloor scenes in Lover’s Rock; the lingering shot of Wheatle lying powerless on the floor, straitjacketed and almost catatonic. The director knows there is as much power in images as words.

McQueen’s outsider sensibility is of a piece with what could be seen as a collection of outsider stories. Most of them are set in the safe spaces Caribbean immigrants could carve out from a dominant white culture that was often hostile to them. One of the strands running through Small Axe’s stories is, of course, racism – on every scale, from the institutional to the casual: “Go and swing from the trees like you’re back home in the jungle,” suggests 12-year-old Kingsley’s teacher in Education. Small Axe is a validation of black Britain’s collective resilience and resourcefulness in the face of such adversity, but it is also a celebration of the minutiae; the gradations of Caribbean accents, the rituals of the dancefloor and mealtimes, the music and literature, the language and expressions (never has so much teeth-sucking been heard on our screens). Non-Caribbean viewers watching Small Axe find that they are the outsiders, drawn into a parallel Britain they knew little about.

We can slap ourselves on the back as a nation over how far we’ve come, and we can take pride in McQueen and his colleagues for raising the standard of British television, but let’s not forget how long it’s taken to get here, and how much further there is to go. That might have been brought home this summer by the sight of Boyega, fresh from his turn as Leroy Logan, giving an impassioned speech in Hyde Park in support of the Black Lives Matter protests. As Leroy’s father tells him in Red, White and Blue, “The world, it just move forward. Always do. Big change … that is a slow-turning wheel.”


Steve Rose

The GuardianTramp

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