I have no idea why it took so long for The Long Song (2018) to arrive on PBS Masterpiece from the BBC. I’ve been waiting, but it was worth it! This three-part miniseries is based on a novel by Andrea Levy and, while I haven’t read the book, the series was made in conjunction with the author, who seems to feel it reflects her work well, and now I’m adding this on my “to read” list.
The story is set in Jamaica under British colonial rule, focusing on the 1831-32 Christmas Rebellion that helped lead to the abolition of slavery in 1834. The main character is July (Tamara Lawrance), who, as a little girl, is ripped from her mother to become the enslaved maid of Caroline Mortimer (Hayley Atwell). Caroline is the plantation owner’s widowed sister, and she renames July as “Marguerite.” An older July voices much of the story as if writing her autobiography, giving this book adaption an appropriately literary feel.
The Long Song isn’t a typical slave narrative, this is more about the complexities of life after emancipation and how different people, both Black formerly enslaved Jamaicans and white colonialist Britons react to the changes. The plot is at times surprising, harrowing, ridiculous, and moving, and I don’t want to give anything away because over the course of three parts, the story goes some unexpected places. The actors give nuanced performances, and Tamara Lawrance as July is utterly fascinating, while Hayley Atwell’s Caroline is a horrible person, yet just a smidge pitiable. And there are scenes and lines played for laughs, as novelist Andrea Levy noted in the BBC press pack for the show:
“Any character that I write who doesn’t have a sense of humour isn’t quite right. I believe everybody has a sense of humour … certainly if you come from the Caribbean and slavery you had to have a humour to get through it.”
Plus, the costumes by Charlotte Holdich are generally quite good, although only Caroline wears especially fancy clothes. As the mistress of the plantation, she always wears very fashionable 1830s gowns and headgear — though at various points, it’s made obvious that these garments are not suited for the tropical climate. Which they didn’t have to fake, because as producer Rosie Alison said on Broadcast Now about filming in the Dominican Republic:
“It sounds glamorous working in the Caribbean, but for the cast and crew, filming in full costume under the 40°C [104°F] midday sun, it was a challenging and punishing shoot.”
Atwell must have been genuinely sweating in those gigot-sleeved frocks! And while I couldn’t find any interviews with Holdich, I feel like she took a similar angle as Tom Pye did with the costumes in Gentleman Jack (2019) by using the exaggerated 1830s fashions to make the character of Caroline look different and odd and thus very out of place and out of touch with her surroundings.
As Hayley Atwell said in Harper’s Bazaar of this character:
“It’s very textbook, I think, that bullying that comes from insecurity and cowardice, and where she tries to assert this authority that she doesn’t really have. I wanted to explore the psychological damage or the damage done to one’s psyche, when that person inflicts damage on someone else you think, ‘I bet she can’t live in her one skin’. She’s crawling in self-loathing.”
July’s costumes go through some changes during the series. Before emancipation, she’s a house slave, and it appears she’s wearing cast-offs because her one dress is in an 1820s or even 1810s style. Once slavery is abolished, she becomes Caroline’s housekeeper and has more of a wardrobe.
In the BBC press pack, Tamara Lawrance talked about the story’s importance:
“This story is important because British colonial history likes to talk about William Wilberforce and people like that — but before them there were black abolitionists, and the people who were enslaved themselves who were fighting for their own freedom. It is important to recognise that it came from their own dignity and their own recognition of their humanity. I find that amazing.”
“This is world history. It’s not just Jamaican history or a period of time in history — this trade has affected the whole pattern of psychology, economy, industry, education — everything has come from this period of time.”
With the framing of old July (Doña Croll) telling the story, we get little glimpses into her later life, circa 1870s-80s.
Other costumes round out the world where the story’s set. There’s Clara, a quadroon woman who is disdainful of July.
The men’s clothes are standard but do show a little of the lively patterns of the period.
Did you wait around for The Long Song? Have you seen it yet?