“Plenty water, plenty sunshine, plenty shit and plenty slaves.” That’s how July (Dona Croll) describes her time on the Amity sugar cane plantation in Jamaica. Born to a field slave who was raped by the plantation overseer, the young July (Tamara Lawrance) was swept away from her mother by Caroline (Hayley Atwell), the sister of the plantation’s owner, and raised as Caroline’s personal, in-house maid. Renamed Marguerite, she’s still treated like a slave, even after the abolition of slavery, and the threat of field work is held over her head, even as Caroline pretends to treat her like a family friend. Then, in walks Robert Goodwin (Jack Lowden), the new overseer. He calls July by her actual name, declares that all workers will be treated fairly and, despite Caroline’s advances, falls swiftly in love with our hero.
And so, you might think, the story will go, as the gallant young Brit rides in to put wrongs right and restore respect and decency. But park your presumptions and pay attention, because that’s not the tale you’re watching: The Long Song takes that familiar white saviour trope and throws it out with the bath water, exploring the role of England in 19th century Jamaica from a firmly Jamaican – and female – point of view.
Adapted by Sarah Williams from Andrea Levy’s 2010 novel, the result is brutal, violent TV. But it’s also tender and funny, and that wealth of emotions is driven in no small part by Tamara Lawrance. She’s radiant in the lead role, as July endures no end of tribulations and ordeals, but finds ways to mark small victories over Caroline from day to day. One of those biggest victories turns out to be winning the love of Robert, and their romance is captured with a winning sincerity by director Mahalia Belo (Requiem), who swoons alongside July, then floats giddily with her up to the ceiling.
Lowden, who impressed in Calibre earlier this year, is fantastic as Robert, whose position becomes far more complex than it initially appears. With tensions brewing between him and the workers, Robert demands they put in long hours to bring in the harvest and they refuse, able now to stand up for their rights. Lowden manages the difficult task of making Robert well-meaning but also unavoidably privileged, idealistic but arrogant, humble but pathetically incapable of handling humiliation. It’s a dangerous, scary combination, one that we witness through the eyes of July, who sees her love change before her. Hayley Atwell, meanwhile, is superbly loathsome as the demanding, cruel Caroline, who is self-centred and petulant to the last.
But there’s no stealing the focus away from July, and the story is driven by her experiences, her hope and her achievements – tiny moments of happiness repeatedly creep over Lawrance’s face, as she sees an illustrated book of Scotland, where her dad came from, or sneaks cockroaches into Robert’s cooking pot, or teams up with Godfrey (the excellent Lenny Henry) to use a dirty bed sheet instead of a fancy table cloth for laying out the household’s dinner. We see July knocked down to the lowest rung, and it’s a raw ride, one that lets us feel her anger and outrage, as well as witness the violent retribution for those who exploited and ‘owned’ others. It’s nail-biting, eye-opening, shocking storytelling, but fast-forwarding to her as an older woman highlights the most powerful part of the whole narrative – that it’s hers and she’s the one telling it. July’s one of many voices that haven’t been heard by history, the three-part series concludes, and as that long song continues to be sung, it’s time for society to open its ears and listen. What a refreshingly layered, consistently engaging and hugely gripping piece of television.
The Long Song is available on BBC iPlayer until 18th February 2019.