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Noughts and Crosses: A Review

By Sophie Fennelly

Image credit: The Times

Welcome to Albion, the setting of the BBC Noughts and Crosses adaption. The show is set in a parallel 21st Century world wherein Britain was colonised by ‘Aprica’, a thinly veiled pseudonym for Africa, where there is a strong segregation between Noughts (white people) and Crosses (black people). It follows the story of the daughter of the Home Secretary, Sephy Hadley (Masali Baduza), an intelligent cross girl who is in her final year at school and applying for university, and her romance with the son of their housekeeper, Callum McGregor (Jack Rowan), a nought.

On Thursday, 2.5 million people tuned in to watch the first episode of the BBC adaptation of Malorie Blackman’s successful young adult series. Do not be fooled by the books’ audience: this is no soft topic, and the show has received its fair amount of backlash. It faces allegations that it is ‘less a TV show than a political statement’, and it is easy to see why. In 2001, when the books were published, they were the first discussion of the way that racism pervades within society today. In fact Stormzy, who appears in the adaptation, has expressed that he is a ‘diehard fan’ of Malorie Blackman, and that these are his ‘favourite books of all time,’ as they played a large part in his understanding of his place in the world.

However, as the discussions surrounding racism have become more prominent in recent years thanks to movements such as ‘Black Lives Matter’, as well as our increasing desensitization to violent scenes, many of the scenes in the novel exploring the Noughts’ plight may appear trivial to the modern viewer. In response to this, I feel that this adaptation makes a few subtle changes to increase tension. In the novel Callum is one of the first noughts to be accepted into Sephy’s high-school, Heathcroft, which is where they meet. In contrast, the BBC adaptation makes Callum one of the first noughts to be accepted into Mercy Point, a military school. By inserting Callum into this higher-stakes environment, the audience are aware of the constant potential for danger in his everyday life. Similarly, the two lovers are older than in the series: with Sephy in her final year at school and Callum in his early twenties. This adds a more serious dynamic to their romance; to avoid appearing naive or Romeo-and-Juliet-esque. Blackman herself has praised these changes, stating that she feels the BBC have managed to transport her story into the modern climate, and says that the adaptation is just how she imagines the story would be if she wrote it today.

The accusation that it is a political statement to a certain extent is fair because it is. However, it is not, as it has been argued, ‘ramming a PC agenda down our throats.’ It is impossible to ignore the lessons, because most of them highlight the microaggressions black people face every day. The use of the term ‘blanker’ as an offensive referent to white people, is an obvious nod at the n-word, which has been the topic of increased debate in recent years. Yet none of the more serious themes stop it from being highly entertaining: something that anyone who has binged it over the past week will attest to.

There have been many changes to the plot in the TV adaptation, but the majority have been well received. However, fans have been confused at the omission of the character of Lynette - ‘Lynny’ in the books. Lynette was Callum’s older sister who committed suicide after her and her Cross boyfriend were attacked by Noughts because they were in a mixed-race relationship. After this attack, her boyfriend chose to leave Meadowview forever, leaving Lynette traumatised and heartbroken. In the book Callum is the only one who knows that Lynette’s death was suicide, with everyone else believing it was a terrible accident, and the anger he feels is one of the things which prompts Callum to join his brother Jude (Josh Dylan) as part of the extremist group the Liberation Militia.

Whilst, many are confused by Lynette’s absence in the adaptation, there are many new characters to focus on. The first and arguably most prominent being Lekon (Johnathon Ajayi), Sephy’s boyfriend at the start of the series. He is enrolled at Mercy Point school and makes Callum’s life difficult. There are mixed reviews about the insertion of this character as it adds a deeper sense of immorality that some might find unsettling when Sephy begins to fall for Callum, as we know she has a boyfriend. However, scenes portraying his close relationship with Sephy’s father, Kamal Hadley (Paterson Joseph), reveal both of their strong hatreds for Noughts, which leads the audience to view Kamal as much more dangerous from the start than he appears in the novel. This also allows us to understand the LM’s extreme standpoint, as Kamal’s position as a mentor to Lekon creates a sense of hopelessness as these racist attitudes will only be passed down.

Most confusingly the BBC brought the character Yaro (Luke Bailey) to the forefront, Kamal’s illegitimate son from an affair with a Nought woman. His name lingers throughout the series, acting as a threat to Kamal. However, it is unclear what his role in the show is. Whilst he exposes Kamal’s unethical, hypocritical behaviou, and the totality of his power when he chooses to have him labelled as a ‘fraud’ by a prominent newspaper, as well as Meggie’s historical loyalty, it seems that there were other ways that these could have been put across. Stormzy’s custom-made character however, whilst only being minor, has resulted in a surge of interest for the series by fans.

Another controversial change was the location of the bombing by the LM. In the books this takes place at Dundale Shopping Centre when Sephy is there shopping - in the TV series the bombing is more clearly targeted. We see Jack Dorn (Shaun Dingwall), the leader of the LM watch the announcement on the news that Jasmine Hadley (Bonnie Henna), Sephy’s mother, has been taken to a named hospital and that her family are with her (the audience knows that this is because of an overdose but this is not announced). He orders Jude to plant a bomb in the hospital, falsely reassuring him that there will be a warning, but there is not, and two Cross doctors die with many others injured as a result. This change shows the LM’s behaviour in a more sinister light and portrays them as more dangerous than in the book, where they almost appeared trivial.

The cause of Ryan’s death is also different. Whilst both versions have him facing the death sentence but narrowly escaping and instead receiving the life sentence, in the book he dies by electric fence, supposedly trying to escape. However, in the adaptation, we see the prison guard bring in a violent Cross inmate and watch him beat Ryan to death. When another guard tries to help, he is informed that these orders have come from above. The McGregor family are not personally informed: they find out he ‘committed suicide’ from the news and are prevented from seeing his body. Whilst both versions suggest that there was foul play involved in Ryan’s death, this version is likely a reference to the racist brutal violence that is systematically overlooked in prisons and in the police force, especially as Blackman said she was inspired to write the books after the murder of Stephen Lawrence. The TV series highlights the role of foul play in his death so this and the absence of Lynette, serves as a substitute for her death and provides a logical reason for Callum to become so angry and turn to extremism.

Whilst Sephy and Callum’s relationship has always been taboo, the TV adaptation really manages to emphasise the danger that they are in because they act on their feelings. It comes to a head in the scenes in Sanctus, a sketchy part of town where the two enter a secret club where mixed couples go. Rowan and Baduza give a commendable performance that captures the desire and fear in their forbidden love.

Rowan also gives a heart-wrenching performance that is the right mix of emotional and controlled when he plays Callum testifying about his experience of racial profiling at his father’s trial.

The show has been praised for its use of costume to highlight the subtle ways in which racism still pervades our society. For example, the clothing that is the ‘norm’ is traditional African, and Noughts are forced to conform to this. Similarly, Meggie quite obviously has her hair permed and many of the characters wear their hair in braids (this is notably mandatory at Mercy Point). These decisions about hair, whilst subtle, reference larger problems in society where many black people are told they cannot wear their natural hair to work as it is perceived as unprofessional, resulting in many women damaging their hair through chemical straightening.

The design of the Hadley house is commendable as the BBC have somehow managed to make it look just how one imagines when reading the book. The design of the Nought slums was something I found extremely effective and realistic. The way that scenes here often follow scenes at the Hadley house or vice versa emphasise the drastic racial inequality in the show.