‘Timeless’ used to be a commonly heard term to describe great works of art. If a piece of theatre or cinema transcended the era in which it was created, then it was for the ages and could be recognised as potentially great. Its opposites are obvious: works that date, are of their time or passé. Still others clearly aspire to be outside of their time — and end up being hopelessly immersed in it.
This was on my mind while watching the BBC’s beautifully-acted, directed and produced moral disaster Noughts + Crosses, based on the series of novels by Malorie Blackman.
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Presented as a race-reversal work, it is set in Britain at a time when Africa has colonised Europe, where politicians are in hoc to African leaders and where, as a result, black people find themselves at the top of society while whites form a racial underclass.
Many teenagers or parents with teenage children will have encountered the book, and ever since its publication in 2001 Noughts and Crosses and its sequels have haunted not just bestseller lists but also classroom reading lists. Various aspects of the work are meant to make it perfect fodder for teenagers, most significantly the fact that it is seen as a work of anti-racism.
The plot centres around two star-cross’d lovers who break this racial divide, and away from this central plotline the heavy-handed racial role-reversal is presented everywhere. In Blackman’s fictional world white people are known as noughts and black people are known as crosses; the black characters even occasionally use the term ‘blankers’ of the white people, which is obviously an analogy to the N-word.
At the opening of the series a group of young white men are hanging around on the streets when some black police officers decide to come over and break them up, eventually arbitrarily arresting and mistreating them. One of their victims is hospitalised, leading to increased tensions in the country at large and as a result the black politicians who lead the country discuss stop-and-search powers being increased on white youths. The daughter of one of these politicians will, provoked by these events, soon cross the racial divide.
The BBC adaptation presents all this and more in a lush and expensive six-part series, and it is possible that some people will take a lot away from it. Certainly the programme’s makers and actors are hoping as much. In interviews ahead of the series Masali Baduza, who plays the leader character Sephy Hadley, said that she hopes that the series will “kick-start a conversation about racism”.
Meantime Paterson Joseph, who plays Sephy’s ruthless politician father Kamal Hadley, has said of the themes of the drama: “I don’t think it’s a zeitgeist, because I think this issue is always there, but I think we’re particularly living in a time where the volume has been turned up on all that. When you’re shooting, you know it’s significant because you know it’s going to upset some people, maybe a lot of people, on both sides of the ethnic lines.”
Take a moment to reflect on what is so wrong about that statement and you will get a sense of what is so wrong with this drama. “Both sides of the ethnic lines.” When did any British reader last hear such a phrase used? What are these ‘sides’ and why are there just two of them and where are they so clearly delineated?
For the programme-makers, the answers are clear. They have said that they hope that their series will “open people’s eyes” to prejudice. The author of the original novels has also chimed in, judging her own work to have never been more relevant, because as she puts it “Unfortunately the facts show there is more hate crime in Britain and people being judged on skin colour or religion or sexual orientation”.
Among everyone involved in this programme a common theme stands out above all: this drama is needed because it is relevant to our times. Allow me to make a counter case.
While watching the first episode it seemed to me that there was only one term to describe what the programme makers had created: Powell-ite. And not just Powell-ite but derivative of the worst part of Powell-ism.
What the BBC have done is to make a drama in which the worst quotation Enoch Powell gave in his “Rivers of Blood” speech is fulfilled, in which black people do indeed have “the whip hand” over white people in Britain. As such, I couldn’t help thinking throughout that the programme would end up being used by ‘identitarian’ types across Britain and further afield. Small though such people may be in number, Noughts + Crosses would be a very fine recruiting tool for their cause. The most dystopian of their warnings can now be shared with the widest possible audience in the most lavish licence fee-funded way imaginable.
Indeed the programme illustrates a paradox in this contentious subject, which is that a certain type of racist and a certain type of anti-racist can end up meeting at certain points of mutual convenience. For both have a desire to exaggerate tensions and exacerbate divides, each in the name of their own allegedly contrary viewpoints.
But the greatest flaw with this dystopian vision is the deeply-dated nature of the society that Blackman and the BBC imagine themselves to be holding up a mirror to. Everything in Noughts + Crosses reeks of a racial debate in Britain which is not just decades old but decades out of date. There is something deeply embarrassing in imagining that British racism and anti-racism are stuck in this Broadwater riots era, when even then the attitudes towards race in Britain were not remotely as simplistic and delineated as Blackman and co present them as being.
If that was the case in the 1970s or ‘80s then how much more is it the case today? The programme makers want people to imagine that Britain today has especial need of this drama, as though we need more “national teaching moments” over racism. A belief which, as the publicity quotes have shown, is intimately tied up with a specific liberal chattering classes view of what has happened in Britain in recent years.
That narrative is our old favourite one, in which the British people voted Brexit and then celebrated their victory with an orgy of hate crime. A narrative that comes along with its own fake news, fake statistics and faked, highly politicised, outrage. It is a deep insult to the British people, who have borne this assault on their right to vote with considerable stoicism. Yet still the insults come.
Now, once again, the insults come at the hands of the BBC, which imagines that this racist country of ours needs its national broadcaster to go some way to correcting its licence fee-payers’ outrageous racial prejudice. So it is worth remembering where we are in the UK. Not where the BBC and its favourite authors imagine us to be – but where we actually are.
We live in a country in which the Home Secretary is the daughter of immigrants. Where the Chancellor of the Exchequer and numerous other members of the government are what is now known as a “persons of colour”. A country where the Royal Family has black members. Where the highest offices of state and all the major professions have celebrated black leaders. Racism is so absent from British society that all of this has happened with zero negative comment; nobody in any position of any prominence has said that any of this is bad or wrong.
So absent is racism from our society that when the country does want to hound somebody for being racist they have to search and find some elderly broadcaster or disc jockey who has said something on social media which could be interpreted by a dishonest and ungenerous person as potentially being seen as racist.
A truly racist society would have no difficulty locating racism in its public life. An actually racist country would not allow people of different ethnic backgrounds to make their way to the top of society (just look at numerous second and third-world countries and you can see that fact in operation). And of course an actually racist country would not have people of every racial group in the world trying to come into it, legally or otherwise.
Noughts and Crosses may be beautifully made, but it is an ugly piece of work. A social lesson stuck in the past about an imaginary society that is an insult to a real one.