Elly Jones reviews the TV adaptation of Malorie Blackman’s 2001 novel.
Renowned fiction author Malorie Blackman released the first book in her Noughts + Crosses series in 2001 and immediately captured the imaginations of young adult readers with her own version of a Romeo and Juliette story. She continued to release four more books in the series, with a sixth in the pipeline, and three novellas.
With each new addition, her readers continued to invest in her story and the complex characters that fill the fictional world. Readers have always commented that the story would be perfect for a film or television adaptation and finally the BBC have come through, giving fans exactly what they’ve been asking for.
Noughts + Crosses takes place in a parallel universe, mimicking the twenty-first century in most ways except for one key difference. In this fictional world, Africa (renamed Aprica) colonised Europe and therefore people of colour, known as Crosses, are the ruling class and white people, known as Noughts, are the oppressed working class.
In London, Nought teen Callum (Jack Rowan) is working hard to be accepted into a prestigious school that is only just letting Noughts enrol, much to the pride of his Mother Meggy (Helen Baxendale) but despair of his brother Jude (Josh Dylan).
Meggy works as a servant for the home secretary KamaI Hadley (Paterson Joseph), a proud Cross, and his wife Jasmine (Rakie Ayola). To support his Mum, Callum agrees to work as a waiter for one of their lavish parties and runs into his childhood friend and daughter of the Hadley’s; Sephy (Masali Baduza).
Callum and Sephy soon fall in love but struggle to cope with the crushing weight of the judgmental and oppressive society they live in. As Nought extremists begin to fight back against the Cross rule, the lover’s relationship and lives are put at risk.
Noughts + Crosses has been brilliantly adapted for the small screen. Toby Whithouse, Lydia Adetunji, Nathanial Price, Rachel De-Lahay and have all contributed to the six-episode series and they do a stellar job of bringing Blackman’s brilliant book to life.
However, there are some big differences in the narrative. Entire characters and storylines have been erased, but the fundamental elements of the story remain, as are the core principles of the fictional world. The changes work in the series’ favour and it makes for a smooth and easy to follow narrative.
There is immense talent to be found within the cast. For many this is their most notable role and they do an outstanding job at showcasing their talent. Both Jack Rowan and Masali Baduza carry the narrative as Callum and Sephy with natural chemistry and they perfectly represent the two sides of this torn world with unifying vulnerability and tenderness.
Supporting roles played by the likes of Josh Dylan, Bonnie Henna, Ian Hart, Helen Baxendale and Rakie Ayola are all fantastic. Every episode is filled with great performances, each doing Blackman’s beloved characters justice.
It is perhaps Paterson Joseph’s performance that is the greatest pleasure to watch. Joseph has long been a British gem and talent, with roles in the likes of Peep Show, The Leftovers and Green Wing.
However, he’s raised his own bar with his performance as Kamal. He embodies the role perfectly, portraying Kamal’s two conflicting sides with ease; antagonising us with his gratuitous side but gives us those hints of vulnerability and what could have been kindness.
Joseph humanises the role and allows us to identify with the parts of Kamal that make sense. The love of his family, the need to protect them and make them proud. Yet he plays the ignorance of a narcissistic racist so well that we cannot help but despise him and all that he stands for.
Noughts + Crosses is so much more than just an entertaining drama though. This is exactly the kind of series that Britain needs, maybe now more than ever, and those who have expressed outrage at the storyline and the portrayed oppression of white people are exactly the kind of people that need to watch it.
There are many examples of the kind of everyday racism that effects the lives of black people and other marginalised groups in Britain today. Of course, Noughts + Crosses shows the brutality and degradation of a marginalised group but there are also more subtle examples of racism. The mispronunciation of Callum’s name, the random police checks, the blame, the hypocrisy and the everyday judgement and unjustifiable intolerance are all showcased.
It is an enormous reminder of the privilege that white people carry around with them every day. The phrase ‘white privilege’ isn’t just a couple of buzzwords that the ignorant mock in order to find comfort in their stubborn misunderstanding in racism. It is a very real pattern within society that relies on white people systematically benefitting from racism, both past and present.
Those who adored the dramatic ending of Malorie Blackman’s original novel may find themselves left wanting as the credit’s role on the final episode. However, the dramatically different ending leaves you with the kind of hope that we desperately need right now.
Life is hard, this world is cruel, and it so often doesn’t make sense. We’re consistently fighting against injustice, many of us need to be doing so much more, and the dream of change can often feel utterly hopeless.
This ending allows us to live in that hope for a little while, despite the pain that has been endured, and it is within that hope that we can educate and motivate ourselves to fight for a better reality.
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