Small Island is a two-part 2009 BBC One television drama adapted from the 2004 novel of the same title by Andrea Levy.
The programme stars Naomie Harris and Ruth Wilson as joint respective female protagonists Hortense Roberts and Queenie Bligh, two women who struggle to fulfil their personal ambitions and dreams amidst the chaos of World War II London and Jamaica.
The story is centred on four main characters: Hortense, Queenie, Gilbert, and Bernard. It focuses on the diaspora of Jamaican immigrants during and after World War II. Trying to escape economic hardship on their own “small island,” they have moved to England, the Mother Country, for which the men have fought during the war. However, they find they are not readily accepted into their new society.
The beginning or prologue of the story focuses on the young Jamaican girl, Hortense, who has three dreams: to marry her childhood companion Michael, to move to faraway England, and to become a teacher. The story then shifts to London, where we meet Queenie and Bernard. Queenie is a poor working-class girl from Yorkshire who longs for better things in her life than her family’s pig farming business. An aunt in London takes her in and employs her in a shop. When her aunt dies suddenly, Queenie marries the well-to-do Bernard Bligh, in order to avoid having to move back to the pig farm. World War II then uproots all of their lives: Michael, in disgrace after being caught in an adulterous relationship, leaves Jamaica to join the Royal Air Force (RAF). Bernard, impulsively, also joins the RAF, leaving Queenie to look after his mentally incapacitated father, who is shell-shocked after fighting in World War I.
During the war, Queenie lets the house to soldiers who need temporary quarters. One night, three airmen come, including a black Jamaican, Michael. The two share a night together, after which Michael and the other airmen leave for their next mission. Later, Hortense, sad about Michael’s departure, thinks she has seen him and rushes over to greet him. The man she greets is in fact Gilbert Joseph, a man who slightly resembles Michael. The story follows Gilbert’s own experiences in the war. He enlists in the RAF and while stationed in Yorkshire, meets Queenie, who also initially mistakes him for Michael. They become platonic friends. Their friendship angers some American soldiers, however, who attack Gilbert. In the resulting fight, several other soldiers get involved and shots are fired. Queenie’s father-in-law is killed by a stray bullet.
After the war, Gilbert returns to Jamaica, where he has a hard time adjusting to life and the lack of opportunities. He wants to go back to England, where he hopes to find work. However, he does not have the fare for the ship’s passage. He runs into Hortense again, since he is dating her friend Celia. Hortense hears of Gilbert’s plans to go to England. Jealous of the fact that her friend Celia will get to go to England, Hortense blurts out that Celia has a mentally ill mother, who she plans to leave in a care home. Gilbert is disgusted that Celia would do this, and it is implied that he and Celia break up. Desperate to get to England, Hortense offers Gilbert the money for the fare, on condition that he marry her and send for her when he has found work and a place to live. They lodge with Queenie Bligh, who has had to fend for herself after Bernard did not return following the war. Both women have married in unpromising circumstances, as love is a luxury neither can afford. Hortense remembers her life in Jamaica and the profound love she had for Michael. Queenie also remembers her love for and her night of passion with the same Michael. The two young women do not know they share a secret.
Hortense tries to begin her new life in England by looking for work as a teacher, her dream job. She soon learns England is not the golden land she hoped it would be, and that Jamaicans and blacks are despised and discriminated against. She and Gilbert suffer racism and ignorance, but in adversity they discover new qualities in each other and actually begin to fall in love.
Queenie is shocked when her husband Bernard returns to her after years away. When she goes into labour and has a dark-skinned baby, the father is known (by the film’s audience) to be Michael after he returned to her house before travelling to Canada for a fresh start. Hortense does not discover that this is the same Michael she grew up with and hoped to marry (her father was a white official in Jamaica and her mother his black servant; they had given the baby to Michael’s parents to raise).
Despite the fact that Bernard is racist, he offers to raise the child with Queenie. She refuses, however, believing that he would come to blame all of the things in his life that go badly on the baby. She stops Hortense and Gilbert as they are leaving to start a new life elsewhere and begs them to take the baby, whom she has named Michael.
They initially refuse, but later agree, and take the baby with them whilst an emotional Queenie is comforted by Bernard. Queenie gave the Josephs a photo of herself and a little money to help the baby.
The scene then flashes forward to the present day. It is revealed that Queenie and Michael’s baby, who now has grandchildren of his own, has been the story’s narrator. One of his grandchildren looks at a picture of Queenie and asks who she is. He replies that she is his mother.
Outline (Part 02)
Hortense begins her new life in England and soon learns it is not the golden land she hoped it would be. She and Gilbert suffer racism and ignorance, but in adversity they discover new qualities in each other and begin to fall in love. Queenie is shocked when her husband Bernard returns to her after years away. When she goes into labour and has a baby by a mysterious father, the lives of all four are changed for ever.
Part 01 here.
- Naomie Harris as Hortense Roberts.
- Ruth Wilson as Queenie Bligh.
- David Oyelowo as Gilbert Joseph.
- Benedict Cumberbatch as Bernard Bligh.
- Ashley Walters as Michael Roberts.
- Nikki Amuka-Bird as Celia Langley.
- Hugh Quarshie as Narrator / adult Michael junior.
- Karl Johnson as Arthur Bligh.
- Shaun Parkes as Winston/ Kenneth.
- Jonathan Harden as Postal Worker.
- The drama was developed by producers Joanna Anderson and Vicky Licorish of AL Films, after having optioned Levy’s novel.
- The script was first written by Sarah Williams and later amended by Paula Milne.
- It was directed by John Alexander (who also directed the BBC’s 2008 adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility).
- The drama consists of two 90-minute episodes that premiered on 06 December 2009, subsequently being shown in the United States on PBS as part of the channel’s Masterpiece Classic Collection beginning on 18 April 2010.
Production & Filming Details
- John Alexander … (2 episodes, 2009).
- Joanna Anderson … producer (unknown episodes).
- Steven Ashley … senior producer: Masterpiece (unknown episodes).
- Abi Bach … co-producer (unknown episodes).
- Rebecca Eaton … executive producer: Masterpiece / executive producer: WGBH (unknown episodes).
- Vicky Licorish … producer (unknown episodes).
- Grainne Marmion … producer (unknown episodes).
- Paula Milne … executive producer (unknown episodes).
- Alison Owen … executive producer (unknown episodes).
- Lucy Richer … executive producer: BBC (unknown episodes).
- Susanne Simpson … senior producer: Masterpiece (unknown episodes).
- Paul Trijbits … executive producer (unknown episodes).
- Kathleen Cahill … (writer: Masterpiece) (2 episodes, 2009).
- Andrea Levy … (based on the novel by) (2 episodes, 2009).
- Paula Milne … (screenplay) (2 episodes, 2009).
- Sarah Williams … (screenplay) (2 episodes, 2009).
- Martin Phipps … (unknown episodes).
- Tony Miller … (unknown episodes).
- Roy Sharman … (unknown episodes).
- British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).
- Ruby Films.
- British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) (2009) (UK) (TV).
- Imagica BS (2015) (Japan) (TV).
- LaLa TV (2012) (Japan) (TV) (2 parts).
- Masterpiece Theatre (2010) (USA) (TV) (as Masterpiece Classic).
- Moviemax Family (2013) (Turkey) (TV).
- New KSM (2015) (Germany) (DVD).
- PBS Video (2010) (USA) (DVD).
- Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) (2010) (USA) (TV).
- Release Date: 06 December 2009 to 13 December 2009.
- Running Time: 90 minutes (total running time).
- Rating: TV-MA/15.
- Country: UK.
- Language: English.