The Long Song – BBC1

The Long Song is set in 19th-century Jamaica and follows strong-willed slave (Tamara Lawrance) and her odious plantation-owner mistress (Hayley Atwell)

The Long Song is set on a plantation in 19th-century Jamaica and follows a strong-willed slave and her odious mistress

Set in the 1830s, during the chaotic final days of slavery in the British Empire, this three-part drama follows the inhabitants of a Jamaican sugar plantation as they adapt to a world that’s crumbling around them.

Seen through the eyes of July (Tamara Lawrance), a spirited lady’s maid who finds herself crossing the divide in dramatic fashion, it’s a story of love, loss and injustice that’s
subtly gripping.

The support cast is also marvellous and Hayley Atwell shines as July’s despicable mistress, while Sir Lenny Henry brings real pathos to the role of Godfrey.

Riven with heart-wrenching trauma, but no little humour, the series continues tomorrow evening at 9pm.

TV Times rating: ****

The Long Song - Hayley Atwell

Hayley Atwell as Caroline

TV Times met Hayley, 36, and Tamara, 24, to find out more…

How would you describe both of your characters?

Hayley: My character, Caroline, is the sister of a plantation owner who has come to live in Jamaica from London – she expected it to be this idyllic paradise, but she has had a bit of an awakening. She’s cruel and selfish, but she’s also ridiculous and in many ways she’s almost a panto villain. It was an incredibly liberating role to play, though, because there was no pressure to be pretty or sexy. I got to play a proper character.

Tamara: July is fascinating – she’s really subversive. In many ways I had to debunk the myth of what we think of as a slave, because while she’s trying to survive in a hard world, she’s not encumbered or hard done by; there’s a lightness to her. She’s not afraid of Caroline, but sometimes she has to pretend to be. July is humbled by trauma in the opening episode, but when a new overseer called Robert Goodwin [played by War & Peace’s Jack Lowden] arrives on the plantation, her and Caroline’s lives are changed for ever…

Long Song - BBC1

Tamara Lawrance as July

Sir Lenny Henry plays Godfrey, July’s fellow slave. What was it like working with him?

Hayley: It was brilliant! He’s a great man and a fine actor. It was quite weird actually because in one scene I had to slap him and just before we did it, I told him that he’s one of my heroes and I watched his shows as a kid. He laughed and said, ‘Don’t tell me that now!’

Does the drama’s subject matter still feel relevant now?

Hayley: It’s about a culture and a place that’s on the cusp of change and what that feels like for people on both sides of the divide. Things are finally catching up with people who’ve enslaved a race for so long. But as we’ve seen with the Windrush scandal, the debate is still just as important today. It’s still a tale for our time.

How much did you know about the Christmas Rebellion of 1831 [an 11-day uprising by 60,000 of the 300,000 slaves in Jamaica]?

Tamara: My mum told me all about [Baptist preacher] Samuel Sharpe, who led the uprising, when I was a kid, but I didn’t realise what it meant to be a national hero until I started doing this job. It’s helped me to feel proud of that history. When I got the part, my mum saw the trailer and left me a voicemail and I could tell that she was a bit shaky and emotional. She’s been asking me when it’s coming out ever since and I know she’ll either love it or tell me my Jamaican accent is terrible!