You are here: Reports » Phase 1: media » Reviews » Slavery - the making of...

Slavery - the making of... (BBC Radio 4)

Starring: Greg Wise, Jenny Jules, Adrian Lester, Lenny Henry and Brian Blessed
Producer: Steven Canny
Date: Saturday 24 March 2007
Time: 2.30pm

This comedy-drama concerns a group of actors and comedians who have come together to record a drama concerning the 1807 abolition of the Atlantic slave trade. The programme features Greg Wise, Jenny Jules, Adrian Lester, Lenny Henry and Brian Blessed. Using a fly-on-the wall documentary style it depicts the infighting and issues amongst the cast as they try and 'improvise' historical characters and settings.

The programme attempts to discover if the actors can find an uplifting and entertaining story of slavery and abolition. The comedian Lenny Henry has organised a group of actors to gather for a radio production. The programme is developed from an idea by Henry with the premise that dramatic productions fail to represent enslavement, so Slavery - The Making of... is described as 'a show about the impossibility of putting on a show.' The complexities of the memory of the slave trade are highlighted by the casts' inability to reach a successful conclusion to the programme. The show covers all the contemporary topics of debate, the over-emphasis on Wilberforce, the dominance of 'European histories' of the slave trade, the complicity of African slave traders and the resistance of enslaved Africans. The programme also attempts to discuss issues of ethnicity in Britain today as the cast compare their own backgrounds. The alternative format that the programme aspires to however fails to achieve any objectives; furthermore, it may appear to do more harm than help in the commemoration of the abolition and discussions of enslavement.

Slavery - The making of... opens with the producer of the programme describing the project as highly damaging to his career, the 'longest suicide note in history.' The cast do not take kindly to the improvised nature of the format and the recording descends into farce. The first day of the show leads to cast members joking on set about enslavement as the production appears unintentionally comical in its organisation. The producer tries to set the scene by erroneously describing eighteenth century colonial Jamaica as, 'the jewel in the empire.' These attempts to evoke atmosphere pave the way for some of the many painfully tasteless attempts at humour. 'Think Mansfield Park, think Gosforth Park' the producer suggests, 'Or South Park!' jokes Henry, 'Oh my god! They killed Negroes!' Brian Blessed's deliberately over-the-top performance as a cruel, lecherous slave owner leads him to joke with Jenny Jules that she can be his 'Negro mistress.' Blessed and Henry then break down in laughter as Blessed orders Henry, who plays a house servant, to flog the slaves. This is not an indication of jokes that anyone might make, these are the jokes that anyone might make who is devoid of tact, a sense of history and indeed a sense of humour. There may well be scope for portraying humour in enslavement, certainly humour as a means of survival in brutal conditions, but the humour depicted here is insensitive, inappropriate and highly damaging.

This damage is inflicted upon every other attempt at discussing enslavement or abolition in any format. It ridicules the research process for many documentaries, with cast members eagerly reading something, 'they just got off the internet.' The cast members are depicted as lacking knowledge of the subject, and the points the show attempts to make about slavery are so contrived and awkward they are meaningless. Perhaps the most awful scene is Blessed's apparent 'breakdown' as a middle-class, white, British man. Describing the guilt he feels because, 'I've also eaten sugar', Blessed is comforted by the other black cast members who tell him 'it's alright. You've not enslaved anyone.' Interspersed with jokes regarding Henry's alleged infidelity, the programme ends with the cast joking about what swear words they can use. Despite the approach to the issues and the recognition of the complexities the cast are nevertheless won over by the words of Wilberforce spoken by Blessed: a highly orthodox stance for a programme which promised anything but.

Reviews | back to the top