Small Island (TV film)

Small Island
UK DVD cover
Genre Drama
Based on Small Island by Andrea Levy
Written by Paula Milne and
Sarah Williams
Directed by John Alexander
Starring Naomie Harris
Ruth Wilson
Benedict Cumberbatch
David Oyelowo
Ashley Walters
Nikki Amuka-Bird
Karl Johnson
Narrated by Hugh Quarshie
Composer(s) Martin Phipps
Country of origin United Kingdom
Original language(s) English
No. of episodes 2
Executive producer(s) Paula Milne,
Alison Owen,
Lucy Richer
Producer(s) Joanna Anderson
Vicky Licorish
Grainne Marmion
Faye Ward (associate producer)
Abi Bach (co-producer)
Cinematography Tony Miller
Editor(s) Roy Sharman
Running time 180 min (total)
Original network BBC One
Original release 6 December 
13 December 2009
External links

Small Island is a two-part 2009 BBC One television drama adapted from the 2004 Small Island, 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 serial was developed by producers Joanna Anderson and Vicky Licorish of AL Films, 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 serial consists of two 90-minute episodes that premiered on 6 December 2009, and was shown in the United States on PBS as part of the channel's Masterpiece Classic Collection beginning 18 April 2010.


The story is based 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 Queenie 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. 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 man, 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, she 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, whose father is revealed to be Michael after he returned to her house before travelling to Canada for a fresh start.

Despite the fact that Bernard is racist, he offers to raise the child with Queenie. She refuses however, believing that Bernard will come to blame all of the things in his life that go badly on the baby. She meets with Hortense and Gilbert 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 Michael has been the story's narrator, and he now has grandchildren of his own. One if his grandchildren looks upon a picture of Queenie and asks who she is. He replies she is his mother.

Cast and characters

Born out of wedlock in an illegitimate, but not loveless, liaison between her affluent Jamaican father and an illiterate farm girl, Hortense is brought up by her father’s cousin as playmate to his son, Michael. After Michael’s return from boarding school, Hortense realises her feelings for him are more than just fraternal.

A naturally proud and headstrong woman, Hortense has always kept her true parentage a secret. She also has a strong sense of her own destiny: to live in England with Michael and be a teacher there. When Michael is sent away to the war, Hortense instinctively fights to keep her dream alive and proposes to Gilbert, a man she hardly knows, but someone who will aid her passage to England. She arrives in a country which both surprises and disappoints her in its bleak and unfriendly ‘greyness’, but it is through this new life that she discovers a different side to her character and, for the first time, the meaning of true love.[1]

Pretty Queenie is a tough survivor, with a good heart. Brought up on a pig farm in Yorkshire, from an early age she grows to hate the smell of the pigs, the squalor and the blood. With dreams of escape, she finally gets her wish when her kindly Aunt sends the train fare to London. Queenie is open-minded and hungry for new experiences. Full of youth and vitality, she goes to London with hope in her heart. Despite trying to better herself with elocution lessons, she can never quite shake her Yorkshire vowels.

When an unexpected death forces her into the arms of the educated but rather uninspiring Bernard, Queenie believes that her dreams are lost to her forever. But the war brings Queenie new experiences when Bernard is sent to the front line, and she embarks upon a dangerous but ultimately awakening affair.[1]

Gilbert appears the charming fool, but underneath he is a principled and naturally idealistic man who signs up to fight the war in England—not only with hopes of bettering himself, but also because he knows the world will be a darker place if Hitler is not defeated.

He has come from a poor but happy family in Jamaica and has tried to make his way despite being plagued by bad luck. His disappointments in England do not diminish him, and he relishes the newly opened-up world. On returning to Jamaica, he realises quite how small his island is. Unable to afford the fare for the Empire Windrush, he accepts the offer from the proud and uppity Hortense to pay for his passage in exchange for marriage. He knows he is being bought and is aware that he's cheap at the price. His marriage to Hortense may be one of convenience, but over time she begins to see the noble, kind and wise man that Gilbert is, which allows him to grow into the person he was destined to become.[1]

Bernard Bligh is a middle-ranking bank clerk in his late twenties. He’s lived alone with his father in a large house in London ever since his mother died. His father suffers from shell shock after serving in the Great War and, as a result, never speaks.

Into this quiet and stable life breezes the lovely Queenie, who works at the shop where he buys The Times every day. She awakens in him feelings that he didn’t know he had, and after several outings he plucks up the courage to kiss her. After their marriage, Bernard soon reverts to his repressed and buttoned-down state, unable to open up and become the man and husband Queenie needs. Like many he suffers psychologically in the war, so much so that he cannot even recognise himself. Deep down, he knows he’ll never be enough for Queenie, but he can’t stop loving her.[1]

Michael is the son of the strict and god-fearing Mr Philip. Beguiling and non-conformist, with a streak of luck that runs through his life, Michael is brought up alongside Hortense—his rebellious streak always leading her into mischief. Hortense adores him, but he can only see her as a younger sister and is oblivious to her feelings. Returning from boarding school as an independent, handsome man, Michael soon begins a scandalous affair with a local teacher before joining the British air force.

When he finds Queenie in England, he feels an immediate connection to her, but Michael’s selfish nature means he can never be tied down.[1]

Historical Context

Small Island is one of numerous works situated in the lives of individuals during the Windrush Generation, those who migrated from the Caribbean to North America and Europe in the years immediately following World War II.

Roberto Strongman, associate professor of black studies at University of California Santa Barbara, characterized the experiences of these West Indians through "their initial hopes, their disappointments, their difficult encounters with English customs, and discriminations in housing and employment."[2] The film incorporates many of these traditional tropes central to the collective Windrush Experience.

Hortense, for example, sought to conduct herself as a proper woman in Jamaica, aspiring to some greater cultural standard she perceived as synonymous with Britishness. Upon arriving in the United Kingdom, she finds that despite her greatest efforts to perform Englishness, her cultural origins and skin color bar her from ever becoming completely English. Despite this rejection based on factors entirely out of her control, she remains fond of the idealized Britain she has imagined for her entire life.

Gilbert, as a contrast, witnessed the splendor of the United Kingdom during his time in service and then was unsatisfied with his life in Jamaica upon returning. Though his subsequent return to Britain is fraught with social difficulty, he continues to work hard and seeks to provide for himself and Hortense a happy life despite the social factors working against them.

These two characters and their experiences prior to and after migrating serve as powerful drivers of this work of historical fiction because they appropriately play on themes which would have been very prominent in the lived experiences of the individuals they were meant to represent.


The theme of fetishism is apparent throughout the film, as both blackness and Britain are fetishized as being exotic. In the scene where Queenie is describing an encounter with an African tribe to Michael, she describes the experiences with a mystical obsession:

We were in the jungle. Huts made out of mud with pointy stick roofs all around us. And in a hut sitting on a dirt floor was a woman with skin as black as the ink that filled the inkwell in my school desk. A shadow come to life … But then suddenly there was a man. An African man. A black man who looked to be carved from melting chocolate… A monkey man sweating a smell of mothballs. Blacker than when you smudge your face with sooty cork. His lips were brown, not pink like they should be, and they bulged with air like bicycle tires. His hair was whooly as a black shorn sheep. His nose, squashed flat, had two nostrils big as train tunnels. And he was looking down at me … He could have swallowed me up, this big n***er man.

Queenie fetishizes the bodies of these people as exotic. She contrasts their skin color, size, hair, and behaviors are with white bodies and deems them as frightful, animalistic, and dangerous. In doing so, Queenie asserts whiteness, white representations, and her identity as white as superior, more approachable and beautiful. In the European context, fetishism is a control mechanism: it is a way to construct and imagine blackness outside of the national sphere so that black bodies outside or beyond the borders of the UK or Germany can be located.

Hortense fetishizes Britain as exotic. Hortense fetishizes England to be a place of grandeur, an exotic place of perfection where all her dreams will come true. In doing this, Hortense’s identity is being tied to a Britain as foreign country with greater traditions, people, and opportunity than Jamaica. Juxtaposing Britain against Jamaica like this illustrates how Hortense is constructing her identity through the representations of Britain as white and Jamaica as black. Fetishization of the exotic is important for black identity formation as well because blackness is the antithesis of whiteness. Black people construct their identity through white perceptions of blackness. Whiteness and its representations are posed as ideal and aspirational, while blackness is conveyed as undesirable. Black people fetishize whiteness as exotic because of its "untouchableness," and superior juxtaposition to blackness.


# Title Writer Director Original Airdate Viewership #
1"Episode One"Paula Milne and Sarah WilliamsJohn Alexander6 December 2009 (2009-12-06)5.02m [3]
London 1948: Hortense joins Gilbert, her new husband, in England, where he is lodging with Queenie Bligh. The women have both married in unpromising circumstances as love is a luxury neither can afford. As Hortense remembers her life in Jamaica and the profound love she had for Michael and his betrayal of her, Queenie also remembers her night of passion with the same Michael when her husband was away at war. Initially suspicious of each other, will they uncover the secret they share?[4]
2"Episode Two"Paula Milne and Sarah WilliamsJohn Alexander13 December 2009 (2009-12-13)3.24m [5]
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 forever.[6]


Sam Wollaston of The Guardian praised the BBC for adapting a more modern novel set in a period other than the nineteenth century, observing " BBC does big budget Sunday night dramatisation minus bonnets and breeches—yay!". He noted that although he didn't "have anything against the old stuff" the classics were in danger of being "dramatised to death". Of the serial itself, he observed that the programme was "sumptuous to look at" and very "loyal to the novel... both in plot and how it shares its warmth". He also singled out Naomie Harris' performance as particularly impressive.[7]

Guy Adams of The Independent was also surprised and impressed with the BBC for using its Sunday-night flagship slot to show something that wasn't "very formal, very English, and very safe", instead offering "thought-provoking" drama that he acclaimed as "beautifully paced and at times very moving". Cast member David Oyelowo also praised the production as something fresh and new, noting how "The black experience has been very under-represented in terms of drama, and maybe Small Island can help highlight what an oversight that is."[8]

Not all reviewers, however, were as enthusiastic. John Preston of The Telegraph complained that the time-shifts in the screenplay "made it extremely hard to settle into the story" and derided the narration as weak and simplistic. He concluded that "tonally and narratively the result [is] a mess".[9]

James Walton, also of The Telegraph was a little more generous but also complained of the weaknesses in the screenplay, labelling the narration as an "unignorable flaw", something that "diminishes [the action] to a series of staggering banalities" and lamenting that "after one of these interruptions is over, it’s possible to forget how painful it was". Nevertheless he noted the drama's positive qualities, including the "sheer interest of the subject matter and the sheer generosity of the storytelling" which was full of "sympathy and warmth". He also praised the cast, noting how "performances were generally strong enough to compensate for the script".[10]

Upon its April 2010 U.S. premiere on Masterpiece Classic, Matthew Gilbert of The Boston Globe wrote:[11]

This evocative two-part miniseries has a lot going for it: rich period design, an engagingly twisty plot, performances with depth, intriguing racial and class issues. But the superfluous narrator? Like a few other melodramatic flourishes, including a heightened soundtrack and some inordinately sudsy dialogue about dreams and desires, he detracts. By insisting we recognize the vast import and intensity of the “Small Island’’ story that we’re watching, he only adds a kitschy veneer. If you can sink into “Small Island’’ despite the kitsch, you will be rewarded with a piece of poignant historical fiction.

Awards and nominations

Award Category Name Outcome
BAFTA Television Awards 2010 Best Actor David Oyelowo Nominated
Best Supporting Actor Benedict Cumberbatch Nominated
Best Drama Serial John Alexander, Vicky Licorish, Paula Milne, Alison Owen Nominated
Best Original Television Music Martin Phipps Won
Best Photography & Lighting, Fiction Tony Miller Nominated
36th Broadcasting Press Guild Awards 2010 Writer's Award Paula Milne Nominated
Royal Television Society Programme Awards 2010[12] Best Actress Naomie Harris Won
Best Actor David Oyelowo Won
International Emmy Awards 2010[13] TV Movie/Mini-series AL Films Won


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 "Small Island". BBC One. 20 April 2010. Retrieved 2012-05-25.
  3. "13m tune in for Danyl's 'X Factor' exit - X Factor News - Reality TV". Digital Spy. 7 December 2009. Retrieved 2012-05-25.
  4. "Small Island, Episode 1". BBC One. 13 April 2010. Retrieved 2012-05-25.
  5. "Joe McElderry's 'X Factor' win draws 19.7m - X Factor News - Reality TV". Digital Spy. 14 December 2009. Retrieved 2012-05-25.
  6. "BBC One - Small Island, Episode 2". 2010-04-20. Retrieved 2012-05-25.
  7. Wollaston, Sam (2009-12-07). "Being Alan Bennett and Small Island | TV review | Television & radio". London: The Guardian. Retrieved 2012-05-25.
  8. "Small Island - Black pride and British prejudice". London: The Independent. 2009-12-04. Retrieved 2012-05-25.
  9. "Small Island, BBC One, review". London: The Telegraph. 11 December 2009. Retrieved 2012-05-25.
  10. "Small Island, BBC One, review". London: The Telegraph. 2009-12-04. Retrieved 2012-05-25.
  11. Gilbert, Matthew (17 April 2010). "'Small Island' weaves tale of hope and despair". The Boston Globe. Retrieved 2013-06-29.
  12. "Nominations: The RTS Programme Awards - TV News". Digital Spy. 1 March 2010. Retrieved 2012-05-25.
  13. "The UK leads International Emmy Award winners". The Independent. 23 November 2010. Retrieved 2013-06-29.
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