Sugar and SPICE!

Hay­ley Atwell and her co-stars in steamy new plan­ta­tion drama The Long Song re­veal the tan­gled ro­mances be­tween the slaves and their mas­ters

Daily Mail Weekend Magazine - - NEWS - Kathryn Knight The Long Song starts on Tues­day 18 De­cem­ber, 9pm, BBC1.

‘She’s a hys­ter­i­cal, grat­ing mon­ster’

Af­ter years of play­ing ar­che­typal good girls and hero­ines on screen, it was long over­due for Hay­ley Atwell to bring out what she jok­ily calls her ‘in­ner rot­ter’. In fact, it’s the rea­son she jumped at her lat­est screen role as the nar­cis­sis­tic Caro­line Mor­timer, mistress of a 19th-cen­tury sugar plan­ta­tion and al­most panto vil­lain-like in her cru­elty. ‘That was the ap­peal of this char­ac­ter for me,’ she says. ‘She was so big on the page... she’s a hys­ter­i­cal, grat­ing, heinous mon­ster.’

It won’t take view­ers long to agree: in the open­ing scenes of the BBC’s lav­ish new three-part drama The Long Song we see an in­creas­ingly hys­ter­i­cal Caro­line call­ing for her slave Mar­guerite. The cri­sis? She wishes only for her slave to pull her dress on – and when she finds that a but­ton is miss­ing she wastes lit­tle time em­pha­sis­ing that if she chose to, she could have her whipped.

Not ex­actly a like­able sort then – but 36-year-old Hay­ley, whose roles have em­braced ev­ery­one from swash­buck­ling Amer­i­can Su­per­heroine Agent Peggy Carter in the Cap­tain Amer­ica fran­chise to the com­pas­sion­ate and ide­al­is­tic Mar­garet Sch­legel in Howards End, says that play­ing against type was all part of the fun. ‘ I didn’t like her, but I loved play­ing her. I found her dark side to be an op­por­tu­nity to ex­plore the dam­age done to the hu­man psy­che when you in­flict dam­age on some­one else,’ she says.

Based on An­drea Levy’s cel­e­brated novel, The Long Song is set on a sugar-cane plan­ta­tion in Ja­maica in the tur­bu­lent years be­fore – and just af­ter – the abo­li­tion of slav­ery. The story is told from the per­spec­tive of July, a head­strong young fe­male slave on the plan­ta­tion (she’s been re­named Mar­guerite by Caro­line, who took her from her mother), as she looks back over her life. It’s a per­spec­tive full of wry hu­mour. ‘The life of a white mis­sus on a Ja­maican sugar plan­ta­tion is surely full of tribu­la­tion,’ she says. ‘From the scarcity of beef to the want of a fash­ion­able hat to the al­most im­pos­si­ble search on this small is­land for a suit­able man to marry... but if that is the story you wish to hear then be on your way.’

What the story is, in fact, is that of a mes­meris­ing mé­nage- à-trois that un­folds be­tween July, her mistress Caro­line and a charm­ing new ar­rival to the is­land, an English abo­li­tion­ist by the name of Robert Good­win who be­comes the lover of both women. Played with charis­matic vigour by Jack Low­den, who was last seen as the brat­tish Niko­lai Ros­tov in the BBC adap­ta­tion of War And Peace, Good­win is de­ter­mined to bring the winds of change to the plan­ta­tion, only to find his cru­sad­ing zeal quickly crash­ing up against the com­plex­i­ties of life on the is­land.

‘He turns up at the very be­gin­ning of abo­li­tion to over­see the plan­ta­tion and give the news that ev­ery­thing will change,’ Jack says. ‘He be­lieves he’s morally on the right side of his­tory and to an ex­tent he is – but very quickly he runs into prob­lems when he still has to run the busi­ness.’

One prob­lem comes in the shapely form of July, played by rel­a­tive new comer Ta­mara Lawrance, with whom Good­win falls madly in love, de­spite the gulf in their so­cial sta­tus. ‘He mar­ries her and has a child with her,’ Jack re­veals. ‘He knows he shouldn’t be do­ing that, but he’s quite rev­o­lu­tion­ary in that way, and quite re­bel­lious, so he does it any­way and fig­ures out a way of sort of cov­er­ing it up. Then he be­gins to ne­glect his re­spon­si­bil­ity and I think you al­most get a sense that he wished it would all go away. I would say he ends up on the wrong side of his­tory.’

Good­win also em­barks on a re­la­tion­ship with Caro­line, who’s elated to find her­self an ob­ject of de­sire. ‘I never thought I would feel love again,’ she ut­ters at one point. Hay­ley says that although her char­ac­ter can be an ogre, she was anx­ious to draw out Caro­line’s hu­man side too. ‘She doesn’t ac­tu­ally have any true power – she doesn’t own the land be­cause she’s a woman, so she has noth­ing. She’s very iso­lated, and be­cause she doesn’t re­ally have any power within her­self or in her cir­cum­stances, the only way she can get a sense of power is over other peo­ple – she sees the slaves as peo­ple she can take ad­van­tage of be­cause she her­self has no sta­tus. And that’s why all the slaves

around her, par­tic­u­larly July, are much smarter than her; they can see how pa­thetic she is.’

A cel­e­brated screen beauty, Hay­ley says she found it ‘lib­er­at­ing’ play­ing a woman whose un­pleas­ant­ness man­i­fests it­self phys­i­cally. ‘I wanted skin dam­age, sun dam­age,’ she laughs. ‘We got through two bot­tles of glyc­er­ine for fake sweat – not that we needed it be­cause it was so hot. Her per­son­al­ity al­most has a phys­i­cal man­i­fes­ta­tion, not just in how she looks but also how she be­haves. She’s not just hot from the heat, she’s hot be­cause she can’t stand be­ing in her own skin, and she’s itch­ing all the time. She’s al­ways bat­ting away flies – some­times they’re real and some­times they’re imag­i­nary, she has all th­ese lit­tle tics. She’s just un­com­fort­able.’

But July – the mixed-race prod­uct of the re­peated rape of her mother Kitty by over­seer

Tam De­war – has a self-as­sur- ed­ness that be­lies her sta­tion. Her wil­i­ness is es­tab­lished in the open­ing scenes. She cuts off the ‘miss­ing’ but­tons of her mistress’s dress and pock­ets them in her apron be­fore, all wide-eyed in­no­cence, blam­ing the wash­er­women at the river.

July’s com­plex­ity and ‘abil­ity to sur­mount the in­sur­mount­able’ was one of the at­trac­tions for Ta­mara, 24, a RADA grad­u­ate who over­came what she calls ‘in­cred­i­ble com­pe­ti­tion’ to win the role. She says she un­der­took a vast amount of re­search, read­ing up on Bri­tish colo­nial his­tory be­fore film­ing be­gan. ‘There are some jobs where the ma­te­rial is straight­for­ward and you get what you need f r om the scene – but this is a very par­tic­u­lar story and it’s just one thread of a whole his­tory,’ she says. ‘We hear a lot about African-Amer­i­can slav­ery with, for ex­am­ple, Twelve Years A Slave, and I think Bri­tain gets to defuse a lot of re­spon­si­bil­ity. But this is Bri­tish colo­nial his­tory – it’s Ja­maica and Bri­tain, so that’s quite a di­rect lin­eage.’

Act­ing along­side her in many of the ‘be­low stairs’ scenes is Sir Len- ny Henry, whose mis­chievous God­frey, as the house un­der­lings call him, has worked for 45 years on the plan­ta­tion. Ear­lier this year he re­vealed he’d lost 3st in prepa­ra­tion for play­ing a char­ac­ter who doesn’t get three meals a day. ‘I’ve been eat­ing broc­coli and not much else,’ he said. ‘And I’ve also been run­ning a lot.’

Mean­while the seven-week shoot in the Do­mini­can Repub­lic, stand­ing in for Ja­maica, was not with­out its chal­lenges for the cast. Heat aside, it was ‘pretty in­tense’ says Ta­mara, although they got a chance to ex­plore the is­land and its wa­ter­falls. Two of the cast took the op­por­tu­nity to get to know each other bet­ter ahead of tak­ing to the stage to­gether for a nine-week run in Shake­speare’s Mea­sure For Mea­sure at Lon­don’s Don­mar Ware­house that has just ended – Hay­ley as de­fi­ant sis­ter Is­abella op­po­site Jack Low­den’s Vi­en­nese deputy An­gelo.

‘I knew I was go­ing to be do­ing Mea­sure For Mea­sure with Jack, and then found out co­in­ci­den­tally that he would also be do­ing The Long Song,’ says Hay­ley. ‘So there were mo­ments in be­tween takes where we’d chat a lit­tle bit about the play, and it was so nice to break the ice,’ she says. ‘He’d seen so many of my ugly sides dur­ing film­ing that I felt lib­er­ated.’

Ugly sides or oth­er­wise, Hay­ley hopes that view­ers of The Long Song will come away from the se­ries un­der­stand­ing the nu­ances of the story. ‘None of th­ese char­ac­ters have a mo­nop­oly on suf­fer­ing: just be­cause you’re a vic­tim or a slave doesn’t mean you’re a good per­son or a bet­ter per­son or that you have a moral su­pe­ri­or­ity next to some­one who’s an abuser,’ she says. ‘Hu­man be­ings are far more com­pli­cated than that.’

‘The slaves are much smarter than Caro­line’

Lenny Henry lost 3st for his role as the slave God­frey

July with a for­mer slave, Nim­rod

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