My Windrush TV series is personal – grieving director
Kwame Kwei-Armah says films will be a tribute to his father, who has just died
A long-held wish to bring the story of the Windrush generation and its descendants to a wider audience has come true for a leading director. But as Kwame Kwei-Armah’s dramatic tribute – a series of televised monologues that will feature leading black actors including Lenny Henry – is announced this weekend, he is coming to terms with the death of his father a few days ago.
“It is now very personal for me,” said Kwei-Armah, whose mother died in 2005. “I have been longing to make something that could be a tribute to my mother and father’s experience [they arrived from Grenada in the early 1960s]. I did it to celebrate them and it means even more because of my father’s death. I feel it will pay tribute.”
The eight 15-minute films overseen by the director, Soon Gone: A Windrush Chronicle, are part of a diversitythemed season that runs on BBC Four next month, and were made for the channel by Henry’s production company, Douglas Road, in collaboration with Kwei-Armah’s London theatre, the Young Vic. They tell the chronological saga of a Caribbean family’s arrival in Britain in 1948 and chart its progress down the decades, eventually projecting into the future.
“The central provocation behind the idea was to wonder if this community will survive,” Kwei-Armah said. “We are at a particularly significant moment in history and this story has been sitting in my conscience.”
The former Casualty actor believes drama is the way to communicate the different social landscape of the past. “I wanted to show that what people take for granted today was not always the case. Lenny and I have said to each other we are both in the legacy business now. So it is part of our responsibility as artists to tell these stories.”
The writer spent seven years running Baltimore’s Center Stage theatre, which gave him a valuable lesson as an immigrant. “I realised it is hard work. There are things I couldn’t say, that Americans could, because from me it would sound like criticism.”
The monologues have been written by different people, including the award-winning playwright Roy Williams, and tackle immigration and integration, as well as making reference to the Windrush scandal.
“We were mindful of not making it only a response to the Windrush scandal, but characters do refer to it. They also refer to other big issues, such as the Stephen Lawrence murder in the 1990s and the emergence of the hip-hop scene,” Kwei-Armah said.
The 51-year-old director grew up in Southall, south-west London, with the name Ian Roberts. After watching the television series Roots, about slavery, he told his mother he would trace his family and take an African name.
At 19, while reading an autobiography of Malcolm X, he carried out this plan to reclaim his ancestral past, tracing his Ghanaian family tree back to the slave fort his great-greatgreat-grandfather was taken from.
In London, his father, Eric Roberts, worked at the local Quaker Oats factory. His mother, a nurse, took work as a hairdresser and a childminder to pay her son’s fees at stage school.
Jonty Claypole, the BBC’s head of arts, said the project is the first such collaboration with a theatre and external production team. “It was implicit from the start we would have a black cast and crew. This seemed like something television could do to mark the Windrush era.”
Kwame KweiArmah directs the series of 15-minute films, Soon Gone: A Windrush Generation.
BELOW Lenny Henry in character for one of the monologues.