My Win­drush TV se­ries is per­sonal – griev­ing di­rec­tor

Kwame Kwei-Armah says films will be a trib­ute to his fa­ther, who has just died

The Observer - - News - Vanessa Thorpe Arts and Me­dia Cor­re­spon­dent

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.”

Pho­to­graph by Ali­cia Can­ter for the Ob­server

Kwame KweiArmah di­rects the se­ries of 15-minute films, Soon Gone: A Win­drush Gen­er­a­tion.

BE­LOW Lenny Henry in char­ac­ter for one of the mono­logues.

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