A treat for the senses

Hannah Piekarz reviews BBC drama series, Small Axe.

This is Sunday evening period drama unlike no other. 

Director Steve McQueen’s latest work is a series of five standalone films portraying the black British experience. Each film tells an important nugget of untold social history from the Seventies and Eighties: The Mangrove nine, a blues house party in west London, Leroy Logan’s early career in the Metropolitan Police, Alex Wheatle’s transition from social care to independence, and a fight against an unofficial segregation policy within schools.

The direction is as we would expect from McQueen, interestingly framed throughout. The films feel fresh from the energy of the actors who, aside from John Boyega, are mostly unknown faces to us. Another outstanding performance comes from the locations: each place hugs us with its familiarity. We can guess why each family has found itself in this place in society, choosing homes from the faded grandeur of the battered stucco terraces of Notting Hill to aspirational pebble-dashed 1930’s semis. The period architecture tells us so much, where institutional buildings look like they are projecting from the space-age, yet square box-shaped vehicles are still modelled on horse-drawn carriages.

Each film is brought alive by realism. There’s no overplayed acting, no witty lines of dialogue to repeat around the virtual water cooler on Monday. What we’re being shown is authenticity. The way that the camera stays on faces for longer that we’re used to in television gives us time to empathise and read the micro-emotions contained within them. Kingsley slowly submerges his face in the bathtub – twice – and we know not just what that sensation feels like, but his reason for doing it. The narrative doesn’t deliver clever plot twists or give us take-away moral messages, it shows us what happened, and leaves us to make our own minds up. In this way, the cross-over into art becomes apparent. The message contained in these films is personal to the viewer. 

Every object has its own backstory, each set is crammed with evocative artefacts. We already have an intimate knowledge of all these things, triggering half-forgotten autobiographical memories. The touch of burgundy flock wallpaper, the thick layer of magnolia/nicotine-coloured gloss paint on a staircase bannister, and the transparent vinyl plastic cover of a too-good-to-get-dirty settee. The smell of curry being made in the morning, sitting in the passenger seat next to the Feu Orange freshener, the briefest mention of ‘Brut 33’, and we’re right there on the set. 

Music plays a massive part of the feel of each story, and the ability of songs to trigger snapshot memories of a time and place is already well-documented. Suffice to say that the music is excellent. One standout scene captured intimate human moments on the house party dancefloor, a brush of skin, people transcending their inhibitions, and in a complementary reversal, the sound of ‘Silly Games’ brings the ladies and lovers closer together, whilst the fight tune ‘Kunta Kinte Dub’ draws out male solidarity to pound out beats together. The accents are also wonderful, and the way characters switch between British and patois for emphasis, adds another layer of meaning for us. The social context of use of dialect adds to the richness of the soundscape and our understanding. It’s interesting how West Indian cultural elements are brought to life sonically, through music and accent, and the British elements of their lives are embedded in the physicality of objects and buildings of the character’s lives.

Whilst being classified as a period drama, it’s so close to living memory that we still can engage with these films on a sentient level, and it’s a joy to do so. By the end of each episode, I’ve constructed a story that’s a personal mix of my own memories and senses, driven along by the narrative and the characters that I’ve encountered, and created a new pleasurable and empathetic experience. It’s been so vivid that I’m anxious that I’ve created a false memory of being there, or that I will see myself in a future episode. Aside from these concerns, the experience comes highly recommended.   

-       Hannah Piekarz is a PhD student at the University of Reading

Watch on BBC iPlayer now.

BPS Members can discuss this article

Already a member? Or Create an account

Not a member? Find out about becoming a member or subscriber