Behind the scenes
It sounds like a really bad idea — Lenny Henry, the black comedian, devising a set of radio sketches to celebrate (oops, I should have said ‘commemorate’) Abolition. You can imagine the scene. Early one morning in late November 2006. An emergency Radio Four planning meeting high up in Broadcasting House on Portland Place. Big table. Lots of coffee. A group of worried-looking producers, scriptwriters, the sound-effects team, all wielding spring-clip noteboards covered with last-minute scrambled ‘ideas’.
‘Tony Blair’s just reminded us that we’ve got this 200-year anniversary coming up next March. It’s going to be really big. A march from Hull. Questions in Parliament. A service in Westminster Abbey. Mansfield Park translated into an anti-slavery tract. We’re going to have to come up with something good on Radio Four.’ ‘Yes. But Radio Three’s already bagged the idea of an “Abolition Night” on the anniversary itself, 25 March. And they’ve pinched Adam Hochschild and James Walvin, the two great slavery historians, to explain what happened when the Bill was enacted. They’ve also persuaded Jackie Kay to dramatise her epic poem on enslavement. And they’ve come up with some really unusual “hidden stories” behind the trade, Sambo’s grave, George Washington’s grandmother and Granville Sharp. So what’s left for us to do? It’s too late now to come up with anything original.’ Up pipes drama producer Steven Canny. ‘I’m not sure how this will work, but I’ve been in talks with Lenny Henry. He wants to do something for the anniversary. A kind of Look Back in Sorrow. You know, stories that will make us think about what it was like to be a slave. We’ve got to get away from being white and middle class and so typically Radio Fourish about this.’ ‘Lenny Henry! You can’t be serious. This was a truly awful business. Britain’s shameful ships of death. Don’t you realise that all those West End squares you can see from beyond these windows were built up in the 18th century from the money made from dealing in slaves? We’re expected to do something really powerful on Radio Four. Remember the licence fee. You can’t make a joke about Abolition.’ ‘Well, all I’m saying is that it’ll be different. We can’t just trot out a few bars of “Amazing Grace” and hope that’s enough. And Lenny’s got a great cast together his mates Adrian Lester and Jenny Jules (nothing white about them), plus Brian Blessed (perfect ripe English voice for Wilberforce), Greg Wise and even Francine Stock. She’ll give us a bit of intellectual street-cred.’ ‘Have you got a script?’ ‘Well, no, not exactly. We thought we might try to recreate the spirit of some of those early radio programmes; you know, when people were really excited about what you can do with sound. Using lots of different mikes. And playing around with the idea that you’re miles away in a radio studio creating conversations that echo inside the listener’s head.’ ‘Oh, all right then. We’ve got nothing better. So I guess we’ll just have to trust you not to be flippant.’ Slavery: The Making of ... (the Saturday Play on Radio Four) was billed as ‘a humorous, doomed attempt to make a drama-documentary about slavery’. Not at all promising. But I was intrigued by the suggestion that it would go behind the scenes to look at ‘the fictional creative process’. Maybe Lenny Henry and co. would recapture something of that old wireless magic? And come up with something more meaningful almost by accident?
Greg Wise plays the harassed producer trying to put together a drama for which Lenny Henry has provided sheafs of research printouts from the internet — but no script. His team of actors has somehow to provide the links between the harrowing account of a slave’s journey by sea (read by Adrian Lester with such power) and Wilberforce’s stirring speech to Parliament (memorised by Brian Blessed, who else?) via the sugar boycott by London’s fashionable ladies and the uprising in Jamaica led by Samuel Sharpe, the last slave to be executed before the much later Bill (1833) outlawing slavery itself.
‘Whose story is this?’ demands Adrian Lester in an angry exchange with Brian Blessed. Were they in character? Or were they arguing for real? You could so easily imagine them not getting on in the studio, Brian so over-the-top and macho white male, Adrian so right-on and liberal.
Amid the deluge of programmes on TV and radio about Abolition and slavery, Slavery: The Making of ... was refreshingly honest about the impossibility of understanding now what went through the minds of the captains who commanded the evilsmelling ships across the oceans. Or the planters in Jamaica who lived alongside the slaves they were so cruelly mistreating. ‘You can’t just bang on about the horror of it,’ said Lenny.