Acclaimed black British writer Caryl Phillips has adapted his own novel about the Caribbean immigrants of his parents’ generation for television. Gill Roth hears why he is delighted with the result.
Booker-nominated author Caryl Phillips is the ﬁrst British West Indian of his generation to portray the story of the Caribbean emigration in a major television series. Directed by theatre‘s elder statesman Sir Peter Hall. The F inal Passage has been adapted by Phillips from his award-winning novel of the same name, which traces the lives of a young couple who leave the unemployment and poverty of the Caribbean for London in the 50s in search of a fresh start.
Migration from the Caribbean radically changed the history of urban Britain but that a period seems to have been conveniently forgotten and a younger generation may be shocked at the harsh conditions ﬁrst timers were greeted with. The general perception is that immigrants came here because they were desperate to, but the truth is the Government begged young black people to come to Britain, with backing from labour-hungry employers like British Rail and London Underground.
However in the ten years since he wrote the novel, Phillips has started to take a more positive view of the outcome of the mass emigration of his parents' generation, and this is reﬂected in the television adaptation. ‘l believe that relationships between
people of West Indian origin and Britain have become much more optimistic in the last ten years,‘ he says. ‘Whereas blacks were once marginalised as minicab drivers or nurses, suddenly they have begun to enter the mainstream of British life.’
Living in the multi-racial Britain of the 90s. it seems incredible that this slice of British history has not been dealt with in any depth on television before. ‘lt makes me puke,‘ agrees Phillips. ‘But it’s not surprising. i think it’s a combination of push and pull. Writers have to say this story needs to be told and there have to be people within institutions like Channel 4 and the BBC who also think it is important. If you walk around these places you mostly see people from white. middle-class Oxbn'dge backgrounds who aren‘t likely to say. hey we must make a ﬁlm about immigrants from the West lndies.‘
Born in St Kitts, brought up in England and educated at Oxford, Phillips wrote the story when he realised that the collective memory of West lndians who made the journey from the Caribbean in the 50s was fading fast. ‘I think it's interesting and important
the Final Passage: keeping the memories of first- generation immigrants alive
for my generation to know what our parents and grandparents went through,’ he says. ‘Many young blacks have a romantic image of the West Indies. They think it is a beautiful place but it’s not all Bounty and Lilt ads. Actually the Caribbean is a place with serious crime and unemployment — that’s why people left in the ﬁrst place.’ ' He admits that translating his novel to television required a more up-beat tone, but Phillips says he is happy with the result. The central performances by two TV newcomers. Michael Cherrie and Natasha Estelle Williams, as the young couple Michael and Leila. are totally convincing. And as co-producer. Phillips had more control over the adaptation than most writers can ever dream of. ‘What usually happens is that writers who get on telly spend the next year complaining that their work was screwed up.’ he says. ‘I told Channel 4 there was no way I was abdicating responsibility. They put the loonies in charge of the asylum and said get on with it.’ The F inal Passage is shown on Sun 7 and Man 8 July on Channel 4.
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