New period drama A RESPECTABLE TRADE lifts the lid on the forgotten crimes of the British slave trade.
Words: Peter Ross
Slavery begins at home. That’s the message from A R(’.S’])(.’(.‘I(lble Trade. BBCl’s new four-part period drama dealing with the dirty business of buying and selling human beings in 18th century Bristol.
Steven Spielberg’s recent slave- trade epic Amisrad reinforced the notion. familiar from school history lessons. that chaining up black people and working them to death was something only foreigners did. A Rmpec‘tuble Trade is brave and important in facing the fact that Britain’s Empire was partly built on the misery of others. with cities like Bristol and Glasgow growing fat and rich on the spoils of enslavement.
Warren Clarke. limma Fielding. Ariyon Bakare and Richard Briers star in Philippa Gregory's adaptation of her own novel — a tale of forbidden passion. great wealth and even greater cruelty. Frances Scott (Fielding). a well- bred governess. falls into the poverty trap when her father dies. 'l‘o ward off an ignominious death on the streets. she marries ship-owner Josiah (Iole (Warren Clarke). Unknown to Frances. (Sole plans to import slaves into lingland and have his new wife train them to serve in the wealthy. fashionable households of Bristol. But his plans go awry
when Frances falls for Mehuru (Bakare). one of the slaves.
"The presence of black people in Britain before I958 is hardly known about.’ claims writer Philippa Gregory. who was raised in Bristol. ‘People who had slaves didn’t pass the information down so it was deliberately obscured. Also. there were l5.()()() predominantly male slave runaways who married white women so that within three or four generations. there were no more black people in Britain.‘
But the makers of A Respectable Trade are also keen to stress that this is not a drama about British slavery. it‘s a drama about a particular incident within British slavery.
‘Amisrad is didactic.‘ says script director James Saynor. ‘We’re trying not to be too preachy. but to tell
a story. The politics should come out of that story. If
you want to do pure ideology. you do it in factual TV
104 THE UST i6 30 Apr 1998
’The love story is a more accessible way of showing slavery. This way, it’s not just history lesson.’ Emma fielding
The reluctant mistress: Emma Fielding in A Respectable Trade
rather than drama.‘
This is an idea which is enthusiastically picked up by limma Fielding. who believes that the passionate affair between Frances and Mehuru is key to getting at the issues.
"l‘he love story is a more accessible way of
showing slavery. This way. it’s not just a history lesson.‘ she says. ‘You‘ve got to believe that these people were just made for each other.
They’re both cultured. intelligent people. ller
freedom is restricted. too. When she marries Josiah. she becomes just another fixture and fitting. She trades hCl' freedom for social connections. liveryone is trading all the time in this drama.‘
Ruth Baumgarten. the producer of A Rl‘S/H’Flub/V Trade. is passionate in defending the need for a drama like this.
‘Slavery is the ultimate abuse of another human.‘ she asserts. "l‘o turn people into tools or domestic animals. or to trade them like barrels. is horrific. Slaves who were suspected of trying to run away were made to wear an iron collar with four spikes on it so that they could never rest their heads or sleep.‘
A Respectable Trade begins on BBC1, Sun 19 Apr. 9pm.
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Fave TV snack? Take away curries from Marks & Spencer. My favourite is the Geoff Boycott curry: you still get the runs, only very, very slowly.
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Greatest cartoon of all time? Wacky Races. Great characters, great names ‘ Dick Dastardly, Penelope Pitstop and Pete Perfect.
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