The working title of Malorie Blackman’s monumental 2001 book series was ‘Snakes and Ladders’. In a recent podcast recorded for BBC Sounds, Blackman laughingly admits that the concept began to feel juvenile; basing the series on the simple game of noughts and crosses, however, seems like a stroke of genius. In Blackman’s world, society is divided into two, with the Noughts living in the shadow of the Crosses, a privileged majority holding power over the imagined colony of Aprica. With many fans having read Noughts and Crosses as teenagers, any television series hoping to do it justice certainly faced a lot of pressure: this is, after all, Young Adult fiction that doesn’t talk down to its readers, and takes no shortcuts in conveying a brutal and unjust society.
Spearheading the Crosses’ narrative is Sephy Hadley (Masali Baduza), daughter of the Home Secretary (Paterson Joseph). The Noughts’ perspective is shown through the eyes of Callum (Jack Rowan), the son of Sephy’s housekeeper (Helen Baxendale) and although the two protagonists have crossed paths briefly in childhood, the show begins when they reunite at a decadent Hadley party. From here, they begin to navigate a relationship threatened by their own differences; the catch, of course, is that the Crosses are black, while the Noughts are white. In one of the most talked-about scenes in the show, presented in the very first episode, Sephy carefully secures a dark-coloured plaster onto Callum’s white skin. At once subtle and commanding, the producers of Noughts and Crosses embed Blackman’s race dialogue in the most ordinary details, continually opening up new avenues of reflection for their viewers. As gripping as the series was to read, nowhere is Blackman’s unique race reversal as intriguing as onscreen.
Reminders of political divide are weaved effortlessly into every aspect of the series, which was almost entirely filmed handheld, building an atmosphere that is vitally, brilliantly claustrophobic. The intimate shots barely give space to breathe; on the level of narrative the show often feels too close for comfort, a painstaking reminder of modern-day racism, and this is expertly mirrored in its cinematography. Critics were at pains to point out that the show was shot in Cape Town, meaning a city that is supposedly a recreation of London enjoys a perpetual summer – the likes of which Londoners can only dream. But this seems only to increase the lucidity of this fictitious world. It certainly provides a stark contrast between the sun-drenched grounds of the Hadley mansion and the dim, cramped alleys and flats occupied by the Noughts. When these two worlds collide – symbolised, of course, by the unlikely love story of the two protagonists – the juxtaposition is even more dazzling.
Such a vast disparity between two groups so firmly divided seems undeniably dystopian, and the futuristic skyline of the city’s imagined capital, Albion – naturally Africanised, thanks to the show designers’ unwavering attention to detail – can feel at odds with the society we know as our own. Yet Blackman maintains that the world she created is in fact our reality, flipped. Nowhere does she offer us a ruthless totalitarian state, or draw out environmental disaster to apocalypse.
The bigoted ideals of Kamal Hadley and the extremism of the Nought opposition group The Liberation Militia may at first glance not exist in the present, but Albion is our world nonetheless. Its values are, after all, rooted in our own: colonialism, prejudice, and exclusion are rife, and the first episode alone points out issues of police brutality, media bias, and dehumanisation. Sephy’s character represents a younger generation attempting to pick at the flaws of ignorance and institutionalised oppression, daring to reimagine figures who are painted as mindless thugs. Her relationship with Callum is a blazing symbol of both the future and the past, as they resist the injustice on which their society is built, risking it all to carve out the possibility of acceptance.
The line between dystopia and speculative fiction is often blurred, but Blackman makes a persuasive argument for the latter, and the show aids her in essentially holding up a mirror to our reality. While the most prevalent commentary returns to white privilege in Blackman’s act of race reversal, this is not simply a matter of black and white: each episode of the series reminds us of the persistent and varied forms of oppression that are faced by copious groups of people every day. The ashen concrete of Callum’s home certainly conjures an image of council estates and the struggle of the white working class. This show seizes on concepts of privilege and suffering wrings them dry. By the end, we cannot help but cast our gaze back on the abundant flaws of our own society.
Yet I was surprised to see the amount of censure the show received – even if some of the noise constituted absurd accusations of the narrative being ‘anti-white’, about which Blackman had plenty to say on Twitter. Other viewers complained that the show was at once dense and predictable, a tangled political statement. Yet so much of the brilliance of this concept lies in its flipped portrayal of racism, and the cognitive dissonance that results. I found myself enacting a process of role reversal every time I witnessed the unfair treatment of the Noughts or the racial superiority of the Crosses.
Every microaggression – down to the very plaster on Callum’s finger – provides another opportunity for reflection. The cast enact these brutal experiences with necessary vigour and commitment, sensitive to the desperation of the characters that is tender at times, though often fuelled by hopelessness and indignation.
In the books, Blackman succeeded in presenting huge political issues in a light that was accessible without being over-simplified, engaging without in any way being sensationalised. Though to conflate the success of Noughts and Crosses with its political commentary would be highly reductive, I believe the BBC’s adaptation inventively captures the essence of this commentary, confronting us with a world that is more like ours than we care to admit. If Blackman’s gaming analogy ever feels tiresome, the show itself is far from a dead end, successfully bringing the vivid world of Blackman’s story to life and ultimately reminding us of the intricacy and ubiquity of oppression.