Rachel Carroll is Reader in English at Teesside University. She is the author of Rereading Heterosexuality: Feminism, Queer Theory and Contemporary Fiction (2012) and editor of Adaptation in Contemporary Culture: Textual Infidelities (2009) and (with Adam Hansen) Litpop: Writing and Popular Music (2014). Her essays on black Britain and literary adaptation have been published in Andrea Levy: Contemporary Critical Perspectives (2014) and Adaptation (2015).
In the early months of 2016 American audiences from Washington to New York were able to enjoy a dramatic reconstruction of the life of Ignatius Sancho (1729-1780), the composer, writer, actor, celebrated correspondent of Laurence Sterne, friend of David Garrick and the first black Briton to cast a vote. Written and performed by British actor Paterson Joseph, this production offered a rare representation – on stage or screen – of black British life before the arrival of the Empire Windrush.
A versatile performer whose credits range from the Royal Shakespeare Company to cult television comedy Peep Show, Joseph has long expressed his frustration at being locked out of the one genre which has so far eluded him – period drama. Unwilling to be reduced to (in his own words) a “tray-toting, background figure,” his one man show was his own creative solution to bringing black British history – and black British actors – centre stage. Joseph is one of a number of leading black British actors who have publicly expressed their concern about issues of under-representation in British drama and especially in historical drama.
The Victorian period is not short of extraordinary – and ordinary – black British lives ripe for dramatisation on screen, from the political radical Robert Wedderburn to the celebrated circus performer Pablo Fanque, and from the composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor to Queen Victoria’s goddaughter Sarah Forbes Bonetta. Recent photographic exhibitions – such as ABP Autograph’s Black Chronicles II at Rivington Place – have provided visual snapshots of black British lives, including cartes de visites taken in provincial studios from Kent to Aberdeen and from Whitby to Dublin.
In this context the broadcast of an original television drama set in the Victorian period and featuring a black actor in a leading role was sure to be keenly anticipated.
ITV’s Jericho, first screened between January and February in 2016 and created and co-written by Steve Thompson, is an arresting departure from the conventions of period drama in more than one way. Inspired by the construction of the spectacular Ribblehead Viaduct by an army of itinerant workers in Yorkshire between 1869 and 1875, Jericho owes more to the frontier imagery of the American Western than to the heritage aesthetics of its stable-mate Downton Abbey. A generic hybrid, Jericho was aptly described by one reviewer as combining the “intrigue and historicity of Deadwood” with the “industrial boom of Peaky Blinders” (Thea Lenarduzzi, The Independent). And this impression is only confirmed by the arrival of a mysterious and charismatic American who – in true Western fashion – is both law-giver and outlaw.
“You’ve got questions” declares Ralph Coates (played by Clarke Peters, best known to British audiences for his performance as the brilliant and eccentric Detective Lester Freamon in the cult American crime drama, The Wire) to an assembly of troubled townsfolk toward the end of the first episode. These words are perhaps as much addressed to the viewing audience as to the population of Jericho, who express little surprise or curiosity at the arrival of an African American man in a remote English industrial shantytown.
It is only in scenes of companionable intimacy with Lace Polly (Lorraine Ashbourne), the proprietor of the town’s brothel, that Coates provides any answers to the unspoken questions about his transatlantic journey. Born a freeman in Vermont, he is both a railway man of twenty years standing and a veteran of the American Civil War, who fled to England after being taken captive and forced to work on a slave plantation. An enigmatic leader whose natural authority is readily accepted by the labourers of Jericho, Coates is also a secret saboteur and possible murderer.
Reputedly based on a real life black British navvy – identified in some sources as ‘Six Fingered Jack’ – the character of Coates can be seen as an attempt to remedy the invisibility of black history in popular historical drama. From Frederick Douglass to Ida B. Wells, African Americans have played an important role in Victorian public life and this story has yet to be told on British screens. But the inclusion of an African American character in this drama might seem to betray an assumption that British audiences are more likely to accept a black American than a black British character in period dress in a nineteenth century setting, perhaps especially following the success of Steve McQueen’s 2013 film 12 Years a Slave in bringing the history of American slavery to mainstream white audiences.
However, Coates is not the only character of colour in Jericho and another history is hinted at in the margins of the action, which otherwise centres on dramas of romance, inheritance and family loyalty across class boundaries.
In the opening episode the landowner and railway entrepreneur Charles Blackwood (Daniel Rigby) announces that “sugar’s the past and railway’s the future.” Sugar here functions as a euphemism for plantation slavery in the Caribbean, on which the Blackwood fortune is founded. Evidence of that legacy can be found at the heart of the Blackwood household.
The ineffectual Blackwood, forever in the shadow of his more charismatic renegade brother Johnny (Hans Matheson), delegates the running of his home to a housekeeper whose authority and ability often exceeds that of her master. Not only does Blackwood look to Epiphany (Martina Laird), a mature woman of Caribbean heritage, for moral guidance but she also offers unsolicited advice, including in relation to his ill-fated romantic and marital affairs. A substitute mother, Epiphany is also an expert healer, performing life-saving surgery on the fever-stricken daughter of Annie Quintain (Jessica Raine).
Epiphany’s much younger brother Easter (Elliott Barnes-Worrell) is Yorkshire bred if not born, as his accent confirms. Raised alongside his ‘master’ Johnny, Easter demonstrates a fierce loyalty to the Blackwood family, at one point defending the family home against the intrusion of angry navvies intent on seeking compensation for unpaid wages by expropriating the Blackwood property.
The irony of this scene is laid bare by Ralph Coates who observes that Easter’s labour is itself unpaid, despite Easter’s indignant insistence that he and his sister are “treated like family.” If Coates appears to be the agent of possible emancipation in Easter’s life, his mixed motives are exposed in his encounter with the formidable Epiphany. When she refuses to be bought by his “dirty money” Coates resorts to blackmail, threatening to expose Epiphany as Easter’s mother and taunting her with the words “What you gonna do? Tell Massa?”
In these scenes the morality of slavery and its legacies are firmly projected onto characters who are former slaves, rather than slave owners or their descendants. The first season climaxes with Epiphany and Coates pitted against each other in a confrontation in the cellar of the Blackwood home – Coates’s assertion that he “fought for the freedom of our people” undercut by his cruel manipulation of Epiphany, and Epiphany’s dignity in the face of blackmail compromised by her loyalty to a family which exploits her unpaid labour.
In Jericho, slavery is something which happens elsewhere – whether in America or the Caribbean. In fact, the Sill family were known to hold slaves at their farmhouse in Dentdale, just across the dales from the location of the future Ribblehead Viaduct. Some have suggested that the reported cruelties of this Yorkshire farming family provided inspiration for Emily Brontë’s novel Wuthering Heights and its protagonist Heathcliff.
Moreover, the effects of slavery are consigned to the past in Jericho and the dramatic action aligned with the pioneering vision of the Blackwood brothers, one of whom declares his intention to build a “new Eden” in the shadow of the viaduct. In a drama about the exploitation of labour underpinning Britain’s industrial might it seems telling that black labour is all but invisible, with Coates assuming the role of overseer and Epiphany and Easter enjoying some of the class privileges of their masters as trusted house servants.
Jericho refreshingly bypasses the genre conventions which have dominated British period drama on screen, borrowing from popular film and television genres ranging from the Western to the soap opera – much of the action takes place not on the railroad or in the mines but in the Capsticks’s tavern or by the stream, the period equivalents of the pub and the launderette in classic British soap. Jericho’s reliance on the family sagas of popular historical fiction places women centre stage, including enterprising single mothers – such as Annie Quintain and Lace Polly – working to support their children. But in this Victorian family tree black British characters appear only as itinerant outsiders or by vicarious attachment to white families. Possibly conceived an antidote to the much ridiculed class politics of Downton Abbey, reports suggest that this “industrial costume drama” (Adam Sherwin, The Independent) will have a five year story arc, mapping the lives of its characters against the completion of the viaduct. If Jericho’s ambitious dramatic life is realised, it remains to be seen whether this ambition will be extended to the characters of Coates, Epiphany and Easter – characters who have the potential to act as narrative gateways to as yet untold stories.