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16 July 2015

Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners is fascinating – but the horrors can speak for themselves

Better to give the viewer a quiet moment to absorb such horror than to attempt to underline it with one’s own feelings.

By Rachel Cooke

The Outcast
BBC1
Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners
BBC2

In a world where viewers and readers alike demand that characters always be congenial, the success of Sadie Jones’s novel The Outcast, now a much-praised two-part series (concludes on 19 July, 9pm), presents something of a mystery. After all, as the Radio Times timorously points out, this adaption, like the book on which it is based, is “packed with miserable people leading wretched lives”. So why did readers turn it into a bestseller? And why is the BBC now presenting it to us as family viewing, wilfully screening it on Sunday nights when we’re supposed to be watching expository schmaltz of the Downton and Call the Midwife sort, not minimalist stuff about ineffable human sadness? I’ve no answer to these questions. All I can say is that the series comes as a huge relief to me. Beneath the Fair Isle tank tops and Horrockses dresses, the cool English manners and corset-tight repression, there lurks not only snobbery and self-interest, but also depression, self-harm, masochism, sadism, even incest. Hooray! Let the ugliness unfurl, like bunting on a village green.

Jones also wrote the screenplay and, like the novel, it is extremely spare, not to say astringent. I wish the director, Iain Softley, had not chosen to fill so many of the consequent silences with fractious, even hysterical, violins. Yet it is hugely satisfying to watch a drama in which the cast is allowed to do most of the emotional heavy lifting, expressing what the characters feel through body language rather than clunky, anachronistic dialogue. “Talkative, isn’t he?” says Gilbert Aldridge (Greg Wise) of Lewis, the son he hardly knows (Aldridge is just back from the war in Africa). He wants the boy, who is chattering excitedly, to be quiet, but the question – put to his wife, Lizzie (Hattie Morahan), over an austerity luncheon of chops – is freighted with irony, because in this world no one talks about anything.

These people, suburban, tiny-minded and rather frightened, have only two modes: uncomprehending silence and small talk. When as a boy Lewis (Finn Elliot) loses his mother in a terrible accident, he faces both. A stepmother, Alice (Jessica Brown Findlay), arrives from nowhere, as if his father had just ordered her from Harrods; the sound of their lovemaking on the other side of Lewis’s bedroom wall is the sole outward sign of their intimacy. No wonder the poor boy goes mad.

The British-Nigerian historian David Olusoga has made a series called Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners (16 July, 11.20pm; 22 July, 9pm), based on the superlative research carried out by Professor Catherine Hall and her colleagues at University College London into the Slave Compensation Commission, the body set up by the British government in 1833 to placate those who would be affected by abolition (some 46,000 slave owners came forward to seek compensation for the loss of their “property”, for which they received the equivalent of up to £17bn in today’s money). It takes him, and us, into fascinating and appalling territory. If it is unnerving to be reminded of the extent to which British wealth was built on the Caribbean sugar trade, it is downright painful to discover how many owners – spinsters, widows and even clergymen – lived in Britain rather than on plantations, their slaves having been inherited or bought as an investment, like stocks and shares.

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I can hardly picture a sadder sight than the commission’s ledgers, which list in exquisite copperplate the names of these slaves, their ages (so many were children) and their relative state of health: a roll-call of shame that rendered Olusoga’s insistent speeches to camera intrusive and redundant. I understood his disgust, especially when he was shown a collection of shackles and other instruments of torture at a museum in Jamaica. But there are times when the facts speak for themselves. Better to give the viewer a quiet moment to absorb such horror than to attempt to underline it with one’s own feelings, which in any case are rather useless in the circumstances. The historian – even the TV historian – must resist this kind of indulgence, however full his heart.