The BBC’s Noughts + Crosses is West Side Story with added identity politics

And I mean that in the best possible way.

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The BBC’s adaptation of Noughts + Crosses (5 March, 9pm), Malorie Blackman’s bestselling 2001 novel for young adults, has everything going for it. A great young cast. An exciting plot. A cameo from Stormzy. Like the book that inspired it, it’s a very neat bit of speculative fiction: a fable that tips the world upside down, challenging assumptions some of us never even knew we had. But I must be honest. The thing I love best about it are the women. Specifically, I love their jewellery: their coiled collars and golden cuffs, their shoulder-grazing earrings. Not since the days of Blake’s 7, when Servalan used to wander round in pendants the size of the Lovell Telescope and brooches that resembled giant bird’s nests, have I felt so convinced by the power of accessories.

But that’s a thesis for another day (or, possibly, my next shopping trip). I’ve never read Blackman’s books, in which 21st-century Britain (Albion) is a colony of Africa (Aprica), and thanks to this I came to the TV version with no preconceived ideas – except, of course, for the preconceived ideas it seeks to drag out into the open. Is this a good thing, or a bad one? I don’t know. Either way, I fell for it completely. It’s fair to say that its inversions are not exactly subtle; in this Britain, white people (Noughts) work as servants and live in what are effectively ghettos, while black people (Crosses) are wealthy, educated, and hold all the positions of power and authority. But what’s remarkable is that such reversals seem somehow to keep sneaking up on you all the same. Every line is a challenge – not only to what you think, but (this is an important distinction) to what you think that you think, too.

But what about the exciting plot? When I say Noughts + Crosses is West Side Story with added identity politics, I mean this as praise. Sephy (Masali Baduza) is the privileged daughter of Albion’s home secretary, Kamal Hadley (Paterson Joseph), a politician who longs for nothing more than to be allowed to increase the frequency of his stop and search programme in Nought areas. Having grown up in a bubble, attended by staff and wanting for nothing, she has inhaled her father’s beliefs wholesale (though they’re hardly controversial, given that most Crosses just feel the same about those they insultingly call the Blankers). But the liberal in her is also about to be stirred, by a boy called Callum (Jack Rowan). She and he had known one another long ago: his mother Meggie (Helen Baxendale) was Sephy’s nanny, and the children used to play together. Having encountered one another at a party where he was working as a waiter, they’re now falling in love.

I don’t buy Helen Baxendale as a south London working-class matriarch; in her curly wig, she looks like a goth Ronald McDonald. But otherwise, I’m fully involved. Here is Callum’s friend Danny, in a coma after a beating by racist Cross police (“You do get these uppity ones,” Sephy’s teacher tells her, when she questions the narrative that Nought boys are always asking for trouble). And here is his father, Ryan (Ian Hart), desperately hoping that his sons – Callum’s brother, Jude (Josh Dylan) is involved with a white liberationist called Jack Dorn (Shaun Dingwall) – will keep their heads down and stay out of trouble. And here, too, is Dorn himself, desperate for a martyr for his cause.

“A Nought will rise from nothing,” reads the graffiti on a pock-marked wall. But will he? What will happen to Callum at Mercy Point, the elite Cross military academy to which he has just been miraculously accepted? Has he betrayed his Nought brothers and sisters, or will he become a role model, an emblem of change? In interviews to promote the series, Malorie Blackman has described her parallel universe as dystopian. For me, though, this isn’t quite right. For one thing, her world is in many ways, if not most, no more horrifying than our own; only the victims are different. For another, the word suggests a grimness that’s somewhat at odds with the rising feeling of hope Noughts + Crosses stirs in the viewer. Television like this has the ability to subtly adjust the vision of its audience – thanks to the sheer power of its storytelling. 

Noughts + Crosses

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article appears in the 06 March 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Inside No 10

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