Ahead of its premiere on the BBC on Monday, Runnymede's Lee Pinkerton interviews the writer of Sitting In Limbo, a drama showing the suffering at the heart of the Windrush scandal.
A new BBC drama documents one of the most shameful episodes in the recent history of the UK Government. Most of us are familiar with the Windrush Scandal of 2018, but the problem began years earlier.
At the start of the last decade, pandering to the rise of UKIP and the right-wing elements of its own base, the Tory-led Coalition Government introduced its now infamous ‘Hostile Environment’ policy. As a result, people born in the Caribbean who came to the UK perfectly legally as children on their parent’s passports, were being asked to prove their citizenship 50 years later. Those unable to back up their claims with documentary evidence were unceremoniously deported away from families and settled lives to countries they hardly knew and may not have seen since childhood.
Sitting In Limbo, a Windrush Story is a feature-length television drama telling the story of one such victim of the Hostile Environment. Written by Stephen S. Thompson it is based on the true story of Anthony Bryan and his struggle to be accepted as a British Citizen.
In the BBC drama Patrick Robinson (Casualty) and Nadine Marshall (Save Me) lead in the roles of Anthony and his partner Janet Bryan.
The story was of particular relevance to Stephen, not only because he is of Jamaican ancestry himself, but because Anthony Bryan is his half-brother. He vividly remembers the day he first heard the news of his brother’s plight.
“I was on the train on my way to work. I got a call on my mobile from Janet. She said he’d been arrested. I was shocked because Anthony had never been in trouble with the police. Then she explained it was about his immigration status. I was even more shocked. He’d lived here nearly all of his life.”
So Stephen joined with other members of the family to raise money to hire a lawyer and fight Anthony’s case. When the story was picked up by the Guardian newspaper questions were asked in parliament and the true extent of the scandal was exposed.
After the three years of battling with the Home Office were over, Stephen thought that the real-life horror story that his brother had been through should be documented.
“He was reluctant at first,” reveals Stephen. “Anthony is quite a private person. He didn’t want people knowing his business.
“We originally discussed doing it as a book, and then as a documentary. But I didn’t want to limit the audience. We then started discussing it as a drama.
“I thought of making it a multi-dimensional, multi-episode show covering all the people involved. But we agreed to go smaller and intimate, to be representative of the wider story.”
These creative discussions were not just wishful thinking. Stephen was already an accomplished writer, having previously worked as a freelance journalist and a screenwriter, he also has four published books. Once the idea was commissioned by the BBC, Anthony and Janet were made consultants to ensure accuracy. But despite his closeness to the source material, there were still challenges for Stephen in dramatising the events.
“Anthony was always forthcoming about the facts, but he was reluctant to discuss the emotional toll,” reveals Stephen. “But I think he opened up to me in a way that he wouldn’t have to another writer.”
Stephen’s previous works all focussed on the Black British experience, but this – his first feature length screenplay for television - may be his most significant work to date. What impact does he hope the drama will have on its audience?
“I hope that it transcends its form (as a TV drama) and affects people on a very real level. These arguments about citizenship we thought were settled in the 70s.
"I hope that it is a wake-up call, that people can come away from this thinking ‘never again. We cannot allow this to happen again’. I also hope it helps concentrate the minds of the powers that be, so they can speed up the compensation process.”
Because of the actions of the Home Office, Anthony lost his job, was unable to claim any benefits and spent two periods in a detention centre, while his loved ones scrambled frantically to prevent him from being deported. Still, Anthony has yet to receive any compensation. It would be understandable if he was angry and resentful.
“Anthony is not easily riled or offended,” says Stephen. “He is easily forgiving and slow to anger. But he does feel some resentment. Less to do with him, and more to do with the other people who suffered in the same way, but don’t have his profile.
“After having to provide all those documents to prove his right to stay in this country, they now have to provide evidence of their right to compensation. But what the government doesn’t seem to understand is that compensation isn’t just about the loss of earnings. You can’t calculate the emotional cost.”
Sitting in Limbo is broadcast on BBC One on Monday 8 June at 8.30pm, after which it will be available to watch again on the BBC i-player.