“A platform to ask ‘was it really like that?’”: Sir Lenny Henry on new Windrush drama

A new drama on BBC Four is set to explore the lives of a British family since the arrival of the Empire Windrush in 1948. Talking to History Extra, Sir Lenny Henry shares his hopes that the stories begun by the Windrush generation will inspire families to discuss their own history…

Soon Gone: A Windrush Chronicle. (Image Credit: BBC/Douglas Road Productions/Carlton Dixon)

Sir Lenny Henry hopes that new BBC Four drama, Soon Gone: A Windrush Chronicle, can inspire younger generations to ask their relations: “What’s your story?”

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“How we tell our stories and what sort of stories we tell is changing,” said Henry in late 2018, when promoting drama The Long Song (an adaptation of Andrea Levy’s novel set in 19th-century Jamaica during the final days of slavery). Included in a new season of programmes on the BBC that celebrate British diversity, Soon Gone is part of what Henry called a “moment of change” that will be driven by women, black people and other minority groups.

Mona Baptiste, a Trinidad-born blues singer

“As a BAME independent producer you want to tell all stories,” says Henry “but you find that there’s an appetite for your particular story. Windrush, for the Caribbean diaspora generation, is an iconic hero and heroine’s journey. So we want to hear that story over and over again in its varieties – it touches us and resonates within us.”

It’s Henry’s hope that the programme will “trigger a conversation” about the real histories within families; at the launch event for Soon Gone, he shared the racial abuse that his own mother faced when she arrived in the UK.

The Windrush’s journey in the summer of 1948 was not the first to bring West Indian migrants to Britain, wrote David Olusoga for BBC History Magazine, but “it was also an event ideally suited to mythologisation: the ship that carried to England the hopeful and the industrious, the empire’s own ‘huddled masses’.”

Staying within the front room of an Afro-Caribbean home over eight 15-minute episodes, Soon Gone tracks from a young nurse called Eunice, who tells of her year since arriving in Britain on the Empire Windrush, through the generations of her family to her great-great-granddaughter Michaela. The programme’s monologue format is “a really useful way of telling a story, a direct address by a storyteller,” says Henry. “We thought that was a lovely way of presenting history, someone talking to you as if they were your best friend and drawing you into their world.”

Sir Lenny Henry plays the older Cyrus in 'Soon Gone: A Windrush Chronicle', a character who reflects upon his life as riots take place outside his London house in 2011. (Image Credit: BBC/Douglas Road Productions/Carlton Dixon)
Sir Lenny Henry plays the older Cyrus in ‘Soon Gone: A Windrush Chronicle’, a character who reflects upon his life as riots take place outside his London house in 2011. (Image Credit: BBC/Douglas Road Productions/Carlton Dixon)

Viewers will remember many of the pivotal events in British history referenced in the drama – such as the death of 13 black teenagers in the New Cross Fire of 1981, whichraised tensions that helped spark the Brixton riots later in the year. These help root the stories in each contemporary society, says Henry. “People will remember what they were doing at the time of, for instance, Stephen Lawrence’s murder, or when Mark Duggan was shot and the Notting Hill riots.”

Clair Wills talks to the History Extra podcast about the lives of people from across the globe who moved to Britain after the Second World War.

But once it glances off those events, the story becomes universal, says Henry. “It’s about different generations of a family experiencing life, love, loss, relationships, work, racism and trying to make their way through British society; in many respects trying to assimilate and integrate into a society that doesn’t necessarily want them.

“I hope it will stop all the kids watching The Fresh Prince on repeat on their phones in their bedrooms. They’ll come downstairs and watch this with their family and say: ‘Oh my God, I didn’t realise it was like that. What’s your story?’”

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Soon Gone: A Windrush Chronicle will air on BBC Four from 10pm on Sunday 17 February. The programme is produced by BBC Four in collaboration with Sir Lenny Henry’s Douglas Road Productions and the Young Vic theatre in London.