The Long Song: Masterpiece Drama Depicts End of Slavery in Jamaica

January 29, 2021

The Long Song, a three-part Masterpiece miniseries premieres Monday, February 1 at 8 p.m. on WLIW.

Set on a sugarcane plantation during the end of slavery in 19th century Jamaica, the Masterpiece miniseries The Long Song centers on July (Tamara Lawrance, King Charles III), a young enslaved woman with an indomitable spirit, and her detestable mistress, Caroline Mortimer (Hayley Atwell, The Avengers).

Their lives change with the arrival of the charming new overseer, Robert Goodwin (Jack Lowden, Dunkirk), who sets out to improve the plantation. The drama unfolds during the transition from slavery to freedom in Jamaica and is an adaptation of Caribbean British writer Andrea Levy’s fifth novel, which won the Walter Scott award and was shortlisted for the 2010 Man Booker Prize.

Plot, Characters and the Actors

A Black woman in white shirt and beige skirt and white woman in elaborate large hat and puff-sleeved pattern dress stand in a field.

Left to right: July (Tamara Lawrance) and Caroline (Hayley Atwell). Photo: Carlos Rodriguez

July works as a house slave at the plantation. Her mother, Kitty (Sharon Duncan-Brewster), is a stoic field slave. Her father is the brutal Scottish overseer of the plantation, Tam Dewar (Gorden Brown), who regularly rapes Kitty.

As a young girl, July is callously taken from her mother at the whim of Caroline, the sister of the plantation owner, John Howarth (Leo Bill). Caroline wants July for a lady’s maid and decides to call her a more genteel name, Marguerite. July manages to maintain her confidence and good humor as she grows up catering to Caroline’s impulses.

A Black woman in red cloth headwrap and white dress with red belt stands at a wooden balcony and looks out to tropical greenery.

Tamara Lawrance stars as July, a slave in Jamaica in The Long Song -Masterpiece. Photo: Carlos Rodriguez

Though often at Caroline’s side, July also has the company of the canny Godfrey (Sir Lenny Henry), the spiteful Molly (Ayesha Antoine), and the haughty Clara (Madeleine Mantock). There is also the debonaire Nimrod (Jordan Bolger), who has bought his freedom and fancies July, promising her a fairy-tale life with him.

A moment of truth arrives with the Christmas Rebellion of 1831 (also called The Baptist War), a slave uprising that heralds the end of official slavery in Jamaica and other English colonies—but at a great cost in lives, including some who are near and dear to July.

The British Parliament gave its colonies the option to make true emancipation a gradual process. In Jamaica, a transition from slavery to “apprenticeship” came into effect in 1834.

It is in the aftermath of the rebellion and during the period known as apprenticeship that a handsome new overseer, Robert Goodwin (Lowden), rides into the story. He will establish an enlightened approach to working with the emancipated slaves, set more than one heart aflutter, and play a tragic role in the fates of all.

Jamaica’s enslaved people attained full freedom in 1838.

Tamara Larwrance talks about taking on the role of July and what is was like to work with stars of British television and stage in this interview with The British Black List.

Critics’ Reviews of The Long Song

The British press applauded the UK broadcast of The Long Song, which is one of the few productions to focus on British slavery.

The Guardian called it “a beautiful, moving, horrifying adaptation of Levy’s unsimple tale, that honors the source and its subject.”

The Radio Times judged it “so finely-tuned and carefully-balanced that it’ll break your heart–and make you laugh at the same time.”

The Times wrote, “What can a period slavery drama tell us that we don’t already know? Quite a bit.”

The Rotten Tomatoes summary gives the miniseries a 90% rating.