Small Axe: what you need to know about the BBC’s must-watch period drama

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Every once in a while, a TV show comes along that everyone in the industry sincerely dubs as “unmissable”. And the BBC’s Small Axe, its period drama from 12 Years A Slave director Steve McQueen, is one such series. 

Updated 7 October: Small Axe, from writer and director Steve McQueen, is fast shaping up to be the must-watch TV event of autumn 2020.

And now, finally, we have a release date, as it’s been confirmed that Mangrove, the first film from the highly-anticipated anthology will premiere on BBC One and iPlayer on Sunday 15 November. 

The five original films that make up the Small Axe collection will then air weekly on the BBC’s heartland channel.

Here’s what you need to know about the series.

What’s the plot of Small Axe?

As reported on 7 September: The six-part anthology series is set within London’s West Indian community from the late 1960s to the early 80s, beginning at the moment of Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech in 1968.

“As I look ahead,” the Conservative politician said, “I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see ‘the River Tiber foaming with much blood.’” 

He maintained that it would not be enough to close Britain’s borders – some of the migrants who had already settled in the country would need to be sent “home.” If not, he declared, attributing a quote to one of his constituents, “in this country, in 15 or 20 years’ time, the Black man will have the whip hand over the white man.”

The speech divided the nation with its racist, incendiary rhetoric. And, picking up these threads, the five films within the Small Axe series – Mangrove, Lovers Rock, Alex Wheatle, Education and Red, White and Blue – each tells a different, powerful story.

Mangrove: Sunday 15 November

Split over two episodes, the film centres on Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes), the owner of Notting Hill’s Caribbean restaurant, Mangrove, a small restaurant in Ladbroke Grove, which soon becomes a social heart for the community – and, over time, a flashpoint for resistance.

Recounting the true story of the Mangrove 9, a number of racially-charged police raids prompt nine men and women, including Frank and leader of the British Black Panther Movement Altheia Jones-LeCointe (Letitia Wright) and activist Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby), to take to the streets in protest.

But, when they are wrongly arrested and charged with incitement to riot, a highly publicised trial ensues, leading to a hard-fought win for those fighting against discrimination. 

Small Axe: a scene from Mangrove.
Small Axe: a scene from Mangrove.

Lovers Rock: Sunday 22 November

Lovers Rock tells a fictional story of young love and music at a blues party in the early 1980s.

“This film is an ode to the romantic reggae genre and to the Black youth who found freedom and love in its sound in London house parties, when they were unwelcome in white nightclubs,” promises the synopsis.

Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn and Micheal Ward star.

Education: Sunday 29 November

When Kingsley (Kenyah Sandy) is pulled to the Headmaster’s office for being disruptive in class, he discovers he’s being sent to school for those with “special needs”. 

Distracted by working two jobs his parents (Sharlene Whyte, Daniel Francis) are unaware of what was the unofficial segregation policy at play, preventing many Black children from having the education they deserve until a group of West Indian women take matters into their own hands.

Alex Wheatle: Sunday 6 December

Inspired by the true story of award-winning writer, Alex Wheatle (Sheyi Cole), this film follows him from a young boy through his early adult years. 

“Having spent his childhood in a mostly white institutional care home with no love or family, he finally finds not only a sense of community for the first time in Brixton, but his identity and ability to grow his passion for music and DJ’ing,” reads the synopsis.

“When he is thrown in prison during the Brixton Uprising of 1981, he confronts his past and sees a path to healing.”

Red, White And Blue: Sunday 13 December

Red, White And Blue tells the true story of officer Leroy Logan as he works to clean up London’s Metropolitan Police department from the inside out after witnessing his father’s assault at the hands of two cops. First, though, he has to face the consequences of his father’s disapproval, never mind the blatant racism he finds in his new role as a despised yet exemplary Constable in the Metropolitan Police Force.

John Boyega and Steve Toussaint star with talented newcomers Tyrone Huntley, Nathan Vidal and Jaden Oshenye. 

Is there a trailer for Small Axe?

“These are new types of human beings,” a voiceover says.

“They are not demoralised or defeated persons – they are leaders, but are rooted deep among those they lead.”

You can watch the trailer for the BBC’s Small Axe below:

Who makes up the cast of Small Axe?

The all-star cast for this series includes such names as:

Small Axe: a still from Lovers Rock
Small Axe: a still from Lovers Rock

What has been said about Small Axe so far?

“I felt these stories needed to be shared,” explains McQueen in an official statement. 

“I wanted to re-live, re-evaluate and investigate the journeys that my parents and the first generation of West Indians went on to deliver me here today calling myself a Black British person.

“What’s important about our stories is that they are local but at the same time global. I think audiences will identify with the trials, tribulations and joy of our characters as well as reflecting on the present environment in which we find ourselves.”

The director continues: “The dynamic nature of the series allows us to confront injustice in the face of adversity hence the proverb Small Axe, ‘if you are the big tree, we are the small axe’ (Bob Marley).”

When is Small Axe coming to the BBC?

The five films within the Small Axe series – Mangrove, Lovers Rock, Alex Wheatle, Education and Red, White and Blue – will each receive their world premieres on BBC One and BBC iPlayer in the UK later this autumn.

We will bring you more details as and when they become available.

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Images: BBC

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Kayleigh Dray

Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.

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