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

Posted by for TV

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 20 September 2020: The official trailer for the BBC’s hotly-anticipated period drama Small Axe has landed – and it’s safe to say the series looks incredible.

Not only does the trailer give us insight into the characters and storylines that will make up the series’ five short films, it also gives fans a first glimpse of Star Wars’ John Boyega as the real life Leroy Logan, a young man who joined the police with the hope of changing the organisation from the inside after he saw his father assaulted by two officers.

“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 official trailer below:

As reported on 8 September: Small Axe, from writer and director Steve McQueen, is set to air on BBC One later this year.

And the period drama, which is set in London’s West Indian community between the 1960s-’80s, is fast shaping to be the must-watch TV event of autumn 2020.

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

What’s the plot of Small Axe?

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.


This film, split over two episodes as it recounts the true story of the Mangrove 9, is centred around the opening of a small restaurant in Ladbroke Grove, which soon becomes a social heart for the community – and, over time, a flashpoint for resistance.

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

Red, White And Blue

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.

Lovers Rock

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

Alex Wheatle

Alex Wheatle is inspired by the life of the critically-acclaimed author of the same name, who spent a short stint in prison following the Brixton uprising of 1981.


Little is known about the plot of Education, although we will be sure to update this article when we learn more.

Is there a trailer for Small Axe?

You can watch the ‘first look’ 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.

Sign up for the latest news and must-read features from Stylist, so you don't miss out on the conversation.

By entering my email I agree to Stylist’s Privacy Policy

Images: BBC

Share this article

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.

Recommended by Kayleigh Dray