It’s finally here! Nineteen years after the publication of the first book in Malorie Blackman’s seminal young adult novel series Noughts and Crosses, the story of star-crossed lovers Sephy and Callum has made its way onto our screens in a six-part BBC One adaptation.
The original books are widely loved: grime superstar Stormzy (who has a role in the show) calls them his “favourite books of all time”. And, considering the adaptation has been created by Jay Z’s entertainment agency Roc Nation and Being Human creator Toby Whithouse, my hopes going in were sky-high.
But could the first episode ever live up to my expectations? Let’s find out (and remember, there’s spoilers ahead).
First, some context: what’s the plot of Noughts and Crosses?
The series is set in an alternative version of 21st century Britain called Albion, which was colonised by an alternate Africa, called Aprica, 700 years ago. Black people –known as Crosses – are the ruling race while white people – noughts – are marginalised.
In the middle of this, the relationship between teenagers Sephy Hadley (Masali Baduza), the daughter of the Cross Home Secretary, and Callum McGregor (Jack Rowan), a working class nought boy, challenges the boundaries imposed by their society.
It is well worth remembering Blackman once said that, as well as taking inspiration from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, she was motivated by the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence in the writing of Noughts and Crosses.
And who is in the cast of Noughts and Crosses?
Familiar faces in the rest of the cast include Paterson Joseph (Peep Show’s Alan Johnson) as Sephy’s father Kamal, Helen Baxendale (of Cold Feet and Friends fame) and Ian Hart as Callum’s parents Meggie and Ryan, and Josh Dylan (Young Bill in Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again) as his older brother Jude.
Right, we’re all up to scratch. So what happens in the first episode of Noughts and Crosses?
A lot. We kick off with Callum watching his brother, Jude, take part in an illicit car race. When the police show up, the young men try to escape the scene, but are stopped by an aggressive officer. The situation escalates when their friend Danny (Charlie Chambers) steps in to diffuse the situation: an officer loses his cool, violently lashes out, and Danny ends up in hospital with life-threatening injuries.
Meanwhile, in the Hadley household, preparations are taking place for matriarch Jasmine (Bonnie Mbuli)’s birthday party. We quickly learn that Callum’s mother, Meggie, works for the family – and, after much pleading, eventually ropes him into helping serve at the event.
The night begins ordinarily enough, with the Crosses enjoying drinks and canapes served by noughts. When Sephy enters in a striking red dress – seriously, I want every outfit and piece of jewellery that she wears! – Callum forgets himself. He soon winds up talking to her, but their conversation is cut short when Sephy’s boyfriend, Lekan (Jonathan Ajayi), arrives.
It’s all too obvious that Lekan is not a fan of Callum: he deliberately mispronounces his name in a bid to make him feel awkward, and, when Callum reveals that he wants to be one of the first nought recruits at prestigious military academy Mercy Point, Lekan tells him he has no chance.
He’s wrong, of course: Callum passes the punishing tests and is offered a place at the prestigious military academy – although he decides not to mention it to his family.
Jude, unlike his brother, doesn’t have time for parties. Instead, he attends an underground meeting where a man called Jack Dorn (Shaun Dingwall) is using Danny’s story to call for the resurrection of nought rebel alliance, the Liberation Militia.
While Jude doubts the Crosses will ever care for noughts, though, he hasn’t banked on Sephy. She attends a vigil for Danny at the hospital, where she is the only Cross face until a van full of armed police arrives to brutally break up the peaceful crowd. Callum spots Sephy and helps her escape the violence but, when they cross paths with a group of nought thugs, a frightened Sephy brands one a “blanker”. The hurt and disappointment on Callum’s face tells us that the term, which he himself has casually used when talking to his brother, means something very different when it comes from a Cross mouth.
Later that night, Sephy drives to Callum’s house and apologises sincerely for using the racial slur. But, as talk turns to the future, Sephy insists that her once secure life is looking less certain now because Callum “came along and messed it all up.”
The pair share a first kiss (hurrah!) but something terrible is happening elsewhere. In sharp contrast to the unfolding romance is Danny’s fate, which Dorn decides to take into his own hands…
What is the biggest difference between the books by Malorie Blackman and the BBC TV series?
In the novel, Callum and Sephy are just 15 and 14 when the main plot begins: as seen in the show, though, on TV, they are now at least a couple of years older. Another difference? There is no Mercy Point in the book: instead, Callum is part of the first group of noughts to join Sephy’s school, in a call back to the desegregation of schools in America in the 1960s.
There are also key changes to Callum’s family set-up. In the original story, he has a sister Lynette, and Meggie has been fired from her job with the Hadleys. There is no mention of Lekan in the book, either.
However, the world-building remains faithful to the source material. The different layers of institutional racism are cleverly depicted, from the subtle touches – signs banning physical contact between noughts and Crosses, to plasters being dark brown – to more overt instances, with news reports constantly depicting Danny as a “nought gang leader” and Cross characters casually making prejudiced comments about noughts.
The class divide between Sephy and Callum is also clear from their surroundings. She rides in her father’s chauffeur-driven car, while he walks through rundown graffiti-filled estates. There are many differences between their lives, but can they overcome them?
Who left the envelope for Meggie, and what does it mean?
Callum’s mum finds a blank envelope on her office desk with something… well, something very interesting in it. She approaches Kamal with her find, telling him: “It was Yaro’s.”
Kamal is dismissive of the envelope until later in the episode, when he stops her and asks: “What do you think he wants?”
Meggie says it “might not be anything suspect, maybe he just wants to reconnect”, but Kamal scoffs at this. So who is Yaro? Why did he leave something for Meggie? And what is his relationship with her and Kamal?
What is Kamal’s agenda?
In this premiere, we see Kamal pushing the Prime Minister Opal Folami to extend stop and search laws. “We can’t be seen to be soft on law and order,” he tells her. He also voices his opinion that Albion should have more independence from Aprica, insisting “we can succeed without being propped up by some distant superstate”.
It is obvious that he has uncompromising political views and is ruthlessly ambitious. In fact, it seems like Kamal barely spends time at home, resulting in a distant relationship with his wife, to the point where he barely reacts to seeing another man sneak out of her bedroom. Hmm.
And what is Jack Dorn up to?
Underground rebel leader Jack Dorn is winning support by speaking out about the police injustice against Danny, but what does he really want? And what is his connection to Ryan?
When Jude says his is going to hear Dorn speak, his father refuses to join, saying: “I left that all behind a long time ago… Dorn’s not quite what you think.”
However, Jude refuses to heed his father’s warning, and finds himself welcomed by Dorn. The rebel leader even tries to recruit Callum to his cause, telling him: “We could do with someone training at Mercy Point if you ever decide to be of service to your people.”
And, when he visits Danny’s hospital bedside, Dorn tells Jude: “People are angry, it’s like a tinderbox, it won’t take much to set it off.” Just how far is he willing to go to ignite the flames?
Roll on the next episode to give us some answers!
The next episode of Noughts and Crosses will air on Thursday 12 March at 9pm.
Images: BBC One
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