The Changing Face of British Television: How Small Axe Carved New Ground

In the era of technological domination, education through television is far from uncommon. We gain our facts and our opinions from a screen. As our eyes remain glued to the images that flash before us, our beliefs become shaped by various depictions of history.

Whilst our perceptions are informed by our lived experiences, images and stories depicted in the media fill in the gaps. Where television acts as a tool for education, evidently then it also acts as one of the most relevant and accessible means of racial socialisation.

Civil rights organisation, Colour of Change, conducted a study analysing the impact of crime dramas in perpetuating distorted representations of crime and race in culture and the real societal consequences that these depictions have. Unsurprisingly, results showed that our cultivated perception affects our impressions of different individuals and their role in society.

The production of Small Axe, directed by Steve McQueen, offers a giant leap forward for the British film and TV industry in this respect. Focusing on a depiction of the West Indian community, the camera of British television has never before been allowed nor tried to focus on the black British experience in such a way. 

Providing an incredibly intimate insight into the role of BIPOC lives in the late 60s to early 80s, Small Axe encompasses four true stories and one fictional, revolving around accounts of harrowing racial oppression and disgraceful injustice but also spotlighting a celebration of culture in the form of food, family, friendship, and music.

Shot in a rivetingly vibrant manner and superbly acted, each episode draws us into a strong sense of community.

Combining the personal and the political McQueen demonstrates how every day, members of the BIPOC community wield “small axes” and slice away at cultural institutions dominated by white control.

Following the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter protests this summer, ignited in response to starkly transparent and horrifying accounts of police brutality in the US, the key players in the broadcasting industry have promised to do more. With the likes of Sky, Channel 4 and the BBC promising upwards of £100,000,000 towards combating racial injustice  in the industry over the next few years,  investing in programmes that highlight racial injustice and increasing efforts to ensure equal representation both on screen and off screen.

These broadcasting giants are paving the way for new policy initiatives. Whilst such advocation is important, it is still very apparent that the British television industry has successfully maintained a virulently racist environment for decades. McQueen coins it as a system suffering from “blatant racism” that people have continually turned a blind eye to.

In view of this, Small Axe offers a huge step forwards, providing a realistic, non-white washed story-telling of British history, from the viewpoint of directors and writers who have actually lived through racial experiences and oppression that firmly reflect those depicted in the series.

McQueen describes the series as an all-encompassing vision that is “still moving” in society, the pursuit for racial equality having far to go. He also advocates the important role each episode plays in unveiling parts of history that have been concealed by a white narrative, declaring that he himself, for the most part, was not aware of these stories in their full capacity until relatively recently.

After the series’ initial premier in November, there was an expression of anger from many young Black British people due to the fact that they had not encountered this history in school in any form. Small Axe offers a rightful restoration of history that the whole nation can bear witness to.

This is why the national accessibility of Small Axe, on the platform of the BBC, is so crucial and fundamentally ground-breaking. In McQueen’s own words, these are “national stories” and the BBC is “our national broadcaster”. It was not simply about sharing this story but ensuring that everybody had the opportunity to access them, in order to aid the rebuilding of perceptions formed through television screens.

Small Axe presents a storytelling of how, as a society, we came to be where we are now, and how the past can offer a critical reflection of the present and a foreshadowing of where the future might take us.

-Lotti Norman

Featured Image Source: Still via BBC iplayer / Small Axe Episode 1: Education

All episodes can be accessed here

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