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Noughts and Crosses - First episode review

Noughts and Crosses

Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 3 out of 5

TWENTY years after becoming a literary sensation, Malorie Blackman’s Noughts + Crosses makes its way onto the small screen with similarly big expectations. On the evidence of the first episode, though, there is work to be done.

While certainly not short on ideas, and boasting a striking look, the main problem lies in the characterisation, which thus far struggles to convince as emphatically as it should.

Set in a race-flipped 21st-century Albion (aka England), the story unfolds amid a landscape in which the lighter-skinned Nought majority have been ruled over by darker-skinned Cross colonisers from Aprica, since their conquest of Europe, some 700 years ago.

To emphasise the change in dominance, the opening episode begins with a gathering of white youths that is broken up by heavily armed black policemen. When tensions between the two sides escalate, a white youth is badly beaten by an officer while trying to defuse the situation with his friends.

It’s a scene designed to reflect the fact that power brings with it abuse, no matter who has control of it.

One of the victims’ friends is a Nought named Callum (Jack Rowan), who promptly then finds himself being asked by his mother (Helen Baxendale) to help serve drinks at a birthday party for Mrs Hadley (Bonnie Mbuli), the wife of home secretary Kamal Hadley (Paterson Joseph), he reluctantly agrees, mindful also that his brother (Josh Dylan) is intent on stoking the flames of rebellion.

Once at the party, however, Callum is reunited with Sephy (newcomer Masali Baduza), a Cross and daughter of home secretary Hadley, with whom he was a childhood friend. Their friendship quickly blossoms into something more, however, offering a Romeo & Juliet-style romance set against the backdrop of a volatile political situation.

In book form, Blackman’s Noughts + Crosses was a Young Adult novel that inspired a generation who grew up with it as required reading between 2001 and 2008. Hence, all eyes are upon the TV version to see if it can stoke the same passion.

But while certainly eye-catching and visually provocative, the first episode struggled to grip as tightly as it should. It was intriguing more than compelling.

The central romance, for instance, has so far been rushed, with little or no build up to that crucial first kiss. If anything, the pacing feels episodic, with characterisation wafer-thin.

What’s more, the screenplay – to this point – still feels like its unfolding from a predominantly white perspective, even though there’s a massive African influence. The opener didn’t really have enough shading or layering. Too many characters were portrayed in too broad strokes.

Joseph’s home secretary Kamal was particularly notable for this, struggling to offer much nuance despite a potentially challenging [and pivotal] position, while Dylan’s aggressive brother also feels pretty one dimensional to this point, as does Shaun Dingwall’s revolutionary leader Jack Dorn – whose last act decision to kill the teenage victim of police brutality didn’t really register as a surprise once he had unexpectedly arrived at the hospital he was being cared for.

It’s another failing of the screenplay so far that most actions seem both obvious and conducted in too broad strokes.

On the plus side, Rowan does show signs of being able to rise above these limitations to provide a likeable central hero in Callum (suitably conflicted yet inherently decent), while newcomer Baduza is the undoubted star as Sephy, whose fair-minded ideology and obvious passion for Callum set her apart from her peers. If their romance has yet to ignite, then at least both actors provide an engaging presence.

The look of the series is also eye-catching, with plenty of attention to detail obviously being paid in creating a credible alternative reality, in which people of colour adorn the majority of posters, read the news and make the big decisions. If the colour aesthetics of Albion’s cityscape owe a lot to Black Panther, then that is perhaps deliberate too (an acknowledgement of that film’s agenda-changing accomplishments).

Given the world that Noughts + Crosses is striving to create, the complexity of its themes and the decision to upgrade its characters to older star-crossed lovers, then it’s perhaps unsurprising at this stage that characterisation is playing second fiddle to the world building.

Certainly, there are enough signs that future episodes could yet yield some rich emotional bounty.

At the moment, there’s much to admire, even if the emotional investment has yet to really kick in.

Noughts + Crosses airs on BBC1 on Thursday nights at 9pm, from March 5, 2020.