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Lenny Henry talks Windrush series and sharing our stories

MUST WATCH: 'Soon Gone: A Windrush Chronicle' starring Lenny Henry (centre left)

A HOST of the UK’s finest acting talent - including Sir Lenny Henry (The Long Song, Broadchurch) and Vinette Robinson (Sherlock, Dr Who) – explore modern British family life through a series of heartfelt monologues for BBC Arts on BBC Four television.

Set in the front room of a Caribbean home, the series explores the highs and lows of one family from the 1940s to the present day from their hopes and desires, challenges and shattered dreams.

“The director of arts at the BBC had a simultaneous conversation with Kwame [Kwei Armah] and I about the Windrush Generation. The scandal was in the news, it was the anniversary of the ship coming over so it all seemed quite timely,” said executive producer Angela Ferreira. “We decided to develop something that was linked to the ideas of a family and came up with a story per decade.”

Soon Gone: A Windrush Chronicle is the third in a series of monologues that the BBC have done - the first being ‘Queers’, which was to mark the 50th anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality, followed by ‘Snatches’ which celebrated 100 years of women getting the vote.

The series signifies the BBC’s continued commitment to expand on diverse storytelling with the selection of eight 15-minute monologues that has been developed by eight leading British writers in partnership with the Young Vic theatre and Lenny Henry's Douglas Road Productions.

“Kwame’s experience as a director and writer was incredibly useful when it came to sitting in a room with all these writers who had all this experience but needed directing towards what we’re going to write,” said Lenny Henry, who plays Cyrus.

“It’s clear that this scandal and this idea of the timeline from Windrush to present day has affected all of us. Whether it’s your mum, your grandparents, your uncle - we’ve all got experiences of how the migration has affected us. It’s really fascinating to see the growth and evolution of black and brown people in Britain from Windrush to present day and that’s one of the things this series covers.

Kwame Kwei Armah and Lenny Henry

The familiarity of this story will echo with many from the diaspora who will see the similarities between the family they see on TV and their very own - something that Ferreira and Henry were clear on, particularly in light of the scandal.

“When we see our brothers and sisters being deported or sent to Yarl’s Wood it strikes a cord because it could be any of us. So it made us want to address some of these things through art,” said Henry. Also you can express feelings and say ‘this is how they felt at this point in time’ so I think it’s a valuable artifact because of those reasons.

“Also, it’s interesting when you have diverse people around a table telling a story about diversity and inclusion because what happens is they contribute much more than just the making of something.”

Henry’s commitment to diversity has been prominent over the years, most recently leading a campaign calling on the government to give tax breaks to organisations that champion diversity by hiring black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) and disabled creatives.

And with his Douglas Road Production company, the 60-year-old actor and Ferreira are committed to diverse storytelling, and feel proud to be one of the first to document this story through art.

“With this [Soon Gone: A Windrush Chronicle] we’ve done our very best to do this as best as we can. It’s up to the public now to see if they connect with it - I think they will. And some of it is quite moving I think,” said Henry.

“We didn’t want to make just a load of jokes - it would’ve been quite easy to fall on one side of this, and just have a lot of people speaking in patois and doing jokes - but we wanted to tell a story that made you feel something.

Angela Ferreira

"I think it's really important to tell stories that will resonate with our audience. It shouldn’t be a big deal when black people are on TV telling their stories, or a production crew is mixed. We don’t just want to tell our stories but great stories.

“We also have to consider that we’re not telling a story to just people who already know what it is, we’re telling the story to a very wide demographic - the BBC Four audience -,” added Ferreira. “It was crucial that we remembered that and it wasn’t just an internal thing and we weren’t just talking to ourselves.”

People from various BAME backgrounds in particular are sure to resonate with this multigenerational story detailing the pain, struggle and growth of ethnic minorities in the UK. Ferreira hopes that the series will spark intergenerational conversations among families and encourages the youth to learn more about their history.

“What’s interesting about this is that we all realised that we only knew bits and pieces. It’s the same with most people are bringing up their children - they haven’t got time to be talking about ‘when I moved here’ and ‘when I moved there’ - but when the grandchildren and great-grandchildren come a long they can talk about it and feel more relaxed to share all those things,” she said.

“So in most cases, the children are hearing a lot of these things for the first time through their grandchildren who are asking those questions.”

In Henry’s case, he learnt about his parents upbringing at the latter part of their lives. “My mum and dad talked about this stuff in their final days. It was almost like they wanted to unburden their stories when they were sick. In my mind, I thought ‘you should have told me this from years ago’ - but maybe that’s my fault and I should’ve enquired,” he revealed.

The star, who’s currently writing a memoir, highlights the pain of learning about his parents experience while they were sick and encourages all - of various backgrounds - to learn about black British history.

“I hope Soon Gone: A Windrush Chronicle makes people interested in the diaspora experience. Because it’s an epic journey our family made and it needs to be honoured and we’ve tried to honour that.”

Soon Gone: A Windrush Chronicle airs on BBC Four tonight (Feb 17) at 10pm

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