A Respectable Trade

By Billen, Andrew | New Statesman (1996), May 1, 1998 | Go to article overview

A Respectable Trade


Billen, Andrew, New Statesman (1996)


Let us, to use the strange language employed by David Edgar in these pages the other week, praise the survival of the free-standing, non-genre, single-drama serial. Or, to put it another way, isn't A Respectable Trade good? So many pitfalls must surround making a costume drama about the British slave trade - sensationalism, condescension, trivialisation and worthiness among them - that you expect the BBC and its director, Suri Krishnamma, to fall into a least one of them. Having seen all four episodes, I can report they teeter but never topple. More remarkably they do not give the impression they are treading carefully. Perhaps if you decide to write a story about a Bristol slave-trader's wife falling in love with an African slave, you have already decided to err towards boldness.

Philippa Gregory, who adapted her own novel, has said that she wanted to celebrate black survival, confront the myth of pre-slavery Africa as being barbarous and to address Britain's role in slave-running, Which went rather beyond the Wilberforce campaign to end it. In a particularly piquant sequence this week, the chairman of the local Merchant Venturers' Association advised his members of the arguments against abolition, namely that it would cost jobs and hand trade to less scrupulous nations - precisely the same arguments used by arms manufacturers today. Earlier the lead slave, Mehuru (Ariyon Bakare), had explained to the trader's wife, Frances (Emma Fielding), that he came from a culture that mined gold, cured leather and had its own trade routes (the infrastructure of the African Eden shown in different aspects in the opening titles every week).

So we get our history lesson, but what makes A Respectable Trade watchable has very little to do with history. We tune in for the ever-so-slightly de trop character acting, a cameo by Richard Briers as a very evil slave owner, colourful dialogue that sounds neither anachronistic nor period, and a catchy romantic score by Julian Nott. The photography is brisk, almost cheerful, showing Georgian Bristol bathed in a cold, scrutinising sunshine. Although Frances holds her nose as she travels through the city we do not smell it in the way the Thames of Our Mutual Friend suffocated us. Visually it is easy rather than disturbing viewing.

The prettiness only becomes problematic when it comes to the black cast members, all of whom are distinctly more handsome than the natives. Even periwigs and flunky-suits cannot hide their physical grace. Standing still in the corners of drawing rooms, they sometimes become part of the exotic furnishings in front of which the real drama is enacted. The slaves' nobility and fortitude is captured but not their individual characters, while the Upstairs, Downstairs model of equal time between drawing room and scullery has not been attempted. …

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