‘Noughts + Crosses’ review: race-flipped romantic drama is must-watch TV

Malorie Blackman's bestselling YA novels are finally coming to the small screen

If you have a Facebook, Twitter or Instagram account, you’ll know how heated and unnecessarily confusing online discourse can be. Noughts + Crosses, the BBC’s latest flagship drama, is the perfect addition to television in a time where the conversation around race is even more intense than usual.

Adapted from Malorie Blackman’s young adult novels, Noughts + Crosses is set in an alternate reality where African cultural norms are dominant and Nigeria’s Yoruba language is spoken by all. Black characters (the Crosses) live lavish lives filled with privilege, while the white characters (the Noughts) struggle with police brutality, racism, poverty and identity politics. The story revolves around Callum McGregor (Peaky Blinders’ Jack Rowan) and Stephy Hadley (newcomer Masali Baduza), who share a forbidden romance throughout the series.

Noughts + Crosses
Callum McGregor (Peaky Blinder’s Jack Rowan) Credit: Ilze Kitshoff/BBC

Featuring an impressive cast – rapper Stormzy, Paterson Joseph (Peep Show), Bonnie Mbuli (Apartheid-era biopic Catch A Fire), Kike Brimah (recent thriller The Riot Act), Helen Baxendale (Emily Waltham in Friends), Ian Hart (Professor Quirrell in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone), Josh Dylan (Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again) – and an already formed fandom based around the bestselling books, the hype for this series has been building for months. Luckily, viewers won’t be disappointed. Directors Koby Adom and Julian Holmes weave a clever and absorbing narrative that tackles socio-political issues such as love, personal responsibility and identity in a multicultural community.

Subverting the common format of a prime time TV series, the show focuses on the ‘African Gaze’ – a rare opportunity to experience a story through the eyes of someone other than a white protagonist – and gives both black and white characters equal screen-time. In one scene, Sephy realises she has been turning a blind eye to the racism her life-long friend Callum has suffered since childhood, while in another episode the Home Secretary’s wife (Mbuli) tells her white housekeeper that summer is coming and maybe she could “finally get some colour”. Collectively, these moments show that racism does not only equate to violent actions or harsh words, sometimes it’s in the little things.

Noughts + Crosses
Newspaper editor Kolawale (Stormzy) – Credit: Ilze Kitshoff/BBC

Interestingly, the characters are a little older than they are in the book (on paper they are school children). This, presumably, is so that they can properly discuss the impact of their choices in a world that does not allow them to follow their hearts. But this does not take away from what made the books special as the basic concept is preserved.

Meggie McGregor (Helen Baxendale) and Ryan McGregor (Ian. Hart). Credit: Ilze Kitshoff/BBC

Overall, the series, although funny and romantic at times, has a serious tone and rattles along at a fast pace. Rowan’s stand out performance as a conflicted Callum highlights the humanity of the Noughts – even if many of the Crosses fail to see it. Callum’s reaction during a climatic scene where Sephy delivers a racial slur has a lasting impact and will be the moment viewers struggle to forget from the season premiere. Despite the common fear that the majority of book to on-screen adaptations are poorly made, Blackman’s creation works well as a TV show even if some of the romantic scenes feel a little childish.

The Home Sec Kamal Hadley (Paterson Joseph) and Jasmine Hadley (Bonnie Mbuli). Credit: Ilze Kitshoff/BBC

With four more books published and one more to come, it is no surprise fans are calling for a second series before the first one has even arrived. If anything, Noughts + Crosses should help viewers come face to face with the uncomfortable reality of today’s world while immersed in a totally absorbing dystopian universe.

All six episode of ‘Noughts + Crosses’ season one are available to stream on BBC iPlayer now

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