Written and directed by English playwright Mike Bartlett, ITV’s Sticks and Stones is an unintentional survival manual for Black people.
***This review will be full of spoilers so read on at your own risk***
Synopsis – Sticks and Stones is a psychological thriller set within a workplace. After sales associate Thomas Benson faints during a presentation he senses that his colleagues have turned against him.
Ken Nwosu (Killing Eve, The Octoroon), poured his heart and soul into playing lead character ‘Thomas Benson‘. (The irony of his surname ‘Benson’!). Nwosu and his engaging innocence is truly what kept me watching this 3-parter. That’s not to take away from his supporting cast. Susannah Fielding (Doc Martin, Silent Witness) as the sly ringleader ‘Isobel‘, Sean Sagar (Top Boy, Just a Couple) as ‘Andy‘ Bully No. 1, and Ritu Arya (Humans, The Good Karma Hospital) as ‘Becky‘ Bully No. 2. All three were convincing in their roles. I disliked them as I was supposed to. Ben Miller (The Armstrong and Miller Show) as their boss ‘Carter‘ is as great as his character is a frustratingly inept boss, that those of us who’ve worked in offices will easily identify. The casting of the Bensons’ deaf daughter is a win for diversity. Excellent scenes using sign language. Great plot motivator to further highlight Benson’s failure at life and parenting.
OK, I was reluctant to watch this series because ITV isn’t quite ready to lose its middle England target audience by showing anything too radical. But a late night with nothing to do I decided to press play. Thomas Benson, is a black man married to a white woman, lives in predominantly white Reading, goes to work in a predominantly white workplace. From the glimpse we get of his back story it seems he also went to a predominantly white school and thus grew up surrounded by white friends. Benson is brilliant at his job. But his reputation starts to implode when his colleagues decide to undermine him.
At first, we’re lead to believe Becky and Andy (who are both of South Asian heritage) are the ones out to get Benson. As both display, almost playground level bully moves which range from silly, scheming and totally unbelievable. Them being so brazenly hostile, with no consideration of what they were risking as brown people in the department, please. Non-white people in the workplace may pause when navigating poor work relations with white colleagues because, well, you know. But fellow ethnics, with the level of confidence, Becky and Andy displayed, considering they were lower ranked than Benson! Nah. Ethnics don’t take kindly to other ethnics challenging their spot at the table. We’re all supposed to be in this together. Need I also go into the often undiscussed cultural tensions between British Black and South Asian communities?
Benson’s wife ‘Jess’ (Alexandra Roach – No Offence, Black Mirror), is for the whole series so detached from Benson that she also doubted her husband’s mental stability right up until he managed to prove his truth about the bullying. It’s only then, Jess gets all ‘stick it to the man‘ after Carter offers Benson a six-figure sum to keep quiet. The Bensons’ life is dry. Empty, and devoid of warmth. Which kept me asking what if his wife was Black? Actually, what if Carter the boss was Black. Or if Benson had a Black friend or a Black cousin, or if his Black parents weren’t conveniently written out of the narrative as dead, someone, anyone Black for Benson to talk to. Because as the series unfolded, I couldn’t picture any of the Black men I know tolerating the level of abuse Benson endured.
It’s possible Sticks and Stones wasn’t written with a lead diverse cast in mind. It’s possible after casting Nwosu, they had to cast more ethnically with Sagar and Arya because if Benson’s colleagues were all white, then the audience would immediately assume he was being targeted out of racism. Which we had to be distracted from because they needed to save that for the last episode when Isobel in true villain style delivers a BAFTA seeking monologue vaguely explaining why she was targeting Benson. Yay! Let’s shove the elephant into the room we’ve been avoiding each episode to keep the plot twist hidden. Isobel’s a RACIST!!! Let’s also not explain why ethnic Becky and Andy were so happy to take sides with their racist white manipulative colleague!?!?!?!
The problem here is that, when we’re asked to suspend belief and enjoy a bit of telly, writers and creators must consider various perspectives. Sticks and Stones had elements of serious dramatic psychological thriller-ness but the flawed narrative and failure to adapt the story to suit the casting ruined it. Its attempt at Black Mirror reflective dark humour and The Office mockumentary-esque style of funny underpinning it did not work either. Resulting in an unintentional flatness.
Two things came to mind whilst watching Sticks and Stones. The American sitcom Benson (1979 – 1986) which starred multi-award winning Robert Guillaume as Benson a Black butler serving a white middle-class family. To the British, Black folk reading this, who remembers back in school when those who got pushed around were ridiculed and called Benson? (Benson wasn’t a pushover in the series, but there was always the underlying premise that he served a white family during a time when on-screen representation was limited for Black people). I doubt Bartlett had Benson in mind but the irony! I was also reminded of Ralph Ellison’s, novel ‘The Invisible Man’ (1952), the story of an unnamed Black man trying to survive in America. Who had to hide his pain and frustration, and minimise his Blackness to appease white America who controls him.
Thomas Benson = The Invisible Man.
Sticks and Stones is a parable for black people who aspire to whiteness in order to survive. Watch it on ITV Hub.
Please read The Invisible Man.