London-born Tamara Lawrance leads BBC’s latest novel adaptation ‘The Long Song‘.

Lawrance, encouraged by a teacher in college to pursue acting trained at two of actings renowned institutions, Sylvia Young Theatre School and RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art). With a number of leading stage performances in productions at the National, and Royal Court theatres, being cast in screen series including No Offence, and Undercover and with a feature under her belt (Dominic Cooke’s On Chesil Beach), Lawrence seemed an easy choice for the BBC’s latest outing.

Adapted from author Andrea Levy’s novel of the same name, The Long Song tells the story of July otherwise known as Marguerite a slave living on a plantation in Jamaica. TBB Talks caught up with Lawrance to delve into the significance in being involved in a production of this magnitude…

Had you read The Long Song before being aware of the production?

No, I knew of a couple of Andrea’s other novels but not this one.

How did you hear about the production, and when you received the script which of the characters jumped out at you first?

A phone call from my agent firstly; then I bought the book and did more research around the story and author. Immediately I loved Old July – such a funny and frank narrator. It also gave me hope that she was narrating in retrospect because it meant that no matter what the character goes through, at least she lives to tell the tale.

You were cast as July/Marguerite – how did you connect with her and, what attributes did you apply to bring her to life?

At the start of the story July is a teenager, and so that was great to play with because irrespective of her circumstances there’s something recognisably teenage about her boldness, charm, and mischief. Also, there’s rebellion in the air, so I tried to bring a sense of risk to her energy as well. As the story goes on, finding security takes precedence for her and I identified with the desire to make the best of what you can with the cards you’re dealt.

There has been mixed reception to the BBC adapting The Long Song. Some are wholly supportive of seeing slavery from a British perspective rather than the stereotypical deep south of America, however, others are tired of slavery being the only defining period in black history shown on screen, what are your thoughts and why was it important that you be a part of this story?

I’m not tired of slavery stories at all actually. A plethora of perspectives can be explored within any one period of history, and The Long Song, in my opinion, is a heroic tale, told from the mouth of the hero. Also, it’s fictional. But I love that it’s sparking conversation about British Colonial culpability because in this country, as opposed to The States, the little we learn about slavery is sanitised, and abolition is whitewashed.

I agree that it’s not the only defining period, but it’s a pretty seismic one considering the part it plays in the black diaspora, and the subsequent zeitgeist issues we still have around racism. I believe it’s important to see more about slavery so that we can fully compute and begin to acknowledge it’s ramifications. I’m not just talking physical, sexual, and mental trauma, I’m talking judicial, educational, familial, financial injustices too. Deep-seated institutional problems that have their ancestry in that time.

You’re working with some British Black acting heavyweights, Sir Lenny, Dona Croll, Sharon Duncan Brewster… What was it like being on set with so much legend, and what did you learn from the experience?

They were amazing to observe up close, always so invested, and that helped me to put nerves aside and really get into it. It’s always surreal working with people you’ve admired on TV and stage, but the best heavyweights are also really great people. I learned as much from conversations outside of work as I did on set, and have a deep love for every member of the cast – it felt like family to me. There was always someone’s room you could knock on for seasoning, and end up being given a plate of food. Despite the subject matter I’ve never had so much fun or laughed so hard on a job.

Personally, there were moments in watching The Long Song, as I feel with all depictions of slave narratives, that I pause and angrily/incredulously contemplate that this actually happened! Did you experience moments of harsh reality whilst filming some of the more harrowing scenes, or even just being in costume?

Yeah, I would think about that every day. It actually happened. The first day we filmed in cane hit me quite hard, on the drive in to set. Seeing the rows and rows of cane for miles, all you could see was cane, and how tall it was, and how unbearable the heat was, and the conditions these people were made to live in, and the abuse they were subject to. I couldn’t get my head around 1, how enslaved people managed to keep going, and 2, what kind of sickness possessed the slavers to be able to inflict that much harm with no sense of conscience or consequence. It was disturbing.

What’s next for you?

I’m currently in a show called, The Tell-Tale Heart in the Dorfman at the National Theatre; it’s a new play which was written during our rehearsal period by our director, using the short story by Edgar Allan Poe as a stimulus. A sort-of festive horror, and good fun to be in!

This Christmas you’ll be…

Playing Nintendo with the family and gaining at least a stone


Catch all three episodes of The Long Song via BBC iPlayer.