How do you adapt Malorie Blackman’s young adult novel series Noughts + Crosses for the screen? The answer, it seems, is to bring together a group that includes the BBC, Victoria producer Mammoth Screen, Green Book producer Participant Media, Jay Z’s Roc Nation, distributor ITV Studios Global Entertainment and rapper Stormzy.
The group have put together an ambitious, big-budget retelling of the books, which tell the story of love in a dangerous, alternate world where racism divides society.
Deadline spoke to star Jack Rowan, fresh from starring in gangster drama Peaky Blinders, and exec producer Preethi Mavahalli.
The six-part series follows two young people Sephy, played by newcomer Masali Baduza, and Callum, played by Rowan, who are divided by their colour but united by love. Sephy is a ‘Cross’, a member of the black ruling class and daughter of a prominent politician. Callum is a ‘Nought’, a white member of the underclass. The two have been friends since early childhood but their relationship grows ever more complicated as they come of age. It’s the story of two families separated by power and prejudice but forever entwined by fate.
“Essentially it’s a Romeo and Juliet story,” Mavahalli tells Deadline. “Sephy is a princess who lives in her palace and is very privileged, while Callum is the son of maid that works in the house and they have a shared history. They knew each other as kids and then as they grow older they followed very different paths. Now that they are much older they realize they have a love for each other and this love develops but they face a number of obstacles on the way as the world and society stand against them being together.”
Rowan told Deadline that he wanted a role that was as challenging as his performance in Channel 4 drama Born To Kill, where he played a psychopathic teenager. “It was clear from day dot, from an acting point of view, it was something that would push me and I could be very proud of because I had to hit extreme emotional beats. The character, who is oppressed but is a happy person, he doesn’t have any hate in his heart, and grows after getting so many pushes and pokes and trials and tribulations that his story just goes up and down. I immediately I wanted this.”
“It got my juices flowing. It was the most complex character that I’ve ever been introduced to, but I also had free rein. I never judged. I was just up for it and being able to lead a show on BBC One was something I wanted to do, and the fact that it was a very important story only added to it. It’s dark but beautiful,” he added.
Mavahalli said that she read the books close to when they were first published in 2001 but that it took Blackman, who had previously optioned it for a feature film, a bit of persuading to come on board the television adaptation. “Even though the books are targeted for a younger audience, I was just fascinated by the premise and became a fan. I always had a big passion for it and I wanted to see it adapted. It took her a little persuading Malorie to bring it to screen so we talked to her a lot about how it would be adapted. Of course, it is a love story, but it’s an alternate world that you have to envision.”
The series, written by Lydia Adetunji, Nathaniel Price and Rachel De-Lahay, differs slightly from the books and the show ends before the end of the first book.
“Malorie came on with us on a part of that whole journey about how we’d make certain changes to the story; the characters in the book are much younger than they are in our adaptation and so she’s been working with us very closely. It’s six hours for BBC One and we don’t even get to the end of the first book.”
Rowan said that although the story is about a complicated and messy world, it’s essentially the story of a relationship. “It’s about these two characters that go against the grain, two people from opposite sides who fall in love. We both had to do very intense scenes and we became good friends and great partners, we really pushed each other. We always had a sense of partnership, all it needed was a look or a nod, we got each other. We bounced off each other very well, I’d always give her everything even when the camera wasn’t on me. We allowed each other to do the best work at all times. We’re both young and fresh in this world, nothing to the extent of these two characters. Sometimes we were doing scenes about politics or riots, but some scenes were just me and her on a rooftop or a back alley and it was about the innocence.”
The timing of the adaptation is interesting given the similarities with how Brexit is tearing Britain apart. “With Brexit, it’s destroyed friendships and relationships, because much like in our story, there’s segregation, but within this divide we’re still people. A nought and cross can still fall in love. Much like if people were able to find friendship if they’re on opposite sides,” he added.
Paterson Joseph (Timeless) plays Sephy’s father, the Home Secretary Kamal Hadley, Bonnie Mbuli (Invictus) plays her mother Jasmine and her sister Minerva is played by Kike Brimah (Love Type D). Helen Baxendale (Cold Feet) and Ian Hart (The Last Kingdom) play Callum’s parents Meggie and Ryan and Josh Dylan (Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again) will play his older brother Jude. Shaun Dingwall (Goodbye Christopher Robin) plays Liberation Militia leader Dorn. The cast also features Jonathan Ajayi and Rakie Ayola (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child). Stormy, meanwhile, plays a new character, newspaper editor Kolawale.
ITV Studios Global Entertainment is launching the series at Mipcom next week and has high hopes about closing a raft of deals across the world.
Mavahalli, who has been at ITV-owned Mammoth Screen since 2011, said that even though the South Africa-filmed series is set in London, it’s not a particularly British story. “It’s about dealing with prejudice in many forms, so we are borrowing from history that’s happened all over the world whether it’s the American civil rights movement whether it’s apartheid in South Africa or whether it’s British colonial imperialism. I think it should be accessible to more than just a British audience,” she added.
Directed by Daredevil’s Julian Holmes and newcomer Koby Adom, it is produced by Shameless’ Johann Knobel and exec produced by Mavahalli, Whithouse, Kibwe Tavares, Patrick Reardon, Jeff Skoll Miura Kite, Damien Timmer and Ben Irving.
Blackman wrote five books in the series as well as a number of novellas, so there’s plenty of stories to tell if it’s a success and the producers are eyeing a five season run in success. “The books give us a good guide, as much as we are enhancing everything that’s in the books, we know where it could go next,” said Mavahalli. “There is lots of scope for stories in this world to carry on.”
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