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Small Island - Black pride and British prejudice

Andrea Levy's prize-winning novel 'Small Island' has been turned into a TV drama. Guy Adams talks to its fast-rising star, David Oyelowo

Sunday-night drama on the BBC is usually of the "costume" variety. An expensive adaptation of Austen, Dickens, or Brontë, starring a dame such as Eileen Atkins or Judi Dench. It's their kind of format: very formal, very English, and very, very safe.

Every now and then, though, the Beeb takes a deep breath and uses its flagship slot to challenge what Greg Dyke called "hideously white" convention. It did it in March, with Alexander McCall Smith's The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. Now it's trying to repeat the trick, with a two-part adaptation of Small Island, Andrea Levy's sweeping novel about Caribbean immigration.

Both projects share colonial themes, quirky creative histories, and an ambitious remit: to prove that drama about black people can equal ratings success. The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency, made by Anthony Minghella and Richard Curtis, attracted 6 million viewers; Small Island is one of the centrepieces of the BBC's autumn schedule.

The two projects also share one of Britain's most acclaimed young actors. He is David Oyelowo, an increasingly recognisable performer who has spent his career gently broadening the horizons of black talent. Currently based in Hollywood, he is now a sort of go-to guy for film-makers wrestling with delicate issues like race and cultural identity.

Oyelowo first made headlines a decade ago, when he became the first person of colour to play an English monarch for the RSC. Then he got a break in TV, with a long run in Spooks. Recently, he's graduated to film, playing Orlando in Kenneth Branagh's As You Like It, and helping demonstrate, with a major role in The Last King of Scotland, that movies about Africa can be "box office."

In Small Island, he plays Gilbert Joseph, a Jamaican who leaves his homeland to serve in the RAF during the Second World War, before settling in London. The film paints a sometimes unsettling picture of 1950s Britain, where immigrants were dubbed "wogs" and landlords routinely stipulated: "No blacks, no Irish, no dogs."

"It contextualises the black experience in cities like London, Manchester, and Birmingham, for a country that's very much in the throes of looking at immigration," Oyelowo says. "By and large, I haven't seen a TV drama tackle this subject before. It's fantastic to be part of something that won't just entertain but also educate. I'm a black Brit and I didn't know a lot I found out from doing the film."

We are talking in Los Angeles, where Oyelowo recently settled in an effort to capitalise on the success of The Last King. Though he has a burgeoning movie-star career (and just filmed the next George Lucas flick) he cites his ability to now juggle major US projects with British TV work like Small Island as the prime reason he moved.

"One of the frustrations I had as an actor in the UK – and I've been very blessed – is the sheer number of period dramas we do, which rule out any person of colour almost instantaneously. Back home, I'm a minority actor within a cottage industry. After too long, my career would just go round in circles. I still want to do TV and theatre, but I also want to make films, and to do that, you really need to be based out here."

The Small Island adaptation, as it happens, was mostly made in Ireland. In it, Ruth Wilson plays Queenie Bligh, a white housewife who scandalises her London neighbours by taking in Gilbert as a lodger, and then giving birth to a mixed-race child following an affair with a Jamaican airman. Naomie Harris, another black British actress on the cusp of major stardom, takes the female lead, as Gilbert's wife Hortense.

Levy's book, which won both the Orange and Whitbread prizes in 2004, was striking for its portrayal of the "Englishness" of Commonwealth immigrants to post-war Britain. It portrayed their struggles with a mixture of humour and integrity that Oyelowo hopes come through in the TV adaptation.

"The first wave of immigrants felt a real ownership of the UK," he says. "We forget, these days, that they were going to what they saw as their country, governed by their King and Queen. They put Britain on a pedestal, but obviously got a terribly cold reception when they arrived, and were forced to live in appalling accommodation and told to go back to where they'd come from."

Appropriately, given this over-arching theme, Oyelowo spent much of his childhood criss-crossing the globe. He was born in Oxford 33 years ago, but his father, who was the king of a small state in western Nigeria, returned the family to Africa when David was six. Seven years later, political strife forced them to return to the UK, where they settled in north London.

Today, Oyelowo lives with his wife, the actress Jessica Oyelowo, and their three mixed-race children, in the Hollywood Hills. The family home doubles as an office for a production company they are in the early stages of launching, and a classroom for their home-schooled kids.

The US provided a different sort of immigrant experience, he says. "Out here, when someone introduces themselves as an African-American, there's no hesitation or qualification. That's what they are. In Britain, for a person of colour, it's always qualified by where your parents were from. It's almost an apology."

America's troubled history of race-relations crops up in Small Island, in a scene in which US airmen stationed in the UK during the war beat up a black soldier in a cinema queue. By coincidence, it is also central to Oyelowo's next major project: the George Lucas film Red Tails.

That film, about an all-black US air-force squadron of the Second World War (the tails of their aeroplanes were painted red), was shot in Prague this summer, and hits cinemas next year. Though made in an atmosphere of tight secrecy, Oyelowo promises that it will contain striking special effects and shed light on an under-represented chapter in black history.

"The 'Red Tails' had the most successful record for guiding bombers in the war. They were fighter pilots, and what they ended up doing was incredibly selfless, because the glamour job of being a fighter pilot was shooting down Germans," he says.

"They weren't actually allowed to fly for most of the war, because a black squadron was deemed inadequate. But eventually, the US air force was just haemorrhaging bombers and fighters, so they finally said 'OK, get the Red Tails in.' They were brilliant at it, and the film tells their story of going from being completely marginalised to being heroes."

The film marks a departure for the Star Wars creator. Oyelowo, who recently took a family vacation at Lucas's home, Skywalker Ranch, thinks it was the somewhat dated hardware that actually attracted Lucas to the project. "Towards the end of the war, they got to fight these incredible planes called B61s, 'The Cadillac of the skies.' I think the combination of the history element and the story element and just the sheer fact of the dog-fighting, which is what these planes were famous for, were what drew George Lucas into the story."

The depth of knowledge Oyelowo displays about his roles is testament to both his natural inquisitiveness and his classical training. He first became involved in youth theatre at the age of 13, giving up a place at law school after winning a scholarship to Lamda. Soon after graduating, in the late 1990s, he was picked up by the RSC, of which he is still a trustee.

A religious man, who attends a non-denominational church in Los Angeles, his tastes are clean-cut. He boasts a cut-glass accent, a passion for tennis ("I'm obsessed with it") and a natural vibrancy that has become the hallmark of his most acclaimed performances.

"There's a humour and warmth he gave to the character which you see elsewhere in David's work," says Vicky Licorish, the film producer who devoted five years to adapting Small Island. "One of Andrea Levy's big notes to us was to remember that the story is a comedy. People get very earnest about its subject, but there's a real lightness of touch to the book, and David was able to capture that."

The director John Alexander praises Oyelowo's attention to detail: "He really researched Gilbert. In fact, he picked up very early on from reading the book that Gilbert had a gold tooth. It's mentioned once. But from the start, David wouldn't go into a scene unless he had it. That's the kind of detail a good actor can find and develop."

The fruit of those labours will hit the nation's living room on Sunday night. Whether audiences like or loathe it (for my money, the film was beautifully paced and at times very moving), Oyelowo hopes that viewers will at least appreciate the fact that the thought-provoking project is different from the normal Sunday-night fare.

"I love Austen to death, but please, even she must be spinning in her grave at the number of times she's been wheeled out these days," he says. "Anyone who goes to the cinema or watches TV knows there is a dearth of new ideas, a dearth of new material and a dearth of new stories. The black experience has been very under-represented in terms of drama, and maybe Small Island can help highlight what an oversight that is."

'Small Island' is broadcast on 6 & 13 December on BBC One