Last Night's TV - I Am Slave, Channel 4; In Their Own Words: British Novelists, BBC4

Free spirit who stole the heart

Those of us old enough to remember Roots, the 1977 mini-series inspired by Alex Haley's best-selling story of his African-American forebears , were swept back in time by the early scenes in
I Am Slave, in which slave-traders attacked a village in the Nuba mountains of Sudan and carried off girls to be sold like cattle in Khartoum. It was Clive James, writing about Roots in The Observer all those years ago, who noted that the African village raided by the dastardly slave-traders seemed to be populated entirely by philosophers, rather hammering the message that the villagers were the cream of their culture, the traders the dregs of theirs.

I Am Slave was similarly monochromatic; the father of Malia, the girl whose story this was, was a proud and noble warrior, champion wrestler of his tribe, master-storyteller and, indeed, philosopher. By contrast, Malia was forced into domestic service in Khartoum by a woman who made Cruella de Vil look like a Blue Peter presenter. It was Good vs Evil, rendered as Dagenham & Redbridge vs Manchester United. One was no match for the other, the easy supremacy of evil confirmed when, through a window while out with her mistress, Malia caught a tantalising glimpse of her beloved father, the champion wrestler having taken a job as a city binman in his desperation to find her.

None of this was presented chronologically. The story leapt back and forth, so we already knew that Malia wound up imprisoned in a big house in London with Cruella's marginally less horrid cousin. There, the family chauffeur took pity on her, and would have given her shelter, only you can overdo these things. "Small house, tricky wife," he muttered by way of an excuse, so Malia had to look elsewhere for salvation, eventually finding it in the form of a black passer-by who fortuitously turned out to be not from St Lucia or for that matter St Albans, but Sudanese just like her, and who recognised her as the princess she was. The ending was truly affecting, Malia crying her eyes out on the phone to her father. She had been taken when she was 12; she was now 18. A caption informed us that there are up to 5,000 such slaves in London.

This was heavy fare for a Bank Holiday, and ironically it was a sweet old woman who really thrashed the living daylights out of poor Malia: Miss Marple over on ITV1. But a Bank Holiday is as good a time as any to consider the circumstances of those less fortunate than ourselves, in this case those for whom holidays, let alone paid holidays, are non-existent. On the whole, Jeremy Brock (writer) and Gabriel Range (director) did a decent job. I Am Slave could have been less heavy-handed in parts, and I very much doubt whether they speak quite such excellent English up in the Nuba mountains, but it was a stirring, important drama with some powerful performances, above all by Wunmi Mosaku, as the older Malia.

Horrifying though it is in 2010 to know that there are so many domestic slaves in London, at least we've made strides in other ways since the convulsive 1970s and 1980s, recalled in the concluding instalment of In Their Own Words: British Novelists. It wasn't quite as absorbing as the first documentary in this fine three-part series, which unearthed some fantastic archive material, but it was still a great treat to see dear old Arthur Marshall of blessed memory, listening to Angela Carter reading from one of her own fantasy novels, and then sweetly saying that, beautifully as it was written, he preferred novels that began "Mrs Henderson walked slowly into Sainsbury's and purchased a pound of cod." Then, he said, you know where you are, and I must say I'm with Arthur, but Carter was equal to his jibe. "I'd like to know the Sainsbury's where you can buy cod," she said.

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