Sitting in Limbo, review: True story about Britain’s brutal bureaucracy is harrowing to watch

The feature-length drama highlights the Windrush scandal through the ordeal of one man

Sean O'Grady
Tuesday 09 June 2020 16:21 BST
Sitting in Limbo: BBC trailer

Sitting in Limbo (BBC One) is a gripping, upsetting and tenderly told dramatic memoir of one man’s ordeal during the Windrush scandal. Its timing could not have been better.

One modest request of the Black Lives Matter movement is that people listen to the realities about black lives. The stories from the Windrush affair are harrowing, and even now are not understood.

You hear a lot about why Britain’s issues with race aren’t as bad as those in America. Well, it’s not a competition. It’s true that Britain doesn’t have the same gun culture; but the US hasn’t got round to herding up its own legal citizens of colour in the early hours of the morning and threatening to throw them out of their own country.

Sitting in Limbo tells the story of just one of the victims of the government’s “hostile environment policy” on immigration. In 2015 Anthony Bryan, played with quiet force and dignity by Patrick Robinson, was working as a painter and decorator in Edmonton, minding his own business, looking after his family and supporting Tottenham Hotspur FC. He had arrived from Jamaica aged eight in 1965, following his mother, Lucille (Corinne Skinner Carter). Anthony’s “mistake” was to apply for a passport (his first) in 2015 to visit his old mum, who had retired back to the Caribbean. For such audacity, he soon lost his job, his home, his right to use the NHS and to ever receive a state pension (having worked his whole life). Approaching 60 years of age, he was forced to go back to Jamaica, now to him a strange land.

It’s a cliché but what followed was a series of Kafkaesque nightmares. Written by Bryan’s brother, Stephen S Thompson, the drama comprises a never-ending series of humiliating struggles against a brutal, uncomprehending, and, yes, hostile bureaucracy. One day in September 2016, Anthony was dragged from his bed at dawn and transported to the Verne immigration removal centre, a former prison, many miles away in Dorset. In interview after interview Anthony and his rock of a partner Janet (Nadine Marshall) provide officials with ever more documents to prove his history – dating back to before his younger persecutors were born, as he wearily informs them. There is his birth certificate, health records, family photos, his old headmaster’s testimony, the lot – but it’s never enough: “It’s like I’m having to beg to stay in my own country,” he pleads. The claustrophobic atmosphere of the grimy migrant jail and the dingy interview rooms are captured, as are the myriad acts of dehumanisation, loaded with casual racism. Anthony is asked to take a paternity test for “your alleged children”; he is asked if he’s ever been in trouble with the police; and offered “voluntary repatriation” with the princely sum of £2,000 to help him on his way.

Eventually, he is released from the jail/detention centre, and returns home. But in a sickening twist, his ordeals are not over. If it were fiction it might be thought needlessly sadistic: Anthony is trapped at what he thinks is a subsequent routine visit to the immigration authorities. But instead of another circular chat about his passport application, he’s told that the Home Office has changed its mind and he’s got 72 hours before his flight to Jamaica. He’s told: “There’s nothing we can do, the decision has been made.” It is almost absurdly cruel.

This time, though, the caseworker was not quite right: the family scrapes together £1,500 spent on legal fees, wins an injunction from an appalled judge, and Anthony is freed again, for good this time, and starts to tell his story to journalists and MPs. Only then does he receive his passport, but, as of last month, he had not received any compensation for his three years of hell.

The only mystery, sort of, is that the Windrush scandal didn’t result in any riots. No one tried to burn down the Home Office or storm the Verne detention centre. It was more a case of lots of British people quietly packed on to planes to places like Jamaica, Trinidad and Grenada. Apparently the agencies doing the hostile environment work were set deportation targets and the Windrush generation were the “low hanging fruit”. Ministers at the time – such as Theresa May and Amber Rudd – claim they didn’t understand what was going on and apologised. Yet none of them, their advisers or officials have faced justice for this mass assault on the human rights of British citizens. It’s hard to claim that black lives matter and it’s too easy to be moved to anger after you’ve wept your way through this.

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