Noughts + Crosses review – stilted, confused and poorly executed | Television

HASs season two of Noughts + Crosses (BBC One) opens, it is far away from the grim urbanity of its regular London setting. Young lovers Sephy (Masali Baduza) and Callum (Jack Rowan), a black politician’s daughter and a poor white boy, have grown up in a dystopia where black people, known as Crosses, shore up their monopoly of the country’s wealth and power with violence , while whites – AKA Noughts – are a furious, brutalized underclass. Sephy and Callum have chosen love over hate and are holed up together in the peaceful countryside.

It can’t last. The pair are discovered and have to return to the city, to once again deal with the nightmare of living in a cruelly divided world. As viewers, we have our own problem to deal with: a program that wants to be a chilling fable, a talking point, a shaming call to action, but is, sadly, none of those things, because it’s too confused in its intentions and too poorly executed.

Malorie Blackman’s books – this second TV series is based roughly on the final few chapters of 2001’s Noughts + Crosses, with some of the 2004 follow-up, Knife Edge, mixed in and numerous changes made – are young adult novels. On the page, the twin protagonists are kids, 13 and 15 as the story begins, who have a simplicity of worldview and expression that is movingly at odds with the extreme horror of the events they are entangled in. Television tends to make the characters in YA dramatizations older, because the genre’s habit of placing teens in shockingly adult situations would seem inappropriate on screen in a way that it doesn’t in print.

Failing to pull this transition off is what kills Noughts + Crosses as a drama. It airs late and features too much wearing, violence and politics for a young audience, while perhaps not being brutal enough for an adult saga with such a strong premise. Where it really goes wrong, though, is in the way its main characters – adults who may well make hot-headed mistakes but are certainly not children – talk: the open-hearted naivety of the books’ narrators has been replaced by a terribly stilted slang, where every line has a pained intensity that clunks against the actors’ clenched teeth. Occasionally, the script’s writerly over-extensions veer into metaphor-mixing nonsense: “As long as he’s with you,” Sephy is angrily warned when she and Callum come back to town, “he’s a target – and you are the bullet in his head !”

Even Paterson Joseph, typically strong as the authoritarian prime minister Kamal Hadley, is not immune to being made to look ridiculous by the lines he is given. “Give me your update!” he barks, at the start of a scene where someone gives him an update. But the series has a bigger problem when the actors aren’t speaking, because it has succumbed to the lure of the porterous pause. When they take hold of a drama that doesn’t have enough muscle in its dialogue – Sky’s thriller The Fear Index was a severe case recently – portenous pauses can overwhelm it like a virus. Once you’ve started to notice how much time the actors in Noughts + Crosses spend staring past each other in anguished silence, you can’t stop.

It’s also hard to know quite what the political message of the series is. While it is set in an alternative 21st-century Britain where the everyday fabric of life is recognizable, “Albion” is a colony – created when Europe was conquered by “Aprica” – and is thus powered by a codified racism rather than insidious institutional prejudice . The way it’s structured, meanwhile, is more like an apartheid state. The show can’t, therefore, easily be read as a warning that extrapolates from where we are now towards where we might end up. Into this already unclear picture, however, series two’s opening episode adds fleeting contemporary references that feel as if they have escaped from a more direct satire of our present-day, malfunctioning democracy: a TV host makes the Trumpian claim that the government is being undermined by a “biased media”; Callum’s mum, Meggie (Helen Baxendale), works in a food bank; the leader of the Ofa Brotherhood, a hardline black paramilitary organisation, complains that “our culture, our heritage, is under attack”, in the manner of a modern neofascist.

Much of this won’t matter unduly if Noughts + Crosses can, as it did in series one, eventually arrives at a tense, stark conclusion. Last time, there was the question of whether Callum would abandon his political radicalism for the woman he loves; now he has done so, we wonder if Sephy can hold on to her man against the pull of her upbringing and the might of the regime. Readers of the books can make a guess, and this time they only have four episodes rather than six to get through before they find out. Since it is in those inbetween moments where Noughts + Crosses falls apart, that might be a blessing.

Leave a Comment