As the best-selling book debuts on BBC, the lead actor discusses his determination to do the popular story justice, everyday racism, and working with powerhouses Malorie Blackman and Stormzy
In the opening of the BBC’s adaptation of Malorie Blackman’s award-winning young adult novel Noughts and Crosses, a black police officer brutally attacks a white teen who’s been caught at an “illegal gathering”. It’s a familiar narrative, albeit the inverse, that sets the precedent for this fictionalised version of London – known as Albion – where racial hierarchies are reversed, with a black ruling class (Crosses) and a white underclass (Noughts).
“It’s a shame it’s still relevant,” says Jack Rowan. Rowan plays Callum, a working class Nought who befriends Sephy (played by South African actor Masali Baduza), a daughter of a wealthy Cross statesman. With the first episode airing March 4, the Koby Adom-directed six-part series follows the two central characters and their bittersweet story of forbidden love, fighting ruthlessly against the systematic racial structures keeping them apart. “It’s basically a story of star-crossed lovers,” he explains, “There’s definitely a touch of Romeo and Juliet to the whole thing. Just like Capulets and Montagues, the Noughts and Crosses don’t mix.”
When Blackman’s novel was published in 2001, it sold nearly two million copies, and remains a firm favourite to this day. It’s the subject of many theatrical adaptations, including the most recent iteration by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Stormzy, who is a huge fan of the books, stars as newspaper editor Kolowale, a new character who will appear in one episode.
In this inversion of Western reality, oppression is not simply limited to draconian ideas of power (though segregation between races is enforced), but the subtleties of how racism can manifest: plasters come in brown tones rather than pink; God is assumed to be black; the mansions in north London are owned by wealthy African imperialists and flanked with imported palm trees; and when there’s talk of sunshine, a black boss jokes to her staff: “You might even get some colour”. “You hope that someone who never gets affected by racism might see the show and be affected. It's on a plate for them. It's someone who looks similar to them on the other side of the line, which is unique in this society,” says Rowan.
We speak on a sheltered rooftop in central London, which is worlds away from any place his character Callum would be seen (or allowed) in Albion. He’s recently turned 23, fresh from his birthday weekend, and sipping a green tea. “I’m having a detox week,” he laughs. Previously, Rowan played aspiring boxer Bonnie Gold on hit series Peaky Blinders, before quitting the show to pursue the role of Callum. “It's either take a risk (with a series) that hasn’t been made yet or be in a show where I'm a part of the puzzle,” he begins. “This book means so much to so many, and the subject matter is so strong and powerful and special. It feels unique. That I want to do it right and justice.”
The show’s producers gave Rowan films, documentaries, and archival footage to watch as his homework, which ranged from Buz Lurman’s rendition of Romeo + Juliet to a documentary on Bloody Sunday, and ‘71, which chronicle the sectarian Troubles conflict in Northern Ireland. “When you think of a show like Noughts and Crosses, you think it’s all about race, but there’s also the idea of young men fighting against a rigged system. The Liberation Militia definitely has parallels to the IRA, for example,” he says.
“This book means so much to so many, and the subject matter is so strong and powerful and special. It feels unique. That I want to do it right and justice” – Jack Rowan
A highlight of the process was, of course, meeting Stormzy, who not only plays a cameo in the series but will also be publishing Blackman’s upcoming autobiography on his publishing imprint #Merky Books. “He was fantastic,” says Rowan, grinning. “He’s so down to earth and very humble. Even though he clearly had so many things to prepare for (this was just months before his iconic Glastonbury performance), he took time out of his schedule to come into the project.” He pauses, as if to remember something, then adds, “There was this moment when filming finished that me and the lads wanted a group picture with him, and he must have clocked because before we got to him, he was like, ‘boys, let’s get a picture’.”
Despite all this, Rowan only met Blackman, who he and the crew refer to as ‘Auntie Malorie’, for the first time a few weeks ago at the show’s first screening. “We just kept missing each other!” Really? “She was such a big part of the process, but she embraced change too, and let us do our thing. Now that we’ve finally met, like what a cool lady. She’s everything I thought she’d be, but even better. I could pick her brain all day.”
Earlier this year, Blackman admitted that she was considering quitting social media once the show is released to prioritise her mental health. When I ask Rowan his thoughts, he responds: “She is literally the heart of the show and she’s happy with it, so I get if she doesn’t want to look at social media. It makes sense, because anyone can say anything, but I’m not really bothered about that either.”
As for the show’s legacy, he says: “I think it won’t be missed. Things like this can’t be brushed under the carpet, it will start a conversation, and that’s the most important part of it.”
Noughts and Crosses is out now on BBC One and iPlayer