When drama confronts you with your country’s racism (as a white Briton, the screen and page are the only times I am confronted with it – never on the street, rarely in the classroom, not applying for a job or going through passport control or renting a flat or raising kids or being stopped by the police or writing online, not in any of the exhaustive, exhausting and lethal ways that racism can daily confront somebody Black and British), there’s usually a cushioning historical buffer. Wasn’t it terrible back then, you think. Thank God we’ve moved past that.
Sitting in Limbo covers a period from 2016 to 2018. The drama’s final caption takes us up to May 2020. There’s no consolation to be taken from historical distance; this is a snapshot of Britain now.
Written by novelist Stephen S. Thompson, the feature-length TV film tells the true story of Thompson’s brother Anthony Bryan, a Black British man who arrived in England from Jamaica in 1965, aged eight. Anthony and his mother were part of the Windrush Generation invited to settle in the UK after the Second World War.
Now a father and grandfather, Anthony grew up in London going to school and Scouts and supporting Spurs. He worked first in a factory and then as a builder and painter-decorator. His mother Lucille Thompson spent 30 years as a hospital cleaner before retiring to Jamaica. When Bryan planned to visit his mother overseas with his partner Janet, he applied for a passport, an everyday act that led to his life being dismantled.
Along with hundreds of others whose documentation was wrongly judged insufficient to prove their British citizenship in the period 2012-2017 (during which the UK Home Office’s ‘hostile environment’ policies under Theresa May sought to make it impossible to remain in the UK without the correct paperwork) Bryan was mistakenly classified as an illegal immigrant. A failure to produce his mother’s lost 1965 passport set him on a journey of bureaucratic indifference and deliberate cruelty.
Despite having legally immigrated to the UK as a child, Bryan was stripped of his right to work or claim benefits or NHS healthcare for three years. Despite providing files of documents in support of his legal claim to British citizenship, he lost his job and his home. Twice, he was arrested by Immigration Control and held for a total of five weeks in two detention centres before being issued with a deportation order to Jamaica. Only after his family rallied his MP, an immigration lawyer and involved a press investigation by The Guardian, was the order reversed.
Bryan’s story is told in spare style by director Stella Corradi in this unshowy, heart-heavy drama. Chronological, with no overstatement or flashy tricks, the cruelty of his treatment is laid bare. One day, he’s a regular family man waving to his neighbours on the way to work, the next, he’s being bundled into a van and driven hundreds of miles away.
One aim of Sitting in Limbo is to ask viewers to imagine themselves in Bryan’s place. What if the everyday certainties we all rely on – citizenship, right to work, national identity – were taken away and nothing you did or said could make a difference? How would you feel?
In the role of Bryan, Patrick Robinson (Casualty, The Bill) shows both how he feels and how little he is able to express it. A quiet character who shows almost total restraint, he rarely gives his obvious anger, fear and humiliation an outlet. He’s faced with a series of interrogations from interchangeable ‘just doing my job’ officials, none of whom give him the courtesy of an explanation or apology for his treatment. (He, like so many others hurt by the scandal, has yet to receive compensation, as the final caption tells us). Bryan repeatedly comes up against a brick wall from the immigration department, deflecting with gentle firmness the cruel aspersions they cast on his character and the life he’s made.
Bryan’s self-control doesn’t make him saintly; it’s self-preservation. Suppressing anger so as not to be accused of violence or seen by a racist establishment as a physical threat is a lesson often ingrained in Black men from childhood. While others can, unfairly, get away with ranting, raving and not coming quietly, men like Bryan have had to learn to keep their rage under wraps.
In a mature and nuanced performance, Robinson movingly conveys that struggle. He’s naturalistic and understated, with no histrionics. “School itself wasn’t too bad, you know, but getting there and back in the 70s as a Black kid, it was no joke,” he tells his old headmaster, speaking volumes without saying much. The character’s contained, everyman nature and passivity allow viewers of any background to project onto and empathise with him.
The rage of his partner Janet McKay-Williams (a stand-out performance by the terrific Nadine Marshall from Save Me and The Innocents) is less muted. Her righteous anger and determination, along with the efforts of two of Bryan’s children (played by Pippa Bennett-Warner and C.J. Beckford) get him released from his detention cell. Without the work they did, he could easily have gone the way of many others, like fellow detainee Thaddeus (Leo Wringer), an elderly man with no family deported to Trinidad after a lifetime in the UK.
After three years that took his life apart, when Bryan finally receives his passport, it’s little wonder the scene is played with ambivalence. While Janet parades it around the living room as a trophy, he remains outside, unsmiling, looking in. After the treatment he’s received from his country, it’s a bittersweet victory, if it can be called any victory at all.
Sitting in Limbo is available to streamon BBC iPlayer here.