Q&A: Stephen Thompson on His New BBC Drama, Racism and Hope

Q&A: Stephen Thompson on His New BBC Drama, Racism and Hope
Actor Patrick Robinson plays Stephen’s brother, Anthony Bryan, on the new BBC drama, “Sitting in Limbo.” (Left Bank Pictures/BBC One, Des Willie)

Born to Jamaican parents and raised in London, writer Stephen Thompson knows firsthand the insidiousness and pervasiveness of racism.

Following his brother’s wrongful detainment by the U.K. government in 2018 during the Windrush Scandal, Thompson set out to tell his brother’s story. His script grabbed the attention of the BBC, and contracts were quickly inked. The show is being heralded in the U.K. as a show that “needs to be seen by white people.”

Thompson’s drama, Sitting in Limbopremiered on BBC One and BBC iPlayer on Monday, June 8.

Ms. writer Anne McCarthy spoke with Thompson via phone from his flat in England.


Anne McCarthy: How would you describe Sitting in Limbo in one sentence?

Stephen Thompson: It’s a story about a man who finds himself threatened with deportation from his own country.

AM: The drama is based on the 2018 Windrush Scandal in the U.K. What was it? 

ST: The word “Windrush” refers to the SS Empire Windrush, which was a steamship that brought the first wave of West Indian migrants to the U.K. in 1948. Onboard were mostly Jamaicans. They were asked to come to the U.K. to help rebuild after the War. Of course, Jamaica and those other West Indian countries were part of the British Empire. 

Those people came and settled in the U.K., most in London. They had children, and those children were called “children of the Windrush generation.” The scandal affected those people who came here, but for whatever reason didn’t have any documentation; people like my brother. When they would try to leave the country and try to get a passport under the racist, right-wing policies, they found they couldn’t get a passport.

And, in actual fact, the government was asking these people: “How is it that you live here and you don’t have any documentation to prove you’re a British citizen?”

The government wrongfully detained Black British people—children of the Windrush generation—denied their legal rights, and threatened to deport them and send them back to Jamaica. It was wrong, and it never should’ve happened. 

AM: On the heels of the George Floyd protests, Sitting in Limbo is especially timely. As a Black British man, what do you think when you see what’s happening in the U.S.?

ST: I’m astounded. It’s putting me in mind of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. I never thought I’d actually see anything like that in America again. As depressing as the incident [of Floyd’s murder] was, that can’t be the endpoint. It should just be the beginning. 

It has echoes and similarities with the Me Too movement; it seems there’s a shift in consciousness. What I see on the news is a lot of agitated, primarily young, ethnically diverse Americans who say: “We’re not having it anymore, and until things fundamentally change, we’re going to stand out here.”

It has a whiff of an uprising, and it spread coast to coast, and around the world! Paris, London, Amsterdam… I’m absolutely amazed. Depressing as the story is that led up to it, actually I’m quite encouraged by it.  

Q&A: Stephen Thompson on His New BBC Drama, Racism and Hope
(@ajplus / Twitter)

AM: Your brother, Anthony Bryan, was a central figure in the Windrush Scandal and is depicted in the BBC drama. Was it difficult writing a narrative that hit so close to home? 

ST: Yeah, it was difficult for me and for him; for him primarily because he had to relive a traumatic experience. And for me, having to see him relive it. So that’s the emotional, familial challenge.

And I was nervous about other members of my family as well—some who wanted to be depicted, some who wanted to remain anonymous. That’s difficult even in the best of times; when it’s your own family, you have to tread even more lightly. 


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AM: How did this project come together? 

ST: That was a process. My brother and I first discussed it in 2018. We discussed doing it as a book, as a memoir we’d write together. We discussed how effective that’d be in terms of reaching a wide audience. So I was talking to my film agent and he said, “What about turning it into a TV drama?” You know, it’s all about timing. There was an urgency on everyone’s part. We didn’t want to miss the moment. At that time, the Windrush Scandal was the biggest story in our country, coming on the back of Brexit as well. 

Q&A: Stephen Thompson on His New BBC Drama, Racism and Hope
A scene from the new BBC drama, “Sitting in Limbo.” (Left Bank Pictures/BBC One, Des Willie)

AM: You’ve been a professional writer for decades, penning multiple critically acclaimed novels, like No More Heroes. How different is the scriptwriting approach?

ST: I definitely see the influence of my prose writing in my scripts; I tend to be quite descriptive. I’m learning to get the balance right between prose and dialogue. The turnaround time is much quicker, particularly in TV. Writing books can be quite a leisurely process that can take years. Scriptwriting is much more technical; all the drafts and remembering what each early draft was like, and trying to hold to your vision is the major challenge. But we managed to hold the vision on this project. 

AM: What was it like collaborating with an institution like the BBC?

ST: It’s one of the pillars of our culture. And it’s on the threat; there are lots of hostile forces trying to dismantle it. It’s the model that everyone follows; there are very few institutions like the BBC anywhere in the world. 

You know, when you’re a kid, you grow up watching the BBC—all these iconic faces and stars—and then you find yourself working with them. You have to kind of step back and remember: “It’s just a broadcaster, it’s just a film.” But there’s also the sense of the enormity of it and the imperative to get it right, because it’s the BBC. They showed a lot of faith in me. Someone had to take a chance on the script and they did.

AM: What did you learn about yourself from writing Sitting in Limbo

ST: I feel more confident in calling myself a screenwriter. This was my first TV script; I’ve always known that I can do it, and can do it well. From this, I’ve learned I can actually do it. That’s been an important confirmation for me. I came out of this thinking: “Oh, I can do this.”


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About

Anne McCarthy is a writer and editor based in Manhattan. She’s a contributing writer to the BBC, The Guardian, Teen Vogue, The Huffington Post, IndieWire, and more. She is a graduate of the Yale Writers Workshop and she has a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Westminster in London.