Sitting in Limbo

A TV drama about the #windrushscandal was on on Monday 8th June on BBC 1, at 8.30pm. It’s called Sitting in Limbo. It’s about a man who went to apply for a passport to visit his mother in Jamaica, then it all went wrong after living in the UK for 50 years.  You can watch it now on BBC iPlayer: Sitting in Limbo

It has had a tremendous impact and people from all different backgrounds have remarked on what a powerful and informative drama it is. It is truly shocking, and so relevant to what is happening now across the globe. Tory claims, including the arch hypocrite Boris Johnson, that they are not racist is exposed by the revelations in this programs as bare faced lies. The acting is outstanding and they convey the hurt, confusion, fear and extraordinary determination of the family devastated by the “hostile environment” policy of the Tory Government.

Sitting In Limbo: Brother turns Windrush scandal into a very personal TV drama

Patrick Robinson as Anthony Bryan in Sitting In Limbo
Image captionPatrick Robinson plays Anthony Bryan in Sitting In Limbo

Anthony Bryan had lived and worked in Britain for 50 years when he was suddenly detained and almost deported. His brother has now told his story in a feature-length TV drama that brings home the impact of the Windrush scandal.

Anthony Bryan’s story has been told in newspaper articles and a TV documentary and at a damning House of Commons hearing – but a TV drama has the power to really plunge you into a person’s life.

In BBC One’s Sitting In Limbo, we follow Bryan, a painter-decorator who had never been in trouble with the law, as he is told he can no longer work, before being arrested in his London home, detained for five weeks and booked on a plane to Jamaica, a country he hadn’t visited since 1965, when he was eight.

Patrick Robinson, who plays Bryan, says: “When I read the script, I was in tears easily halfway through and blubbing at the end, knowing that I wanted to be involved in this piece, because it made me feel.”

Bryan was one of many people to be caught up in the Windrush scandal – people who had moved from the Caribbean to the UK, mostly as children, and became collateral damage as the government created a “hostile environment” towards immigration.

Anthony Bryan with his partner Janet McKay-Williams
Image captionAnthony Bryan with his partner Janet McKay-Williams

The government has said more than 160 people may have been wrongly detained or deported. More than 1,270 claims have been made to a compensation scheme.

An independent review found there was a “profound institutional failure” which turned thousands of people’s lives upside down, and Home Secretary Priti Patel said “on behalf of this and successive governments I am truly sorry for the actions that span decades”.

“It broke me,” Bryan said of the ordeal in a 2019 BBC documentary, which is being repeated five days after the drama.

His younger brother, novelist Stephen S Thompson, used his first-hand insight to write the script for Sitting In Limbo.

He originally heard about the arrest from Bryan’s partner Janet.

Patrick Robinson as Anthony Bryan and Nadine Marshall as wife Janet in Sitting In Limbo
Image captionBafta nominee Nadine Marshall plays Janet in the TV drama

“My first thought was, that’s a bit strange because I’ve never known him to be in trouble with the police,” Thompson says. “And then she mentioned the word ‘immigration’. And that made it even more strange.

“First it was shock, then horror, and then like, OK, how do we become practical about this? How are we going to get him out?”

Bryan had to prove he really had arrived in the 60s and been in the UK ever since. The Home Office thought he was lying, he told MPs in 2018.

He was detained twice and feared he would next see his family when they visited him in Jamaica. Only a last-minute intervention by an immigration lawyer in 2017 prevented his deportation.

Stephen S Thompson and brother Anthony BryanImage copyrightSTEPHEN S THOMPSON
Image captionStephen S Thompson with his brother

Bryan was “very stoic” throughout, Thompson says. “Obviously, he’s been traumatised by it. He couldn’t quite believe it, like all of us.

“He gets to that point where he thinks, OK, well, it must be a mistake. He has quite a lot of faith in – or he had quite a lot of faith in – the system in this country, in this idea of fair play.

“He refuses even till this day to feel embittered, or to take it too personally or to see it as fundamentally an issue of race.”

‘Treated like a criminal’

Even so, the current backdrop of protests about systemic racism in the UK as well as the US is likely to give Monday’s broadcast added potency.

“Initially, I think he was disappointed and hurt and felt like he was being treated like a criminal by his own country when he’d done nothing wrong,” Thompson continues.

“That sense of disappointment is probably the underlying emotion. How could this country that he believed in so much let him down so badly?”

Anthony Bryan pictured in 2018Image copyrightGETTY IMAGES
Image captionAnthony Bryan told his story to his brother for the script

Bryan was heavily involved when Thompson was working on the script. The writer had to ask his brother and Janet to open up about the emotions they went through at the time.

“It’s not easy to dredge that stuff up again,” Thompson says, adding that the softly-spoken Bryan is naturally “quite private”.

“But without that emotional content, it just wouldn’t be the same. So that was the most difficult thing for me because they had to relive it, or at least talk about it in a very explicit way, whereas like I said, they’re not really those types.

“So even though he’s my brother, I guess we kind of had to build that trust as we went along.”

Patrick Robinson, who’s best known for playing Ash in the BBC’s Casualty, remembers being “outraged” when the scandal broke in 2017.

Patrick Robinson as Anthony Bryan in Sitting In Limbo
Image captionPatrick Robinson has starred in the BBC’s Casualty and Sky’s Mount Pleasant

It wasn’t news to him, however – a friend’s brother, who had been in the UK since he was five months old, was not allowed to come back after a trip to Jamaica, meaning he missed his mother’s funeral.

“When you hear more about it, you just think, that could be me or my brother,” Robinson says. “So yes, it’s outrageous and sadly par for the course to do with bureaucracy and government, especially the British government.”

Robinson’s own parents came from Jamaica to Britain in the late 1950s or early 60s. He was born in the UK, but older siblings had travelled with their mother and father.

Immigration invitation

He learned a lot about the history of Caribbean immigration to the UK when narrating a documentary about the Windrush generation in the late 1990s.

For instance, he learned that Conservative Health Minister Enoch Powell – later notorious for his “rivers of blood” speech – recruited women from the British Empire to work as nurses in the NHS in the early 60s.

“They got invited here, and that’s what’s missing for me in terms of the narrative that people don’t really know,” Robinson says.

Patrick Robinson as Anthony Bryan in Sitting In Limbo
Image captionPatrick Robinson in a scene from Sitting In Limbo

The actor got to know the real Anthony Bryan “a little bit” during the course of filming.

“He’s a very cool guy,” he says. “He’s pretty dignified and that’s how he was, I believe, throughout the whole experience that he had.”

The drama includes scenes of Bryan with friends in a local club in Tottenham. Before meeting Bryan, Robinson’s research involved going under cover to “shadow” him one night.

“I just slipped in there and watched him for an hour before I made myself known to him in the club. That was great. And he was very loved, genuinely, as I watched people come up to him and hang out and chat.”

Despite the extensive reporting of the Windrush scandal – not least when it led to Home Secretary Amber Rudd’s resignation in 2018 – Robinson thinks the TV drama can give viewers a new insight into the personal toll.

“I hope that it will make people think. You hope they’re entertained. You hope they feel,” he says.

“In order to try to understand other people, you just have to imagine yourself in their shoes. And what the film can do is put you there.”

Sitting in Limbo is on BBC One at 20:30 BST on Monday, and then on BBC iPlayer. The Unwanted: The Secret Windrush Files is on BBC Two at 20:15 on 13 June, and then on iPlayer.

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