Sitting in Limbo director Stella Corradi explains how she brought to television the true story of one man’s fight to remain in the UK against the backdrop of the Windrush immigration scandal.
At one point during BBC single drama Sitting in Limbo, an immigration official tells Anthony Bryan: “It’s just routine.” Yet there is nothing routine about his story, or those of many people like him, who became caught up in the Windrush immigration scandal.
After coming to the UK when he was eight years old, Anthony decides to visit his elderly mother in Jamaica. But after filling out a passport application, he is stunned to discover there is no record of him as a British citizen, despite living and working in the country since 1965.
Faced with the uphill task of proving his British citizenship to the Immigration Office, he is forced to leave his job and unable to claim benefits. Then in the early hours of one morning, he is forcibly removed from his home and sent to a detention centre to await possible deportation.
Anthony’s experience, a true story, put him at the centre of what became known as the Windrush scandal, which takes its name from a reference to the ship that brought the first workers from Caribbean countries to the UK following the Second World War. An estimated 500,000 people arrived between 1948 and 1971.
Granted indefinite leave to remain, the new arrivals included thousands of children travelling with their parents and without documents of their own. But changes to UK immigration laws in 2012 meant those without papers were asked for evidence of their citizenship to continue working and even remain in the country.
Some were subsequently detained or deported, prompting huge criticism of the government’s “hostile environment” measures to tackle illegal immigration.
The TV retelling of Anthony’s struggle to be accepted as a British citizen, which debuts tonight, was written by his brother, Stephen S Thompson, and directed by Stella Corradi (Trigonometry). Casualty star Patrick Robinson plays Anthony, opposite Nadine Marshall (Save Me) as his partner Janet McKay-Williams.
“If you’ve been living here for 50 years and you have your whole life here, when someone tells you that you don’t, that you have no right to be here, that just has to be a mistake,” Corradi tells DQ.
“It was put to them that if they provided enough documentation to prove that his whole life was in the UK, it would somehow be resolved. But what they were asked for was almost impossible to get, like tenancy agreements from the 1970s or school records that are destroyed every few years. They targeted a certain generation that didn’t have the abilities that we might have in terms of computer research or online information, even bank account statements. Not everyone that age is online. All these things were used to take advantage of the Windrush generation.”
The director can relate to Anthony’s story through her own similar experience. Corradi was born in Italy and came to live with her grandmother in the UK when she was five.
“As I was pitching for the project, I was sorting out my Settled Status as a European citizen here [after Brexit],” she reveals. “Even though I’d been here 28 years, I had to have documentation for every month of the past five years. My daughter was born here but, because both me and my husband are European citizens, she didn’t have UK status. So until we had our Settled Status, she was basically stateless.
“When I came here as a child, I lived in Hackney [in East London] and my grandma was a musician, so I was supported by a West Indian family. I had a grandfather figure who came on the Windrush and he basically raised me. We were very close. He died a year before I started this project, but that was another thing that really connected me to it in the sense that he would have probably gone through the same thing, because I knew he didn’t have his passport. So Anthony’s story felt very close, like this could be someone from my family, or this could be any of us, really.”
The real Anthony was raised in the same area as Corradi, and they shared stories together of growing up there. “When I came over here, the Caribbean community was as British as you could get,” she remembers. “That’s the community that opened their doors for my friends, and I’d eat at their houses. For me, it was a parallel to being British. You couldn’t be more British. Everyone was shocked about the Windrush generation specifically being targeted in this hostile environment.”
Throughout the film, which is produced by Left Bank Pictures (The Crown) and distributed by Sony Pictures Television, Sitting in Limbo asks questions of identity, what it means to be British and whether that notion is something more than a piece of paper.
“It’s not about who has the right, legal or illegal. It’s how you feel. It’s your identity,” Corradi says. “If you identify as British, then it’s a betrayal when you’re told you’re not. I feel British. Yes, I’m Italian. I was born in Italy, I speak Italian and I have family there, but I wouldn’t be able to have a life there. It’s a scary thought that someone thinks I should go back there, and that’s the same thing with a lot of people.
“It doesn’t matter where you’re born, there are some people who were here as children, raised here as British and are expected to go back to Jamaica where they have no connections and are just expected to fix themselves up and live a life there. It’s not only a betrayal, it’s inhumane.”
Corradi met with executive producer Lila Rawlings, who had developed the project with Thompson, and landed the directing job by demonstrating her passion for telling Anthony’s story and her vision to dramatise it in a cinematic way. “Visually, it’s quite different from other BBC1 dramas. It’s not your like typical social realist drama,” says the director, who reunited with cinematographer Rina Yang after they worked together for Channel 4 drama anthology On the Edge. Together, they agreed this wasn’t just Anthony’s story but also that of his partner Janet, who supports the family when he is unable to work and while he is detained.
“She has to take up the helm and she has to become very legally savvy. She gets lawyers and gets injunction against his deportation and builds this case herself,” Corradi says. “The Windrush generation are not allowed to work. They don’t have the right to claim any benefits and they don’t have rights to legal aid, so they can’t build a case to defend themselves. It’s quite a horrible system to find yourself in, but Janet managed to get it sorted. Anthony wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Janet fighting on the outside. So the film becomes a two-hander.
“Nadine Marshall, who plays Janet, is just amazing. She is phenomenal. Every single take she did was just fantastic and you can’t take your eyes off her. She’s just one of those phenomenal actresses I don’t think has been valued enough on British TV.”
As viewers follow Anthony through the immigration system, the camera successfully conveys the stress and frustration caused by the constant demand for more paperwork and a lack of answers or resolution. Corradi says series such as Mindhunter and Mr Robot inspired the numerous bleak interview and meeting scenes between Anthony and the various officials he meets, which also stand in stark contrast to the warmth and colour of the family gatherings that bookend the film.
“You get a sense of the warmth and the closeness of the family, so when he’s ripped out of that, you’re taken with him and thrown into the cold world of the detention centre,” Corradi says.
“There’s not much handheld camerawork, it’s not gritty. It’s quite smooth and cinematic, with high angles over him. It creeps in; it’s very calculated. That sounds manipulative, but it’s how we work. You [come up with a] shot list, you plan it and then you see if it works. We changed things around a lot in the edit. It was more or less a jigsaw – we were just moving bits and bobs about. You always tell the story the third time in the edit.”
Filming was “stressful,” the director recalls, owing to a short schedule that sometimes called for seven-and-a-half pages of the script to be completed in a single day. The drama was largely filmed on location across North London, while prison scenes were recorded at the disused Canterbury Prison in Kent and clifftop scenes outside the detention centre were filmed at island prison The Verne, in Dorset, where Anthony was actually detained.
One of the biggest challenges of producing a single drama is balancing character development with plot, with only the opening scenes to introduce Anthony and his family before he is pulled into the immigration system.
“We want to get to know them and see what normal life is like. But there is so much that happens that we did drop a few scenes from that initial 20 minutes we had to get into the drama,” Corradi explains.
“Now you get to know Anthony and the family through the struggle. You’ve got this lovely party scene first, and you feel the warmth and get a sense of the relationship and the romance. Another thing I really love about this film is the relationship between Janet and Anthony. They’re of a certain age, and you don’t see that kind of sexy romance with people of that age on TV, so it starts with them. They have gone through something difficult but they will always be close and will always be together. Not a lot of families were so lucky.”
Corradi hopes viewers will come away from the film with a connection to the family, seeing something of themselves in them and empathising with their struggle. “I want to them to put themselves in someone’s shoes and step out of that way of thinking, ‘This would never happen to me because I’m British or because I’m white.’ I want everybody to connect and say, ‘Well, what if this was our family, would we stand by this? Would we be outraged?’”
She adds: “It’s about asking ourselves those questions, but also enjoying it as a drama and being on the emotional roller coaster with them.”