‘I couldn’t believe the brutality’ – actor Pippa Bennett-Warner on new Windrush scandal drama
Ahead of new BBC One drama Sitting In Limbo, Pippa Bennett-Warner talks to gal-dem about the Windrush scandal, why it's so personal to her and what it means to be British.
04 Jun 2020
I speak to the actor Pippa Bennett-Warner, on a video call set to the backdrop of a pandemic that is killing black people more than any other ethnicity in the UK and the day after protests break out in Minnesota after yet another black person is murdered. It feels heavy.
The interviewer-actor facade drops for a second as we – two black women check in on each other, and hold space for our shared grief. “I’m just exhausted with all the stuff that’s been happening,” she sighs. “It’s been a real tough week if I’m honest,” I add. And before we’ve got into anything else we’re telling each other we should “relax” and “breath”, “we’re all feeling it.”
Eerily, Sitting In Limbo, the new feature-length BBC One drama from the Director of Trigonometry, couldn’t come at a more relevant time. Based on the true story of one man’s life under the Tory government’s hostile environment and at the epicentre of the Windrush scandal, it serves as a further reminder of the recent and ongoing institutionalised racism right here in the UK – a truth black people know all too well.
“I just couldn’t believe the brutality and the personal questions. The whole thing was completely shocking to me and that’s why I wanted to do it”
Pippa who has performed at the National Theatre and been in shows like Silent Witness, The Awakening and most recently Gangs Of London, plays Anthony’s daughter Eileen. After trying to file paperwork for his passport to visit his mother in Jamaica, Anthony soon finds out there is no record of him being a British citizen despite living in the UK since the age of eight. He’s detained, treated appallingly and ends up being traumatised by his mistreatment. Sitting In Limbo manages to humanise the real experiences of black people in Britain in a way that article headlines or hollow apologies have fallen short.
For Pippa, whose mother is Jamaican, father is from St Kitts and grandparents came over in the 50s, before sending for her parents – this script was close to home. “I started reading and I couldn’t stop crying and crying,” she says. “I just couldn’t believe the brutality and the personal questions. The whole thing was completely shocking to me and that’s why I wanted to do it.”
Anthony and his family feel like a very typical Caribbean British family – and in many ways reminded me of my own. He went to scouts as a child, his grandchild now goes to Brownies. He supports Spurs and loves going to the pub with his friends. Even after all of this, his mistreatment is a reminder that for some of us, our Britishness is built on sand. “This is somebody who’s paid their taxes, who’s paid their dues. This is their home. And now you’re saying that you don’t have a right to be here. I mean, it’s, it’s, it’s, it’s…” Pippa searches for the words, “it sort of renders me speechless. There’s displacement, and you feel like you don’t belong, because if he doesn’t belong, and she doesn’t belong, and they’ve got the same background as us, maybe we don’t belong.”
The parallels between her own father and Anthony were felt. “My dad had the worst time growing up in this country, he was constantly the victim of racist abuse. And then to think his generation which is Anthony’s generation… the payback to be, ‘oh, you have no right to be here’ you then start to question your own Britishness.”
Filming something this close to home was undoubtedly a challenge. “There was quite a lot of crying on set,” Pippa explains. In one striking scene, Anthony gets a knock at the door in the middle of the night, still fuzzy eyed and in his pyjamas with the kind of vulnerability being startled from sleep brings. He’s treated with no respect, arrested and taken away. “In real life, they arrested him at 11:00 am in the morning and they drove him around basically, in this huge circle to disorientate him and then they arrived at the van at like 11 o’clock at night.”
“The trauma they caused people and they’re still causing people is unforgivable”
Pippa hopes Sitting in Limbo will “help bring awareness” to how people involved in the Windrush scandal were being treated. “People are still suffering from this,” she says impassioned. “I mean, you know, people haven’t received any compensation and people lost their lives over the years, they couldn’t afford to keep their homes.”
Political dramas can serve as more than just entertainment. In this case, it is educational, a reminder of the distress the government has caused to countless black British people. “The way the Conservative Party behaved during that time is unforgivable,” Pippa says “The trauma they caused people and they’re still causing people is unforgivable.” You see it with every flinch Anthony makes when he hears the door, every paranoid glance – the fear you will be ripped away from your family and detained for simply being black.
Sitting In Limbo is the kind of drama that might take multiple viewings to get through. It’s a difficult story to digest, and some parts feel visceral, leaving me with the same hollow feeling of witnessing injustice as I, Daniel Blake. But this is a true story. At moments it’s easy to get lost in the dramatic tensions, heightened emotions you forget it’s a real story, written by Stephen S. Thompson, the brother of real-life Anthony. “You’re getting a really accurate depiction of what really went on. Verbatim, you know, straight from the source,” adds Pippa.
In some ways black British television feels like it’s moved leaps and bounds. But as a black actor, who has been performing since childhood, and faced hurdles like typecasting, Pippa thinks there’s still a long way to go. “There’s still a fight that needs to happen. And we’re in 2020,” she says honestly. “But I think something like Sitting In Limbo is so good, and it’s so good for the black community. “It can’t be forgotten, it shouldn’t be forgotten. It shouldn’t be glossed over.”
Sitting in Limbo airs at 8.30pm Monday 8 June on BBC 1 and will be available on iPlayer