Black Victorians, British television drama and the 1978 adaptation of David Garnett’s The Sailor’s Return

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The under-representation of Black British history in British film and television drama has attracted significant public debate in recent years. In this context, this article revisits a critically overlooked British film adaptation featuring a woman of African origin as a protagonist in a drama set in Victorian England. The Sailor’s Return (1978), directed by Jack Gold, is an adaptation of a historical fiction written by David Garnett and first published in 1925. This article aims to situate the novel and its adaptation in three important contexts: set in rural Dorset in 1858, the narrative can be considered in the context of Victorian attitudes to people of African origin; written by a member of the Bloomsbury circle, the novel is informed by modernist perspectives on the legacies of the Victorian era; broadcast to a popular audience in the late 1970s, the film can be located in a politically progressive tradition of British television drama. Approached in this way, this multiply mediated cultural representation serves to generate insights into the treatment of racism in liberal left cultural production, from early twentieth century modernist milieus to the anti-racism of the British left in the 1970s. These contexts will inform close textual analysis of two motifs — the depiction of the countryside, and the role of costume — which have proved central to ongoing debates about racialized constructions of national identity in British historical film genres. This article will argue that the 1978 film adaptation of The Sailors Return presents a significant precedent when considering what Stephen Bourne has termed the “invisibility” of Black British history in British historical film.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)207-224
Number of pages18
JournalJournal of Commonwealth Literature
Issue number2
Early online date6 Feb 2017
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jun 2019


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