McQueen’s ‘Uprising’ looks at New Cross Fire

Tuesday: Uprising; (BBC1, 9pm)

Oscar-winning director Steve McQueen’s drama anthology Small Axe was one of the TV highlights of 2020. The five films all explored stories about the lives of West Indian immigrants in London from the 1960s to the 1980s.

One of the films, Alex Wheatle, touched on the impact of the New Cross Fire of 1981, which claimed the lives of 13 young black British people when a blaze began at a birthday party.

The tragedy is also the starting point for McQueen’s new project Uprising, a three-part documentary series showing across consecutive evenings, which looks at three intertwined events that took place in the same year.

New Cross Fire Protest 1981

Subsequent episodes will focus on the Black People’s Day of Action, which saw more than 20,000 people join the first organised mass protest by black British people, and the Brixton riots, but it begins with the fire.

James Rogan, the series’ co-director and executive producer, says: “The New Cross Fire that claimed the lives of so many young people and affected many more remains one of the biggest losses of life in a house fire in modern British history. What happened and how Britain responded to it is a story that has been waiting to be told in depth for 40 years.

“In the series, survivors and the key participants will give their account of the fire, the aftermath, the impact it had on the historic events of 1981 and the profound legacy it has left behind.”

McQueen, whose films include 12 Years a Slave and Widows, added: “We can only learn if we look at things through the eyes of everyone concerned; the New Cross Fire passed into history as a tragic footnote, but that event and its aftermath can now be seen as momentous events in our nation’s history.”

The series begins by charting the build up to the blaze, which broke out in the early hours of January 18, 1981. It introduces some of the people who would attend. Wayne Haynes and Denise Gooding share their experiences of growing up in South London, as tensions with the police rise and the National Front brings racism to the forefront of local politics.

There are stories of harassment and dramatic confrontations, but there were also sound systems, lover’s rock and reggae to offer an escape. But then 16-year-old Yvonne Ruddock decides to have a birthday party, unwittingly setting the scene for a tragedy that will have far-reaching consequences.

The second episode explores the aftermath, as the local community struggles to take in the scale of the tragedy.

Witness testimony suggests a firebomb was thrown through the window, leading local activists to suspect a racist attack. However, when the forensic evidence fails to support that theory, the police focus their attention on the young partygoers. Amid growing anger about the investigation, as well as the government and press’s seeming indifference to the loss of life, a mass demonstration is organised to bring the tragedy to the nation’s attention.

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