By Natasha Tripney
Published in 2001, the first book in Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses series introduces readers to an alternative reality in which white-skinned people, the Noughts, and dark-skinned people, the Crosses, are segregated, with the Crosses having more power in society. The story focuses on the relationship between Sephy, a Cross, and Callum, a Nought. Evolving into a series of six novels, the world of Noughts and Crosses has been the basis of a six-part series for the BBC as well as a stage play for the Royal Shakespeare Company. The Pilot Theatre production, which premiered in 2019, has been adapted for the stage by poet, playwright and performer Sabrina Mahfouz.
What inspired you to create the Noughts and Crosses series?
Malorie Blackman: It was a book I was compelled to write. It was my 50th book and I wanted to address racism and its legacy directly. I was also inspired by the Stephen Lawrence case. I was appalled by the way the Lawrence family had been treated, especially by the police, and I wanted to write something about what it’s like to be judged based on the colour of your skin. That was the genesis of the series.
What I thought might be one book, and then three books, eventually turned into six books and three novellas. My husband says it’s the longest trilogy on the planet.
Did you have a strong idea of the characters of Callum and Sephy from the outset?
Malorie Blackman: I think Callum is an idealist and believes in fighting injustice and righting wrongs. He’s explored every other avenue that the only way to get justice for the Noughts is to join what he calls a freedom fighter group. But once he joins it, he ends up doing things that are contrary to who he is innately. His point of view is that you do what you have to do, in order to survive.
Sephy is very sheltered and naïve. She has had a very privileged upbringing and it’s only through her friendship with Callum that she realises there’s a whole other world out there that’s not quite as privileged as she is. They’ve grown up together as friends, and it’s about how their friendship turns into a love affair, but also about how she learns about the real world through her friendship with Callum and realises that she has some points of view that she didn’t even appreciate were prejudiced until seeing Callum’s responses to them and how people respond outside of her own social circle.
Noughts and Crosses has been adapted multiple times. How does it feel to see this book adapted for different mediums?
Malorie Blackman: Noughts and Crosses has been a radio play, two theatre plays, and series on the BBC. I feel very fortunate because I’ve been included in all of the different iterations. Each iteration has been different – as it should be, because [an adaptation] can’t just be the book, and nor should it try to be the book. But I think all of them have kept the essence of the story. And that’s, primarily what I was keen to happen. I’m not precious about my stuff and I expect it to change. That’s the nature of adaptation. But as long as they’ve kept the essence of it, that’s fine with me. And I think they’ve all done that – so I’ve been very lucky.
Esther, when did you first encounter the books?
Esther Richardson: Long before I was running Pilot, I had a real passion for young adult literature. I bought Noughts and Crosses and I remember I read the three books in about a week. It’s not how I normally read, but I was so gripped by the story that I then wanted to read the second one and then the third one. It was still notionally a trilogy at this point.
When I got the job with Pilot in 2016, it was obvious to me that this was a show that the company should do, because Pilot has this wonderful legacy of doing work on race equity and had done a lot of work with black artists. It just seemed to me like a natural fit for Pilot.
I knew that there was an existing version that Malorie had worked on with the Royal Shakespeare Company. But as it was almost 10 years [after that production] it was worth taking a fresh look at it with a new writer. Malorie was really excited by the idea of spoken word and that’s one of the ways in which Sabrina Mahfouz became involved in it. She’s a working-class writer, and she’s really interested in social justice, so she felt like a good fit.
Malorie Blackman: Sabrina is such a wonderful playwright. I had every confidence in what she was doing. And I love the direction she took it in and the lyricism she brought to it.
Do you think the play will speak to young people today?
Esther Richardson: Noughts and Crosses is fundamentally a love story. That’s so clear. Their relationship is the spine of the show. One of the most amazing things is watching young people who haven’t read the book, particularly girls of around Sephy’s age, watch the show. There are audible gasps in the second half. It’s the power of the story.
Malorie Blackman: It does speak to the times we’re in. It’s important to remember that Noughts and Crosses is also a story about class. Callum’s mum works for Sephy’s mum as her housekeeper. It speaks to where we are now in that there are those who have and those who have not and the gap between them is getting wider and wider.
Though, obviously, it was inspired by Romeo and Juliet, and it has that vibe to it. It was very important for me to say that sometimes love isn’t enough – but, at the same time, we always have hope. Hope for the next generation.