Press Office

Wednesday 29 Oct 2014

Press Packs

Small Island: Ruth Wilson plays Queenie Bligh

Ruth Wilson plays Queenie

Queenie Bligh is one in a million. At a time when landlords were putting up signs that read "No Irish, no coloureds, no dogs", Queenie, played by Ruth Wilson in BBC One's adaptation of Andrea Levy's multi-award-winning novel, Small Island, opened her door to Jamaican lodgers, and was almost oblivious to the prejudice they experienced every time they left the house.

"Queenie is a wonderfully vibrant, colourful, bold character who, in some ways, is quite naïve and wide-eyed to the world and to London, and she's quite blind to the prejudice that's all around her," says Ruth, who has also appeared in the BBC dramas Jane Eyre, in which she played the lead role (and which saw her nominated for four Best Actress awards, including a Bafta and a Golden Globe), and Capturing Mary. "I would describe her as being colour-blind in a metaphorical sense because she treats everyone as equal.

"She feels slightly like an outsider in London herself, because she comes from the North, from a completely different background to most people that live in the city, so she thinks she never belonged there, and that's why she embraces outsiders. She's got compassion and empathy for people who are looking for somewhere to stay and that's really important to her."

Queenie has moved to London from her family's pig farm in Yorkshire and marries banker Bernard, despite the fact that he is "dull and not really what she's looking for", according to Ruth, who has recently starred in a West End production of A Streetcar Named Desire, alongside Rachel Weisz.

"Queenie is on the up, she's also looking to improve her life and trying to scale the ladder of society. She would love someone who is exciting and mysterious and successful, but she settles for second best with Bernard. He's a middle-class guy and she's from a working-class family background, so she moves up the ladder but he's not the right companion for her."

It's not an ideal way to start a marriage and, given that they began married life on the eve of the outbreak of the Second World War, and that Bernard soon leaves to serve his country, it seems as if the couple are doomed. And rather than pining for her husband while he's away, Queenie uses his absence to her best advantage: "I'm sure there were a lot of Queenies who realised that war was a horrific state of affairs but that there were benefits to it – it was a chance to be needed and useful, and to feel like you had some kind of purpose in life.

"For Queenie, it gives her freedom and independence; she uses the house and starts renting out the rooms, which gives her complete independence. She's got responsibility and she's earning an income, so she's quite a modern and pragmatic woman. She's also an incredibly compassionate and funny character.

"Queenie opens our eyes to what the realities of living in London during that period were," adds Ruth, who admits that the Second World War fascinates her. "I love that period of British history because it just seems so removed from our daily life, having bombs dropped on your house. I live in a square in London and ours is the only Edwardian building remaining from before the war. Everything else in that square got bombed. It's amazing, the south of London, where I live, was completely destroyed. It's just totally alien and that's what I find so fascinating, that people survived and they are still alive now."

She says that, although her grandparents are no longer around, they had fascinating stories to tell of their own experiences of the war. "My granny lived in Ealing, in London, during the war and she was bombed. She lived in a top flat and the house was bombed at the bottom, so her flat was just jutting out and she was very lucky to have lived."

In Small Island, among those who Queenie offers a home to are Gilbert (David Oyelowo) and Michael (Ashley Walters), two Jamaicans who come to England to help with the war effort.

Within days of meeting him, Queenie shares a passionate night with Michael. "He just completely awakens Queenie's spirit and the person she was. She's an incredibly spirited person who marries someone who slightly squashes that, because of the way he is, so she compromises who she is because of the lack of opportunities available during that period, but then Michael reawakens that passion in her.

"He's an interesting character because he's quite a cad. He has an amazing charm and openness about him and he's mysterious and all those things that Queenie is massively intrigued by. He's just someone who needs to move on and is constantly looking for the next opportunity. He's a free spirit and I think Queenie would've loved to be like that but the choices she made early on don't allow her that."

Add to Queenie's feelings for Michael the complications of Bernard returning home from war, years later, after being presumed dead, and she is a very confused woman. "Bernard and Queenie weren't a hopeless couple," says Ruth. "There's got to be something there that could work, because otherwise you lose sympathy for the characters and you don't understand the plight of the conflict so much.

"When Bernard doesn't return that's an added blow to Queenie – she's married and yet has no husband and can't move on. She can't get closure."

Ruth says that her mum provided a valuable source of research when preparing for the role of Queenie as she experienced similar prejudices when she dated a black man in the Fifties. "She came down from Norfolk and moved to London when she was 17. She lived in a hostel for a while and got together with a man from Trinidad and Tobago, and she helped him find alternative accommodation and they still had the signs – ‘No Irish, no coloureds, no dogs' – and people would turn them away.

"I asked her what attracted her to him and she said the music, the mystery and the energy, which was in contrast to the conservative Brits. For her, it was mysterious, alluring, intoxicating and exciting, something completely new, so I think Queenie felt exactly the same with Michael.

"But it's fascinating – you realise you can relate it to the modern day in terms of when your country goes through a state of war or economic depression, there's always a scapegoat that gets punished because people lose jobs or haven't got as much money or the consumer goods they usually have so they end up blaming someone – outsiders. It's a fascinating story that repeats itself, over and over again."

To top

Press releases by date:

Press release by:

RSS feeds:

Related BBC links

Related web links

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.