THE CONFESSIONS OF FRANNIE LANGTON is a four-part British miniseries, which premieres on BritBox on March 8.
Based on the novel by Sara Collins, THE CONFESSIONS OF FRANNIE LANGTON stars Karla-Simone Spence as Frannie, a young, educated Black Jamaican woman who is brought to England in the 1820s. Technically free, Frannie’s gender and race both make it next to impossible for her to refuse employment as a maid in the London household of wealthy George Benham (Stephen Campbell Moore).
Then Frannie falls in love with George’s wife Marguerite (Sophie Cookson). Marguerite reciprocates Frannie’s feelings, though their romance is necessarily cloaked in secrecy. When George and Marguerite are found murdered, Frannie is arrested for the crime. In her grief and confusion, she must try to remember her own actions – could she have done this?
Collins, of Jamaican descent and Grand Cayman upbringing, was a lawyer before she turned to writing fiction. She won the Costa Best First Novel prize for THE CONFESSIONS OF FRANNIE LANGTON. Collins adapted the book for television, and is one of the miniseries’ executive producers. In a Zoom call, she discusses her creation.
ASSIGNMENT X: What inspired you to write THE CONFESSIONS OF FRANNIE LANGTON? Had you been looking for something to write a novel about, or was this something that you were researching, and then thought it would make a good novel?
SARA COLLINS: I think on one level, I didn’t have to look for anything, because the idea had taken hold of me back in my teens, but I just wasn’t aware of it. So, when I came in to write the novel, I knew straight away and really strongly that it was going to be a Gothic romance, and that it was going to do what I’ve described before as putting a Jamaican woman in Jane Austen territory.
I think that comes from the fact that I had been really obsessed with Gothic romances, and period dramas, growing up, and had always been bothered by the fact that there had never been a Gothic romance that put a Black woman center stage. I just think, in a way, for me, reading has been about filling gaps, and writing has been as well. Reading filled in the gap that was my sense of my place in the world that nothing else was giving me the information, the tools to tackle as a young Black girl growing up in the Caribbean on a small island, and I think it just felt only natural that writing would fill those gaps as well, that if I hadn’t read a book that filled it, I would write a book that filled it, to paraphrase that old Toni Morrison expression. And that was the impetus for me.
And then the character of Frannie came from there, because when you think about a Jamaican woman in this setting, nineteenth-century London, and trying to do something different, and not have her story overwhelmed by the backdrop of slavery, it just also seemed only natural that she would be a kind of Jane Eyre character, really – intelligent and feisty and passionate, and trying very hard to have agency in a world that said she couldn’t have any.
AX: How did you decide on what the specifics of Frannie’s situation should be so that she could become this Gothic heroine?
COLLINS: A lot of writing the novel and the screenplay is just technical stuff. You’re motivated by the thought, or the idea, or the emotion. You see a person, but then you have to build them. And so, I had to assemble the layers of her. I had to think about what kind of education would she have had, and what effect would that have had on her? I had to think about how would she experience early nineteenth-century London, and what effect would that have had on her? I had to also think about, how would she have spoken? What would her voice have been like? Can I build a voice that says something about the character, that she sounds different to anyone else would could have been alive at that time, and that conveys exactly who she is, and how she was brought up?
All of those things helped me to assemble what I hope comes across as a person who could actually have lived, even though she’s entirely fictional. And then, after you chip away at it for so long, somehow, it’s like laying down mulch [in order to get something to grow], I think. It just becomes part of your subconscious. And I really knew the book was working, for me, at least, and hopefully for other people, when she did start to wake me up, and I just jolted awake with fully-formed sentences, or ideas, or experiences that I knew had to go into her story.
AX: Part of Frannie’s story is that she has borne witness to terrible experiments on Black people by a white plantation owner. Were experiments like that something you came across in your research, or did you already know about that when you started writing?
COLLINS: It was something that knocked me in the face, really knocked me off my feet when I started the research. I wanted a science angle, because I was so fascinated by the historical context, where the early nineteenth century is such a period of development for not just the novel and thought and philosophy, but also science. But I thought it was going to be science fiction.
I was thinking a lot of FRANKENSTEIN, really, sort of stitching a person together. And in a way, that’s partly what the experience of slavery is, that you become someone else’s experiment against your will, and it generates this rage. I didn’t think I was going to find actual experiments. My blood runs cold even now, remembering it, because there was nothing I could think up that was more terrible than what had actually happened. And so, all of this stuff is based on what I read about things that were done by real plantation owners. In fact, there was stuff I had to omit, because it was just so terrible, I thought people would think it was invented. And I will never forget the experience of discovering that for the book. It’s a real lesson, actually, about this awful history, that there is nothing we can imagine that’s worse than what actually happened.
AX: How did THE CONFESSIONS OF FRANNIE LANGTON become a TV miniseries?
COLLINS: I was going to say, “Over my dead body” [laughs]. Certainly, over my strong initial objections. I wasn’t convinced [that the book should be adapted], to start off with, because I’ve never really been convinced – I think THE ENGLISH PATIENT is the only adaptation that’s convinced me. And ATONEMENT, actually. But it’s a very tricky thing to do, and I always prefer the book [to the adaptation], and I didn’t want to feel that way about my own TV series, if I made one. But I was persuaded. We had several offers from really good producers, and Drama Republic, who produced the show, gave me the chance to write it myself, and my incredibly persuasive agent said, and I quote, “You would be an idiot to turn this down.” So I didn’t [laughs].
AX: How was it collaborating with Andrea Harkin, who directed all four episodes? And you had a co-writer, Jess Brittain, for at least some of it …
COLLINS: Yeah. I have a co-writer, because, sadly, I experienced some personal tragedy during the writing of the series. My dad, who has since passed away, became very ill. It was my first experience of bereavement, and writing and producing a TV series is an all-consuming process, and I couldn’t do the two at once.
It was challenging, I will say that, because this is very much a story about a Black woman, but we had to collaborate widely on it, and I think a lot, if not all, Black female creatives will say that there are challenges in that. There are things that we understand, the kind of nuances and subtleties of our own experiences, that other people will not, and shouldn’t assume.
So, I had to remain closely involved to the extent that I could, and when I came back in, had to re-engage with the process to make sure that we stayed true to the vision. And there were aspects of the story, I think, that are just so personal to me that I’m really glad I had that chance to collaborate, and that people did take my input on board.
AX: Were there things that you had to change to make it fit the four-hour running time?
COLLINS: There was so much material that we couldn’t squeeze everything into four hours. There was a lot we had to omit, for all kinds of practical reasons. I wish we could have spent more time in Jamaica. But actually, I think as a result of being constrained to four hours, what’s happened is what usually happens.
The great Hilary Mantel said that every story is a triumph of deletion. I’m kind of paraphrasing her, but I think that was does happen is that if you’re forced to reduce the story, it’s like reducing a sauce. Hopefully, you’re left with something that’s a lot richer and more luxurious and more impactful. So, although we didn’t get to spend a lot of time in Jamaica, I think, in particular, when you watch the performance of Karla-Simone in the lead role, you get a sense that she’s got that back story, it’s inhabited her, and she’s conveying it in a really compelling way.
AX: Did Karla-Simone Spence’s performance bring out anything in the character of Frannie that you weren’t aware was there before?
COLLINS: So much. I was really hoping that she would tap into the vulnerability, because there is this kind of trope about strong Black women. Everyone always talks about Frannie’s strength, which is fine, and it’s true, but it isn’t the only thing. She’s so complex and multidimensional, and I think Karla was really good at balancing that. There’s such a tenderness and vulnerability in the way that she embodies Frannie. She allowed her to be naïve, which is something I think I wasn’t expecting, and probably something I didn’t write.
But she’s a young woman herself, Karla-Simone, much younger than I am, and I think she got that about Frannie, who was also young, that although she had these awful experiences, there’s a core of her that’s still kind of naïve and untouched, that she has to protect, and that’s being threatened in these difficult circumstances that she finds herself in, in England, and it really, I think, brought something special to the character that I hadn’t put there myself.
AX: In working with people in either publishing or production or both, if they had an issue with something that was your experience, because they had not shared it themselves, were they accepting, or did they have to be persuaded to respect the fact of your experience?
COLLINS: I will say that the fact that we have to tell this story at all, the fact that this story is still relevant in the twenty-first century, hundreds of years after the time when it should have been told and would have been relevant, means that, unfortunately, there is still on occasion some persuading that has to be done.
And that’s something I’m sad about, because I have consumed story so much and so voraciously throughout my life that I think it opens your eyes to what it is to stand in someone else’s shoes, and I think if we’re engaged in storytelling, we should already have that kind of openness, and be willing to listen to people whose lived experiences we are translating.
But persuasion is still necessary, and it’s the reason why I consider it to be a privilege to be able to tell these stories, so hopefully, at some point, these stories will become part of the vernacular in the way that the dominant stories have been, and won’t come as such a surprise to wide audiences.
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Article: Exclusive Interview: Creator/Novelist Sara Collins on new Britbox miniseries