BBC Teach: Small Axe films

BBC Teach launched a series of films inspired by the stories told in Steve McQueen’s series Small Axe, to help expand school curriculums on Black British History. Words: Megan Williams

At the end of 2020, BBC One aired Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series, a five-part anthology retelling pivotal stories that emerged from London’s West Indian community from the 1960s to the 1980s. The anthology coincided with renewed calls for the UK education system to expand curriculums on the subject of Black British history, which is often confined to Black History Month.

Building on the impact of Small Axe, the broadcaster’s in-house agency BBC Creative teamed up with McQueen and classroom resource BBC Teach – used by over a third of teachers in the UK each week – on a ­­project that expands upon the true stories told in the series. Together they transformed the five films into educational video content under the banner The History Lessons You Never Had, which also includes teacher notes designed to facilitate lessons. 

Still from Small Axe

Aimed at pupils from the ages of nine to 15, each BBC Teach film combines real-life footage, clips from Small Axe, and animations by South African studio Bewilder. The resources feature narration by the actors who starred in the anthology, as well as the real-life figures who inspired two of the films: author Alex Wheatle and former Met officer Leroy Logan.

The project was the brainchild of creative team Sarah Fox and Adam Reincke at BBC Creative. “While working on the project, we found out that Black history isn’t a mandatory subject on the national curriculum and knew we had to do something to help fix the problem,” they explain. “We started working on this project when the Black Lives Matter movement was gaining momentum, so it felt even more important.” 

The pair came up with the scripts, and worked in close collaboration with McQueen and scholar Hannah Cusworth to ensure the films would work as effective teaching resources. 

The team’s starting point was going back to the historical context of each film. “Each one was based on a true event and portrayed an inspirational, historical moment from Black history that in McQueen’s words had been ‘swept under the carpet’,” Fox and Reincke explain. “We wanted to find out more about the background to each story, what was happening at the time, and why they are still relevant today. We distilled each feature down to its core issue, whether that be police brutality or institutional racism in schools.”

McQueen was taken by the idea from the beginning and went on to work with them on the edits. “We knew from the marketing concept for [McQueen’s feature film] Twelve Years a Slave that he likes non-traditional ideas that really make a difference, so this was how we approached this project,” the duo say. “He also gave us access to the people who had worked on the films, to make sure everything was as accurate as possible.” 

The series has been widely shared on social media, and the duo’s hope is that when “more schools look to get Black history on their curriculum, it will become a valuable resource”.

View the films on the BBC Teach site here.

Category: Branded Content; Entered by: BBC Creative

Agency: BBC Creative 
Creatives: Sarah Fox, Adam Reincke
Creative Directors: Tim Jones, James Cross
ECD: Helen Rhodes
Producer: Eleanor Hopwood
Production Assistant: Caitlin Setterfield
Animation/Illustration: Bewilder
Audio: Lucky Cat Post
Editors: Richard Honey, Aaron Byelong
Researcher: Katharine Waldrum
Marketing, BBC: Faye Jones, Smriti Sharma
Project Manager: Carly Mountford
Planner: Sam Pavey