Anthony Bryan had lived and worked in Britain for 50 years when he was suddenly detained and almost deported. His brother has now told his story in a feature-length TV drama that brings home the impact of the Windrush scandal.
In BBC One’s Sitting In Limbo, we follow Bryan, a painter-decorator who had never been in trouble with the law, as he is told he can no longer work, before being arrested in his London home, detained for five weeks and booked on a plane to Jamaica, a country he hadn’t visited since 1965, when he was eight.
Patrick Robinson, who plays Bryan, says: “When I read the script, I was in tears easily halfway through and blubbing at the end, knowing that I wanted to be involved in this piece, because it made me feel.”
Bryan was one of many people to be caught up in the Windrush scandal – people who had moved from the Caribbean to the UK, mostly as children, and became collateral damage as the government created a “hostile environment” towards immigration.
The government has said more than 160 people may have been wrongly detained or deported. More than 1,270 claims have been made to a compensation scheme.
An independent review found there was a “profound institutional failure” which turned thousands of people’s lives upside down, and Home Secretary Priti Patel said “on behalf of this and successive governments I am truly sorry for the actions that span decades”.
“It broke me,” Bryan said of the ordeal in a 2019 BBC documentary, which is being repeated five days after the drama.
His younger brother, novelist Stephen S Thompson, used his first-hand insight to write the script for Sitting In Limbo.
He originally heard about the arrest from Bryan’s partner Janet.
“My first thought was, that’s a bit strange because I’ve never known him to be in trouble with the police,” Thompson says. “And then she mentioned the word ‘immigration’. And that made it even more strange.
“First it was shock, then horror, and then like, OK, how do we become practical about this? How are we going to get him out?”
Bryan had to prove he really had arrived in the 60s and been in the UK ever since. The Home Office thought he was lying, he told MPs in 2018.
He was detained twice and feared he would next see his family when they visited him in Jamaica. Only a last-minute intervention by an immigration lawyer in 2017 prevented his deportation.
Bryan was “very stoic” throughout, Thompson says. “Obviously, he’s been traumatised by it. He couldn’t quite believe it, like all of us.
“He gets to that point where he thinks, OK, well, it must be a mistake. He has quite a lot of faith in – or he had quite a lot of faith in – the system in this country, in this idea of fair play.
“He refuses even till this day to feel embittered, or to take it too personally or to see it as fundamentally an issue of race.”
‘Treated like a criminal’
Even so, the current backdrop of protests about systemic racism in the UK as well as the US is likely to give Monday’s broadcast added potency.
“Initially, I think he was disappointed and hurt and felt like he was being treated like a criminal by his own country when he’d done nothing wrong,” Thompson continues.
“That sense of disappointment is probably the underlying emotion. How could this country that he believed in so much let him down so badly?”
Bryan was heavily involved when Thompson was working on the script. The writer had to ask his brother and Janet to open up about the emotions they went through at the time.
“It’s not easy to dredge that stuff up again,” Thompson says, adding that the softly-spoken Bryan is naturally “quite private”.
“But without that emotional content, it just wouldn’t be the same. So that was the most difficult thing for me because they had to relive it, or at least talk about it in a very explicit way, whereas like I said, they’re not really those types.
“So even though he’s my brother, I guess we kind of had to build that trust as we went along.”
Patrick Robinson, who’s best known for playing Ash in the BBC’s Casualty, remembers being “outraged” when the scandal broke in 2017.
It wasn’t news to him, however – a friend’s brother, who had been in the UK since he was five months old, was not allowed to come back after a trip to Jamaica, meaning he missed his mother’s funeral.
“When you hear more about it, you just think, that could be me or my brother,” Robinson says. “So yes, it’s outrageous and sadly par for the course to do with bureaucracy and government, especially the British government.”
Robinson’s own parents came from Jamaica to Britain in the late 1950s or early 60s. He was born in the UK, but older siblings had travelled with their mother and father.
He learned a lot about the history of Caribbean immigration to the UK when narrating a documentary about the Windrush generation in the late 1990s.
For instance, he learned that Conservative Health Minister Enoch Powell – later notorious for his “rivers of blood” speech – recruited women from the British Empire to work as nurses in the NHS in the early 60s.
“They got invited here, and that’s what’s missing for me in terms of the narrative that people don’t really know,” Robinson says.
The actor got to know the real Anthony Bryan “a little bit” during the course of filming.
“He’s a very cool guy,” he says. “He’s pretty dignified and that’s how he was, I believe, throughout the whole experience that he had.”
The drama includes scenes of Bryant with friends in a local club in Tottenham. Before meeting Bryan, Robinson’s research involved going under cover to “shadow” him one night.
“I just slipped in there and watched him for an hour before I made myself known to him in the club. That was great. And he was very loved, genuinely, as I watched people come up to him and hang out and chat.”
Despite the extensive reporting of the Windrush scandal – not least when it led to Home Secretary Amber Rudd’s resignation in 2018 – Robinson thinks the TV drama can give viewers a new insight into the personal toll.
“I hope that it will make people think. You hope they’re entertained. You hope they feel,” he says.
“In order to try to understand other people, you just have to imagine yourself in their shoes. And what the film can do is put you there.”