Our first black queen
Carol Russell’s performance in Henry VI part II was hailed as “the best portrayal of Queen Margaret since Dame Peggy Ashcroft.”
A black woman playing a British Queen? She thought she’d made it.
Then the bailiffs turned up.
There’s no money in theatre. And on TV there were already a handful of young, black actresses playing the handful of roles for young, black women.
So she became an office manager and worked off her debts.
But she couldn’t work off her love of story. As soon as she was stable she started touring schools teaching kids to tell their stories. Then she started teaching teachers to teach kids to tell their stories and ended up teaching the corporate world to tell their tales.
But she missed writing the stories that were tripping over each other in her head.
She wrote a novel. It was shortlisted in a competition. She knew she had what it took. And, even though she had no desire to go back to the sawdust and greasepaint, she missed the smell. She started writing films and TV and, of course, her beloved theatre.
Then she got her big break.
Lenny Henry commissioned her to write an episode for his Still Here series on the 50th Anniversary of Windrush.
Carol was crazy busy for a few years, then the TV industry hit a slump and she’s found it a hard climb back up.
“For years, I had white people telling me what my stories should be and job after job fell into a nonsensical heap.”
She knew she wasn’t alone, so she founded Fresh Voices to promote writers of colour to the British media establishment.
And she still writes voraciously.
Like all women who have a few miles on the clock, Carol notices opportunities come round again. And you can always go back to the beginning and start afresh.
You can see her episode of Sir Lenny Henry’s 2019 Windrush series here.
Facing a new beginning twenty years later brings a whole new woman. A whole new world. And opportunities beyond belief.
A few weeks ago, the black woman who played a white queen met with the Duchess of Sussex to discuss her work with Fresh Voices.
“I never dreamed in a million years I would shake hands with royalty and think I must remind her of her mum.”
But nothing fazes Ms Russell, the years of living her stories has taught her that changing the world is like learning to fly, you just have to keep landing flat on you face till it’s time for you to soar.
Carol’s heading for the heights.
Update June 2020. Carol has been nominated for a BAFTA for Soon Gone. A Windrush Chronicle.