Cannes Lions

Small Axe - The History Lessons You Never Had

BBC CREATIVE, London / BBC / 2021

Presentation Image
Case Film






The brief was to create a legacy beyond the show's airing. Broadcast media is disposable, so we needed to change the way this content was served. With the ‘Black Lives Matter' movement gaining momentum, we wanted to make a resource that would act as a catalyst for positive change for the black community.

Each resource was aimed at 11-14 year olds, the age when children are most receptive to new ideas. The films were made available on BBC Teach, which is accessed by a third of all teachers in the UK every week. We accompanied each educational film with teacher notes to make it as easy as possible for every teacher in the country to use these lessons in their classrooms. As we come out of lockdown and more schools commit to changing what they teach, the ambition is that these films will become a vital part of the curriculum.


Shockingly, black history isn’t mandatory on the national curriculum. To create a lasting legacy for Steve McQueen’s groundbreaking series Small Axe, we collaborated with him, black scholar Hannah Cusworth and BBC Teach to make ‘The History Lessons You Never Had’. We adapted each of his five feature films into short educational resources, accompanied by teacher notes. Empowering teachers to finally teach black history in their classrooms.The idea meant we could serve content in a completely unexpected way to an unexpected and underserved audience.


Our strategy was bringing together the titular proverb of the show (‘If you are the big tree, we are the small axe’) with the educational mandate of a public service broadcaster (the BBC). Our insight was the same as the show’s content & stories – that collective, incremental small actions can challenge a dominant and unjust society over time. While racial inequalities were much discussed in 2020, it wasn’t enough for our marketing to simply piggyback this switch in cultural dial. Our campaign needed to behave like a Small Axe. By partnering with BBC Teach our ‘History Lessons You Never Had’ films had a short-term effect of amplifying the show across the BBC’s breath, but also immortalising these inspiring stories in the long-term; their provision as classroom aids will continue to help new children aware of their significance in British history, fostering more rounded, empathetic generations to come.


Working in close collaboration with Steve McQueen, we interviewed real people from the stories behind the five feature films to gain a full understanding of the historical context. Combining clips and archive, we told these stories in a new and compelling way.We worked with animation studio Bewilder to turn the actors and real people behind the series into animations, bringing the films to life and making them even more engaging for pupils. We then collaborated with black scholar Hannah Cusworth to make teacher notes, so each film would work as an effective teaching resource.


The films will live on BBC Teach’s website forever. The site is accessed by over a third of UK teachers every week. The educational resources give durability in a culturally relevant, meaningful context to a series who’s impact would ordinarily be short lived. Despite the UK being on lockdown and schools closed when we launched the series, they were shared widely on social media and welcomed by the teaching community. As schools reopen and look to change the way they teach black history, the aim is that these films will become a vital resource and be part of a wider movement that informs policy change.

Similar Campaigns

12 items

All creatures great & small

PUBLICIS , Brussels

All creatures great & small

2021, BBC

(opens in a new tab)