Sometimes it seemed as though the BBC preferred to show white people blacked up than black people...
...And behind these examples was the extraordinary twenty-year success of the BBC’s light entertainment series The Black and White Minstrel Show, which finally came off air in 1978 (though it continued on stage, with Lenny Henry appearing for three seasons as the resident comedian).
Descended from the minstrel troupes that had sprung up in America in the mid-nineteenth century, and had played to packed houses in Britain whenever they toured, the show featured white singers, wearing curly wigs and with their faces covered in black greasepaint save for exaggerated white mouths and eyes, as they ran through medleys of singalong numbers in heavily choreographed routines. Initially the blackface make-up was worn by all the singers, but early on it was decided to restrict it to the men only, presenting the culturally curious spectacle of white women dancing with caricatures of black men, as though such a depiction might inoculate the nation against the possibility of miscegenation.
The result was a show that won both the Golden and Silver Rose at the first Montreux television festival in 1961, and which the BBC’s director of television, Kenneth Adam, said was proof ‘that the popular song need not be vulgar, ruin public taste or symbolize degeneracy’. It was, in short, the antidote to the mixed-race messages of rock & roll.
The series was hugely successful, and though audiences declined a little in later years, the 1976 Christmas special was still amongst the top five most watched programmes that week.
It was also increasingly controversial at a time when sensitivities were becoming slightly more attuned. Indeed as far back as 1963, at the height of the civil rights movement in America, That Was the Week That Was had drawn attention to the incongruity of its existence, with a parody of the Minstrels singing merrily about lynchings in Mississippi.
By the time the Minstrels were finally pulled from the schedules, doubts were being raised over the entire nature of television’s treatment of minorities. At the Edinburgh Television Festival in 1978, a series of speakers denounced the stereotyping that had become a stock part of entertainment, not merely in relation to black people but also the Irish, with the writer Brian Phelan arguing that the comedian’s caricature of the Irishman as being ‘lazy, ignorant and incredibly stupid was the media’s way of telling mothers of soldiers killed in Northern Ireland that their sons were being killed by savages’.
Less emotively, Howard Schuman, writer of Rock Follies, spelt out what was to become the new agenda for humour: ‘Comedy that diminishes the already powerless I find despicable and increasingly obscene.’
And Trevor Griffiths explored the same territory in his 1975 play Comedians, in which a music hall veteran, Eddie Waters – played by Jimmy Jewel in the original production, and by Bill Fraser in the subsequent BBC adaptation – teaches a class of aspiring comedians the tricks of the trade. Or rather, he teaches them to ignore accepted commercial wisdom and to pursue comedy as truth, beyond stereotypes. ‘A joke that feeds on ignorance starves its audience,’ he insists. ‘Most comics feed prejudice and fear and blinkered vision, but the best ones, the best ones illuminate them, make them clearer to see, easier to deal with...’
published by Aurum Press
© Alwyn W Turner 2008