It was sharp, hard-hitting and streets ahead of America. Why did the powerhouse that was black TV drama lose its way? We speak to its trailblazers
‘We’re guests here, always on our best behaviour, never at ease. No wonder so many of us go round the twist.” So says Don Warrington in Carbon Copy, a television play first broadcast in 1975. Warrington’s character, Albert, is the son of Jamaican immigrants and is reassessing his place in “the mother country” after a recent awakening of his black identity. Had he been able to see four decades into the future, Albert would doubtless feel even less at ease.
Last year’s shaming Windrush scandal, in which British nationals of African-Caribbean heritage were targeted for deportation by the Home Office, demonstrates how some in the UK are still determined to treat black people as “guests”. But Albert might also be depressed at the state of British television 40 years on: how little it built on pioneering dramas like Carbon Copy, and how little is even remembered of them.
The title of the British Film Institute’s current season, Forgotten Black TV Drama, is no exaggeration. Most of the titles it gathers together have not been seen by the public since they were first broadcast. Between them they tell a story that is in many ways all too familiar, but in others surprising, perceptive and eerily prescient. In another forgotten drama, 1973’s The Museum Attendant, a black character declares “hating immigrants is the only thing that draws English people together”.
Emergency: Ward 10 had an interracial kiss four years before Captain Kirk and Uhura kissed in Star Trek
It is often assumed that US cinema and television blazed the trail when it came to representation of black people on screen, but British television was ahead of both, argues Stephen Bourne, co-curator of the BFI season. The BBC soap Compact, which began in 1962, had a black magazine photographer, played by Horace James, as a recurring character. ITV hospital drama Emergency – Ward 10 regularly featured a black doctor, played by Joan Hooley, who embarked on a relationship with a white man – including a then-controversial interracial kiss. This was in 1964, four years before Lt Uhura and Captain Kirk kissed in Star Trek. And it wasn’t even the first such kiss on British TV (that was in the Armchair Theatre play Hot Summer Night, in 1959).
Interracial relationships figure in the forgotten dramas of the BFI season, but they are by no means the sole preoccupation. The works of Jamaican-born writer Barry Reckord, for instance, are about class divisions as much as racial ones. In 1962’s You in Your Small Corner, an educated young black man (played by Reckord’s brother, Lloyd) begins a love affair with a working-class white woman. And in Reckord’s Club Havana, from 1975, Warrington comes from Jamaica to his mother’s Birmingham nightclub and begins an affair with the barmaid, played by a young Julie Walters. His mother dismisses Walters as a “cheap white woman” – not good enough for her son.
In Carbon Copy, too, Albert mingles with the white middle classes. His mother is a wealthy first-generation immigrant. “In England, people don’t look down on a person for being black,” she tells him. “They look down on him for being uncultured.”
After rediscovering his “blackness”, Albert falls for a British-born black woman, played by Cleo Sylvestre, who is not quite as rapturous about their mystical “African” bond as he is. Nor is she into divisive race politics, favouring class solidarity. “We’ve got to separate to keep our identity,” Albert tells her. “No,” she replies, “we’ve got to get together with people who’ve been screwed just like we are.”
“Why should we assume that all black people that came to Britain after the second world war were working class?” says Bourne, who has researched and written about black British history and culture for 20 years. “There have been middle-class, affluent black people coming to this country since the year dot. It’s just one of those myths that needs to be addressed.”
Reckord came from a well-to-do Jamaican family. He earned a scholarship to Cambridge University in 1950 (brother Lloyd joined him in the UK a year later). Between them the Reckord brothers staged and performed some of the first black British works to be performed – several of which were adapted for television.
There was also Guyana-born Jan Carew and his Jamaican wife Sylvia Wynter, who spent a few fruitful years in Britain in the 1950s. Their work seems to have found sympathetic ears – on radio, then on the small screen. In 1961, ITV filmed two of Carew’s plays: The Big Pride (co-written with Wynter) and The Day of the Fox. Both are set in the Caribbean but British immigrants would readily identify with their examinations of postcolonial politics and identity. Somewhat incongruously, The Day of the Fox is led by Sammy Davis Jr – who had just made Ocean’s 11 the year before. The fact that he had to come from Hollywood to British TV to make anything vaguely “political” tells its own story.
It is difficult to resist the temptation to describe this as a golden age – even if it was only a few enlightened commissioners allowing the occasional black production through the gates. By the 1980s, though, the quality black drama had somehow dried up. Bourne cites Enoch Powell’s infamous Rivers of Blood speech, in 1968, as a turning point. “After that all the good work we’d done before was erased and forgotten.”
Sylvestre agrees. Before her part in Carbon Copy, she became one of the first black soap characters: Melanie in Crossroads, who turns up at the motel and announces she is the adopted daughter of the manager, Meg Richardson.Advertisement
According to Sylvestre, the producer Reg Watson cast her in response to Powell’s speech and the rise in racial tensions around Birmingham, where the show was set. “He wanted to show a young, black character who wasn’t defined by her colour,” says Sylvestre. “It was a very bold move at that time. In fact, I used to get people coming up to me in the street who I’m sure would have agreed with Enoch Powell who’d say, ‘Oh, I love your character.’”
For the most part, comedy became the preferred medium for broaching British diversity. Warrington went on to star in one of the better offerings: Rising Damp. His character Philip, who claimed to be an African prince but was actually from Croydon, was often the subject of landlord Rigsby’s animosity. Far less sophisticated was Love Thy Neighbour, which wrung crude, cringeworthy racial humour out of a black couple and a white couple living next door to each other. The white husband routinely referred to his black counterpart (Rudolph Walker) as “nig-nog” or “sambo”.
That shift from drama to comedy is clearly visible in the work of writer Trix Worrell, best known as the creator of the hit 1990s sitcom Desmond’s. Originally a theatre director, Worrell made his TV debut in 1984, after he won a scriptwriting competition held by the recently launched Channel 4.
His play, Just Like Mohicans – also part of the BFI’s season – was adapted into a 40-minute TV drama. It is virtually a two-hander: an encounter between an elderly Jamaican widow and a hip-hop-savvy black teenager (future EastEnders regular Gary Beadle) who breaks into her house to burgle her. The relationship steadily morphs from victim-criminal to mother-son, and the play becomes an angry clash of generational values.
It was heavily autobiographical, acknowledges Worrell, who was born in St Lucia and moved to London as a child in the mid-60s. “Our parents bought into that whole empire, British thing and wanted to better us and better themselves. But we were on the street. We had to suffer the slings and arrows. We were the kids that suffered Sus” – “suspected person” laws, a 1980s precursor to stop and search. “We were walking home from school and being spat at and called all sorts of crap – and that’s just by the police. Shit happened all the time. So you start to go, what the hell are we here for?”
We were walking home from school and being spat at and called all sorts of crap – and that was just by the police
The only positive representation Worrell remembers growing up was Carmen Munroe as a nurse on ITV soap General Hospital (he later cast her in Desmond’s). But they still watched Love Thy Neighbour, he says. “We watched it because there we were. We could see ourselves on screen, and that was a thrill in and of itself.” There was also the newsreader Trevor McDonald, Worrell adds. “So it went from the sublime to the ridiculous: Trevor reading the News at 10 and Rudy Walker being called a ‘nig-nog’ in the same evening.”
Desmond’s was arguably the first mainstream series to simply accept black Britons as characters in their own right, and it was a huge hit. “I’ve always said you can sell more in comedy than you can in drama,” says Worrell. “You can be more hard-hitting. You can bash them over the head and make them laugh at the same time.”
Times have moved on and representation has improved immensely on British television but looking back at the passionate, angry, questioning dramas of the 1960s and 70s, something has been lost. Subsequent generations seem to have had less of a platform to engage with these issues seriously – at least on the small screen.
New black British talent is more likely to thrive in the US than at home, looking at the experience of actors such as Idris Elba, Thandie Newton, Daniel Kaluuya, Gugu Mbatha-Raw and John Boyega. The continuity has been broken. The contributions of these black dramatists and performers is in danger of being erased, from history and from the archives. It is never too late to start remembering.