Guaranteed to provoke outrage and joy, shock and laughter in equal measure, comedy is arguably the most controversial of genres and king of acquired taste. In the first of three articles Come the Revolution member and Ujima Radio chair Roger Griffith, investigates how black British television has been portrayed over the last 50 years.
Colour Vision: The Good Old Bad Old Days Of Television
In our fast-changing, multi-channelled digital era it is easy to forget how when I was growing up, terrestrial British television was literally in the dark. Today every sentence and art-form is filtered through #metoo and cultural appropriation. It is a refreshing counter-balance to the 1970s offensiveness, where misogyny, racism, disablist and homophobia jokes were the inclusion standards and the metrics of British humour. The further over this line you stepped, the more laughs you got. The standard bearers and purveyors of insult came from the likes of Jim Davidson and Bernard Manning, before they were swept away by the Alternative Comedy brigade. This heralded a new generation of what we now regard as todays’ national treasures such as Jo Brand and Ben Elton. They all got starts at London’s Comedy Store where the late great Felix Dexter would get his first break heralding the rise of Black comedians.
Blackface on Television
Top of the cringe list, was The Black and White Minstrel Show which was on screens for 20 years. Blackface was one American import we didn’t need and still enrages me. The American-abolitionist Fredrick Douglass described it in 1848 as
‘..the filthy scum of white society, who have stolen from us a complexion denied them by nature, in which to make money, and pander to the corrupt taste of their white fellow citizens.’
Three other 1970s shows that today would be banned for their offensiveness were; Love Thy Neighbour (1972-76, 7 series, 1 film), Till Death Do Us Part (1965-75, 7 seasons) and Mind Your Language (1977-86, 4 seasons) which traded on national stereotypes at a foreign language school. In 1977 the TV mini-series Roots, introduced me to the concept of slavery but also how my ancestors had been enslaved and taken to the Caribbean. However, racist epithets such as Nig-Nog and Sambo were transplanted not from the plantation fields, but the vile character Eddie Booth trading insults with the now EastEnders favourite Rudolph Walker.
Sir Lenny Henry
A 16-year-old Lenny Henry won the TV talent show, New Faces in 1975, which was the Britain’s Got Talent of its day. At a Royal Television Society speech in 2008 Sir Lenny called out the Alf Garnett generation, stating
‘the creation was adopted as a hero by the very people he was satirising. Writer Johnny Speight tried to ensure that in each storyline, Alf came off the worst. But when I went to school the next morning, it was always me who came off worst. Alf Garnett was a ludicrous character and in the right context pretty funny, but put him against the background of Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech – is he so funny then? TV producers of the 1960s and 1970s missed a great opportunity. Rather than reflecting the reality of multi-ethnic Britain they chose a more xenophobic route – emphasising points of difference instead of similarities. If they had been more truthful in their observations, who’s to say we couldn’t have encouraged more young black kids at school or prevented the Brixton riots even?”
Racist humour and stereotypes would arrive in the playground and included monkey chants complete with aping gestures. African or West Indian accents were mimicked not in homage but with an under-current of mocking cruelty to portray stupidity. When you complained you were patronised and told you had a chip on your shoulder as ‘it’s only a joke, mate!’
A visit to the seaside in nearby Weston Super Mare could include domestic violence normalised by a Punch and Judy routine. Guardian investigative journalist Carole Cadwaladr recently wrote; ‘In Britain our national identity rests on our ability not take things too seriously. Our humour, tolerance and ability to take the piss are some of the very best things about being British.’ This goes to the heart of what is many cite of the fear of losing their British identity through uncontrolled immigration a key issue in the Brexit vote.
Coming From America
No wonder my generation lapped up raw and raucous US comedians such as Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy as they burst into the mainstream. Both were unleashed through the buddy movie genre, Pryor with Bristol Old Vic Theatre School alumni Gene Wilder in Silver Streak (1975) and Murphy in 48 Hours (1983) heralding the buddy-cop comedy drama era including Lethal Weapon, Rush Hour and Bad Boys.
When Black and Asian British comedians finally were allowed to use humour as a cultural weapon, I was delighted, and so much to my surprise was Britain. The Lenny Henry Show (1984) introduced several comedians from the growing Black and Asian comedy circuit to the mainstream and some formed the ground-breaking The Real McCoy (1991-97, 6 seasons}. The British-Asian cast of Goodness Gracious Me were also part of the Real McCoy troupe. Their ‘Going for an English’ sketch was based on white patrons visiting Asian restaurants with boorish behaviour and they ordered the blandest thing on menu. It was as if the indigenous hosts collectively thought ‘So, they do have a sense of humour!’
Colour television was only introduced to homes in 1968 and only en-masse during the 1970s to three television channels. The belated introduction of people of colour to television is light years away from when the Channel 4 executives will move to Bristol looking to commission diverse talent and programmes showing representation of all shades and tastes of humour.
I hope you enjoy our NO B/S! season. In my next article I will be walking down memory lane at the Best of UK Black British TV talent we have seen and when Black and White telly disappeared like a dot on the screen and is now part of our future.
Roger Griffith is an author, broadcaster and founding member of Come the Revolution.