how was this grotesque act on TV until 1978?
Explain The Black and White Minstrel Show to anyone under the age of 50 – anyone who didn’t grow up watching it on the BBC – and they will find it grotesque. It’s astonishing, really, to think that a show in which white performers blacked up to perform song and dance numbers was still on television until 1978.
As David Harewood on Blackface (BBC Two) demonstrated, some voices objected to the show as early as the 1960s. Barrie Thorne, the BBC’s chief accountant – who had worked in the US and been part of the civil rights movement – wrote a letter of complaint in 1962. The director of television replied that he was speaking “arrant nonsense”.
When Thorne complained again several years later that the show was offensive, the reply was jaw-dropping. Oliver Whitley, chief assistant to the director-general, wrote: “The best advice that could be given to coloured people by their friends would be, ‘On this issue, we can see your point, but in your own best interests, for Heaven’s sake shut up’.”
Harewood previously made a film about his mental-health struggles. He had a psychotic breakdown in his 20s, soon after graduating from Rada. There was also a personal element to this show. Looking back, Harewood thinks that childhood insecurity about race and identity may have played into that. Watching The Black and White Minstrel Show was confusing and troubling to him as a child: “I just knew instinctively it was wrong,” he says.
This documentary did an intelligent job of laying out the roots of blackface minstrelsy, and its arrival in Britain. It was popularised by Thomas Dartmouth Rice, a US entertainer who brought his Jim Crow character to the West End in 1836. He later said that one of his motives was to correct British abolitionists and prove that black people “are essentially an inferior species of the human family and they ought to remain slaves”.
“But it was all harmless fun,” people may have said, except the Crow stereotype of black people as simpletons was a pervasive one. Harewood watched film from the 1890s of Londoners blacking up for a street performance; the young children watching it, he noted, would have become the middle-aged generation who welcomed – or didn’t – the arrival of the Empire Windrush. This context felt valuable.
The one surprise was that Harewood did not interview Lenny Henry, who appeared on The Black and White Minstrel Show and has spoken of his discomfort. But it was otherwise a well-made film providing food for thought.