There’s a BBC 4 documentary on YouTube (uploaded in 2016) about the Black and White Minstrel Show – remember that? One of the pundits in the programme said the lesson to learn is that “you can never know what is going to happen in 20 years’ time, never mind in 50 years’ time”.
Nineteen centuries ago, the Roman historian Tacitus said this: rara temporum felicitate ubi sentire quae velis et quae dicere licet, which means “it’s a rare good fortune of the present times when you may think what you like, and it’s permitted to express those views”.
Pretty sobering to find that there was a point in Roman history which was more liberal and accommodating than our own (Tacitus was talking about the emperor Trajan, AD 98-117). One of the most conspicuous characteristics of our era is living in an age when banks have decided their customers have to think a certain way, when employers unhesitatingly sack anyone who makes an inadvertent comment that isn’t ‘on message’ as well as bring in trainers to tell them what to think and how to speak, and when anyone dares speak up on social media they are immediately torn to pieces by a pack of self-righteous wolves.
The reason I looked at the BBC documentary was because the other day I found a copy of a BBC book called The Black and White Minstrel Show, originally priced 7s 6d (37.5p). Now, I’m old enough to remember that show back in the days when it really was black and white because that’s all we had. We had two TV channels, BBC and ITV, and they didn’t start until the early evening and clocked off at about 10 pm.
For those who don’t know what I’m writing about, the Black and White Minstrel show essentially consisted of an extended medley of ensemble musical numbers (mainly show tunes) delivered by black-faced white male singers in minstrel costume, accompanied by white female dancers.
The Black and White Minstrel Show was staple viewing in the 1960s but now looking at the book which accompanied the show the whole concept is almost impossible to believe. It ran from 1957 (the year I was born) to 1978. It was last transmitted on July 21st 1978, by which time there were three channels, and colour had been around for several years.
Let’s just remember, this book was produced by an organisation, some of whose journalists and programme makers today make it very clear what they think and what everyone else should think.
But here in 1962 is the then Director of Television, Kenneth Adam (1908-78), waxing lyrical about how “N****** Minstrel Shows” were “a perfectly honourable and uncondescending convention”. He goes on, “Its revival in part on BBC Television in the 50s… was no kind of insult to the negro, though some misguided critics tried to make a political issue out of it.”
Yes, you read that right. I’ve transcribed it straight from the page. Interestingly, Adams’s Wikipedia page makes no mention of his enthusiasm for the show. He gurgled on in the book: “British audiences took to them [minstrels] at once. The less sophisticated European audiences found it breathtaking.” I bet they did.
By May 1961 the programme had a claimed audience of 16 million. At the time, Britain’s population was 53 million, making that 30% of the whole country watching it (and loving it). Not only that, it won the Golden Rose of Montreux that year.
In 1960 the show was trialled on stage in Scarborough. So successful was this that it became the first television production successfully transferred to the stage, with advance bookings running into what would now be millions of pounds.
The BBC’s book features a history of black face, with this gem of a description by the chapter’s author, Gladys H. Davies, identified elsewhere in the book as the show’s vision mixer:
There must have been a bond of sympathy between the negroes and the Minstrels. It is noticeable that, even though a large part of minstrel humour is based on caricature of the negroes, and their supposed characteristics of credulity and stupidity, their jokes were never unkind, and seem never to have been taken amiss by their ‘darkies’.
She was enthusiastic about the tradition of black face minstrel entertainment in America and its reception in Britain, especially the arrival of an American minstrel called Gene Stratton in 1884, known as ‘The Whistling C***’ (as she describes him, and that doesn’t rhyme with ‘punt’ but with ‘moon’). Later on, she assures readers that the television version had “brought a new and exciting lease of life to the ‘knights of the burnt cork'” (a reference to how black face was achieved through burning cork).
The book makes for an extraordinary read, yet it belongs to my lifetime. There is no doubt about the belief in its pages that the BBC was putting on a fantastically entertaining and professional show, greeted and enjoyed by millions of people in this country and abroad, and that epic amounts of hard work went into making creating, orchestrating and performing its extravagant sequences.
Of course, the BBC has long since changed its tune, with a webpage now dedicated to how it was the Corporation’s most glaring failure when it came to trading in stereotypes. Indeed, despite the show’s popularity there were already plenty of people by the 1960s who objected to the programme on the obvious basis that it was both insulting and racist. The writing was on the wall.
But the BBC wasn’t interested back then. According to that same BBC webpage, in 1962 Oliver Whitley, then Chief Assistant to the Director-General of the BBC, Sir Hugh Greene, said “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. You are wasting valuable ammunition on a comparatively insignificant target.'”
Not only then were some of the people keen on pushing the show inclined to dismiss anyone who dared to criticise it, but they also actively wanted to silence anyone who disagreed.
Thanks to its popularity, and the money made from the stage version, the show soldiered on right up until the late 1970s before it was dropped from the TV schedules. Even that had more to do with moving away from variety shows than anything else. In 1986 during the Corporation’s 50th anniversary of BBC television the show was omitted from the celebrations.
But it carried on as a stage show until 1989.
My point here has is not specifically about the Black and White Minstrel show or to attack the BBC, but the underlying phenomenon of how dramatically attitudes can change, and the shifting tides of tolerance and intolerance.
The Black and White Minstrel Show serves as a salutary allegorical tale of how little that defines or characterises an era or culture lasts. Most will dissipate in a puff of smoke to be supplanted by new obsessions, new angles and new prejudices, while some of the culprits stand around wringing their hands and wailing “what on earth were we thinking?”
Rather than a cavalcade of gratitude from future generations, it’s much more likely we’ll be mocked and roundly condemned for some of what is going on at present just as the Black and White Minstrel show is now. And you don’t need me to tell you what that might include. The only question is where to start?