The BBC’s month long Black and British season came the month after the UK’s Black History Month – i.e. October – and some might say it was overdue, not by a month but by a few years, maybe even decades. The season aimed to throw a spotlight not just on what it means to be Black in the UK now but what it means to have been Black in the UK in decades and even centuries past.
The season included a variety of genres including documentaries, drama, reality television, music and even a host of radio programmes. Documentaries, as can be expected, have been the dominant genre of the season with two documentary series in particular, anchoring the season. The two series were Black and British: A Forgotten History – fronted by historian and broadcaster, David Olusoga – and the talking heads heavy but nonetheless inspiring, Black is the New Black.
The season mostly included new content but did not fail to draw from the BBC’s extensive archive of footage. Yours truly was rather impressed by the level of documentation of the lives and experiences of Caribbean immigrants to the country and also the level of historical research into the experiences of Black Britons through the ages.
Programmes that made up the season did not stay away from difficult topics such as slavery and racism but also showed how people of African descent lived through these circumstances and sometimes triumphed through them.
David Olusoga’s series was a real treat as it looked at the breadth of Black British history starting with evidence of the some of the earliest Black presence in Britain from about 2000 years ago to the experiences of the presenter in the 1980s at the hands of the National Front. The series talked about slavery, colonialism and the experiences of individuals in Britain. It also explored the British involvement in the American Civil War as well as the ‘moral mission’ – a Victorian anti-slavery movement – and the mission’s eventual demise.
It was a relief that the season focused not just on sport and music but emphasised the varied contributions that Black people made to the UK. A particular programme, Black Nurses: The Women Who Saved the NHS, relayed the experiences of African and Caribbean nurses that came to the UK in order to support a growing NHS and in turn, helped to care for the nation.
When the season did focus on music and sport, it shed light on the history of the oft misunderstood Reggae and Grime music genres and explored racism in football as it looked at the rather bizarre Whites vs. Black football match that took place in 1979.
One thing that did become obvious as I watched the different programmes that made up the Black and British season, was the current lack of programmes that featured majority Black casts in the UK. These have been a rarity in the UK especially when compared to America but as the nation has become more diverse, television programming has been slow to move with the times. There are many programmes that feature a, or a handful of Black people but few that have an all or majority Pan-African cast. This results in a situation whereby the Black family is not represented on television as often as some would like to see.
A possible remedy to the current lack of diversity in television is an increase in the diversity of the people behind the camera. Having more Black commissioning controllers, producers, directors, writers and casting directors could lead to greater diversity in front of the screen as there is more likely to be greater diversity of thought and perspective.
Furthermore, the Black and British homepage on the BBC website is interactive and allows users to create a ‘personalised journey through Black British history’ and ‘find hidden stories from Britain’s black history’ as well as encourages visitors to participate in the #blackbritishhero social media campaign whereby members of the public can nominate their Black British hero on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
Black is the New Black, Episode 1 Full BBC Documentary, Celebrating Britain’s black community
The Black and British season was by and large a celebration and exploration of what it has meant and what it means to be Black and British and its unflinching exploration is what made it a success. One can only wish that the programming that made up the season becomes more commonplace on television or else the traditional media risks losing a growing audience demographic to the internet.