British TV variety show

"...its legacy lives on as a strange infamy." - Kate Broome, BBC

Here lies controversy. The Black and White Minstrel show consisted of a troupe of 'blacked up' white men, backed by white female dancers. It would hardly be considered 'PC' in this day and age, but it was one of the most popular TV shows on the BBC during the 60's and early 70's. The show's format was simple, and was based on the 'nigger minstrel' shows popular in white society during the late 19th century through to the middle of the 1900s. In these shows, white women were serenaded and entertained by Black slaves, a rose-tinted and romanticised view of the American Deep South.

The series began on 14th June 1958 on the BBC, and ran for twenty years, the final show being broadcast on 1st July 1978. Initially produced by George Inns as a number of TV specials, the 'Beeb' quickly realised the potential, and the forty-five minute shows became a roaring success. The format was simple. A medley of 'Swannee River' and Country & Western songs were performed by Tony Mercer, Dai Francis and John Boulter, with backing from the Mitchell Minstrels. All the singers were in 'blackface', and also (more often than not) in white costumes and gloves.

Comedic relief was provided by Leslie Crowther, George Chisholm and Stan Stennett, and the all-white female dancers (The Television Toppers) provided the 'glamour'. The show was a tremendous success - considered great family entertainment at the time, it also went on the stage, and the troupe toured the UK for years, to full and enthusiastic houses. It was not just a ratings success (audiences of 18 million were not uncommon), but a great financial winner for the publicly-funded BBC - sheet music, stage shows and overseas sales raised millions. When it won the Golden Rose Of Montreux award in 1961, it was certainly the most popular variety show on British television. (The Robert Luff production of the stage show was so popular that it was in the Guinness Book of Records as being seen by the largest number of people.)

Most of the songs from the show were, or became 'standards'. As a child, I remember our family sitting around the 'telly' singing along, and this was certainly the pattern in those innocent days.

Not quite 'black and white'

Popular as the format was with mass audiences, many people understandably had issues with it. The world was changing, and the immigration policies of the time meant that Britain was becoming host to an increasing number of West Indian families, brought over to man the country's industries, transport services and "menial" health service tasks.

Other groups saw in it a tendency to belittle and make fun of non-whites, and it was seen, quite rightly, as caricaturing Black people. At best, it was considered to be insensitive, and at worst, an outright racist programme. More and more people were becoming aware of Britain's involvement in the slave trade, and this was a thorn in their flesh, a constant reminder of the inhuman treatment of millions.

During the 60s, the tension mounted. People began to complain to the BBC, the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination (CARD) and even the government, with increasingly strident demands to take the show off the air. In May 1967 the CARD delivered a petition to the BBC, signed by people of all ethnic backgrounds, but the show went on. The BBC resisted all calls - they had a money-spinner, and the controllers wanted the income. The argument spilled over into the media, with many newspapers taking sides.

Controversial to the last, the show was finally taken off the air in 1978, not just because of the outcry, but because of the decline in the popularity of the 'variety' genre. The show is still of historical importance, illustrating the changing views of a culture toward ethnic minorities, and the development of a multi-cultural society.

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