Star Rating: *****
Broadcast: ITV, 13th October 2020
You wait years for one documentary on Black British comedy then 2 come along not just in the space of one week, but in the space of 3 days in the second week of Black History Month.
Craig and Danny: Funny, Black and on TV (FBT) aired on ITV (13/10/2020). That was closely followed by the extremely well promoted ‘Black, British and Funny’ on Channel 4 on 15/10/2020. This show’s title comes from the co-hosts Craig Charles and Danny John-Jules of Red Dwarf fame, although they and that show are barely mentioned or seen on screen, but nonetheless that popular show’s contribution to the TV comedy landscape is undisputed, with it reportedly being the world’s most popular science fiction sit-com, running to 12 series over many years.
FBT takes the viewer on a journey through Black TV comedy from Charlie Williams in the 1970’s through to rising stars like Michaela Coel who broke through 5 years ago, in October 2015, with her hit Channel 4 series ‘Chewing Gum.’ The show’s title
What was clear from the programme was just how much of a glacially paced evolution it was, especially compared to other TV comedy which saw the rapid rise of alternative comedy that spawned a generation of household names with enduring careers. Just think of ‘The Young Ones’, Rick Mayall, Alexia Sayle and Ben Elton to name but a few.
One has to wonder why Black comedy hasn’t evolved and travelled faster and further than it has, for I would argue that the quality and TV ratings have always been there. Could it be attributed to racism, the gatekeepers to what appears on our televisions i.e. TV commissioners, low ratings or the disinterest of the British public?
I shall return to answer that question later, but what is clear is that must be some very tired shoulders out there as it was evident from FBT that so many of the country’s much loved stars have at various times stood on one another’s shoulders in a manner that facilitated different generations the opportunity to breakthrough and move things along in terms of representation.
This journey started with Charlie Williams, born in 1927 Barnsley. His father was from Barbados and his mother was a born and bred Yorkshire lass. Williams came through on the Northern working men’s club circuit. Winning over those tough crowds was no mean feat for a Black man in the 1970’s (it probably would be almost as tough to do so today). His act won over these audiences, got spotted by TV executives and ultimately secured starring roles in various TV shows, the pinnacle of which was ITV’s The Golden Shot (1973-74) taking over from the late, legendary comedy superstar Bob Monkhouse. That was quite exceptional for at the time it was the biggest show on TV.
From there the next major breakthrough was Love Thy Neighbour (1972-76) starring Rudolph Walker, Jack Smethurst, Nina Baden-Semper and Kate Williams. The show was hugely popular, commanding massive audiences of up to 17m. That was fascinating as the show was focused on the inter- racial relationship, dynamics playing out between a white couple played by Jack and Kate alongside that of the neighbouring Black couple played by Rudolph and Nina. Whilst the women got along famously, the men were regularly at loggerheads over racial issues. A new incarnation of this probably wouldn’t get shown today but it was seen as funny for its time and regularly highlighted the bigotry and idiocy of Jack’s racist views. This show was something of a first for British TV and clearly struck a chord with viewers.
Nine years after Love They Neighbour ended, the BBC brought us a similar show – In Sickness and In Health (1985-92) that portrayed Waren Mitchell’s Alf Garnett character as a racist bigot and Eamonn Walker’s Winston as a perfectly fine, regular human being, who gave as good as he got without stooping to Garnett’s level.
Sandwiched between these legendary shows the country continued to wrestle with real life race relations in a battling way. In the early 1970’s the country had entered perilous waters following Enoch Powell’s infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech (20th April 1968). It was an era when intense race relations combined with recession and poverty, disproportionately impacted the Black community and boiled over into the historic race riots of 1981 in Brixton (London), Toxteth (Liverpool), Handsworth (Birmingham), Chapeltown (Leeds) and Moss Side (Manchester) and other towns and cities across England.
In a way many of the TV shows highlighted above merely prodded , with gentle humour, at the racial issues and tensions impacting thousands of Black people.
Sir Lenny Henry
From there the show moved on to national treasure, Sir Lenny Henry, who of course got his big break via appearing in and winning New Faces (1975), the forerunner to shows like Britain’s Got Talent. I think we all know how New Faces catapulted the then 16 year old Lenny Henry from Dudley into the illuminatingly bright glare of the national spotlight which remarkably for an industry as fickle as show business has stayed with him ever since.
His stock rose immeasurably over the years leading to Lenny becoming, as TV Producer Terry Jervis, aptly put it as “a one man brand.” This arguably peaked with Lenny becoming a knight of the realm for his TV career and extraordinary charity fundraising through Comic Relief which he co-founded. In between all that TV and theatre work he impressively managed to fit in studying for and achieving a Masters degree and PhD.
From there FBT revisited The Fosters (1976-77) – the first Black British sitcom. Alas it was axed after just 2 series.
For years it was just Lenny Henry representing the whole of Black British comedy as far as TV were concerned. Stand up comedians and TV audiences would understandably be wondering if there was something in the old Stephen K Amos joke that “for others to get a break Lenny Henry would have to die.” Fortunately that’ drastic event has proved not to be necessary.
Since The Fosters there have been a number of notable series – Desmond’s (1989-94); The Real McCoy (1991-96) – finally released on BBC Store a few years ago and on BBC I-player in July 2020 (all 5 series) as well as 3 Non-Blondes (2003).
The real McCoy as Gina Yashere commented, “was like the holy grail. All Black comedians wanted to get on it.” She was booked to appear, but at the last minute they booked someone else so she missed out. That was their loss. I wonder who took her place. She never did say!
The Real McCoy was a much loved mix of stand up and sketches that went down a treat with Black audiences starved of seeing a good representation of themselves on TV.
Richard Blackwood was the first major Black TV comedian to make it and sustains a career on TV since Sir Lenny Henry. As he immodestly but accurately said, at one point “Everything I touched turned to gold.” He appeared on various shows, peaking with ‘The Richard Blackwood Show’ on Channel 4 (1999-2000). Alas this was axed after just 1 series in March 2001.
A year before this Sacha Baron Cohen spectacularly arrived on the scene with Da Ali G Show (2000-04 which first aired on Channel 4 on 31st March 2000. Blackwood admitted to feeling understandably aggrieved by that turn of events, as he was doing just fine, being himself, representing his community in a positive way, only to be cast side for someone who was perceived to be culturally appropriating and mocking one aspect of Black culture.
Personally I didn’t think Sacha Baron Cohen meant any harm by Ali G and found him to be immensely funny and as his film and TV career has clearly demonstrated, Sacha Baron Cohen wasn’t a flash in the pan overnight success. Many others could have quite easily have lived off the success of Ali G and stayed with that character for years, but he chose to evolve, develop other characters and move away from Ali G.
It was lovely to see the late Felix Dexter, who died in 2013, remembered in the tributes to comedy greats of yesteryear. Angie Le Mar said, “He should have been a huge star. He had it all.”
So with the somewhat glacial progress and clear limits on progression from stand up comedy to TV, what’s a comedian to do? Well many head state side. They often return perhaps realising that the grass isn’t always greener. Gina Yashere uprooted and moved, lock stock and barrel to USA in 2007. Richard Blackwood commented, “We thought she’d be back in 6 months as that’s what always happens.” Not this time. 13 years on and Gina’s stock is still rising in America with her shows appearing on major TV channels and Netflix including the first Nigerian-American sitcom Bob Hearts Abishola featuring an all Nigerian cast. As Dane Baptise put it, “she’s made huge strides for Black comedians and Black people worldwide.”
“Micheala Coel is a genius,” said Gina Yashere of the writer and actor of Channel 4’s hugely popular ‘Chewing Gum (2015). Richard Blackwood was equally effusive, describing Coel as “an amazing comedy writer.” Chewing Gum won a BAFTA ‘Breakthrough Talent’ award in 2016. Llewella Gideon admired Coel as “she presents 3 dimensional characters. That means you see past race.”
FBT was funny, entertaining and educational. It was a fabulous trip down memory lane that showcased the evolution of Black British television comedy over the last 50 years.
In a way the many clips shown were symbolic. They whetted the appetite for more, reminded you of the transience of the Black presence on TV. Aside from Sir Lenny Henry, The Real McCoy and Richard Blackwood, few of the shows or its stars have had long running series or achieved as much in television as their potential and talent merited.
I know many sitcoms and shows come and go and have a set time in the spotlight, but many of them were repeatedly commissioned and appeared on our TV screens series after series, year after year. Black British comedy and comedians have not been so fortunate.
As this programme vividly demonstrated the talent is and has always been there going right back to Charlie Williams in the 1970’s. It didn’t go away. It simply went underground. Those who follow the Black comedy circuit know this and will have been able to follow many of these talented comedians on stage performing stand up comedy or acting.
Why has there been a paucity of long running Black British Television Programmes?
Going back to my initial question, I posited three possible reasons. Firstly. Was the talent not there? This show, the live experience on the Black comedy and theatre circuit, not to mention a number of hit shows on You Tube such as Meet the Adebanjos (2012) and All About the McKenzie’s (2016) which eventually were picked up by TV, shows it was there, so it cannot be that.
Secondly, were the ratings not high enough? Possibly that would have been a factor. However Charlie Williams hosted the highest rated show on at the time; Lenny Henry won the X Factor of the day, New Faces in 1975. Love Thy Neighbour pulled in 17m viewers. The Real McCoy lasted for 6 years (1989-1995) thus demonstrating a longevity that proved there was a demand and love for Black comedy.
Aside from some of these examples I accept that some Black orientated programming is not necessarily going to compete with the likes of mainstream shows such as Only Fools and Horses, Eastenders etc.. but very few shows do that anyway. Besides, the BBC and Channel 4, in particular, have a public service broadcaster remit to serve the entire UK population, which means programmes should specifically be made and broadcast to appeal to minority ethnic groups who also pay their licence fee and therefore should be represented on television.
There is a third possibility. Could it be that the gatekeepers, the TV commissioners who decide what goes on TV and what gets re-commissioned have kept Black talent of our screens for too long? As those people tend not to be minority ethnic that could be the most significant, most plausible reason. Many will find that conclusion extremely disheartening and misguided. I appreciate part of their concerns may be TV ratings, but as highlighted above, the ratings for shows featuring Black talent, even those covering controversial topics, have not harmed audience figures in the last 50 years. I believe there has been a great interest, fascination in exploring this and seeing it acted out on TV in shows such as Love Thy Neighbour, Mind Your Language and In Sickness and in Health.
When it comes to pure comedy and humour the ratings indicate that the mainstream TV audience do enjoy Black comedy. Did the TV executives bar the likes of Jewish Comedian Jackie Mason at the height of his career, despite him performing routines that focused on his Jewish-ness? They did not.
Where does Black British TV Comedy Go From Here?
Will this show and Mo Gilligan’s ‘Black, British and Funny’ be game changers in any sort of way? We’ll see. Though you don’t see many shows like this on TV, we’ve been here before just one year ago in fact (October 2019), when Sky Gold broadcast the excellent 3 part series: Lenny Henry’s Race Through Comedy.
ITV should rightly be highly commended for this show and a great deal of what they’ve been doing with their programming this year be that with Britain’s Got Talent, not just because of the Diversity furore and their supportive stance, but for all the Black talented comedians and magicians on the recent series and the wonderfully diverse representation depicted in countless TV adverts. I believe that audiences would love to see as much visible, unmissable diversity with their regular TV programming as viewers have been seeing with their far more diverse commercials, local TV news and new presenter representation.
Little has changed significantly and consistently over the last 50 years, but I would hope that any reflections and considerations on these shows will result in a greater number of and more sustained, quality, diverse Black programming, plus the all important re-commissioning of programmes, be they good or average, in order to give them and the talent appearing on screen and off screen the same opportunity to grow and develop as other communities get. That’s how you demonstrate true commitment to equality, diversity and inclusion. You have to allow people a chance to succeed. To fail and to go again just as they do with mainstream talent and programming. That clearly hasn’t happened enough. If the TV stations are serious about representation and want to have more Funny, Black and on TV they know what they to do.
© Tiemo Talk of the Town
Photographs © Tony Attille