N 1';11 .6 Deborah Thomas WE'VE certainly come a long way in this country since The Black and White Minstrel Show, whose over-the-top caricatures were broadcast in the name of light entertainment on prime time TV for over 20 years.
Isaac Julien's documentary to introduce BBC2's Black and White in Colour season this week tackled the history of television's portrayal of black and Asian people a very chequered one, even though, to my surprise, we learnt that black people appeared on British television on its very first night.
The general difficulty has tended to be that ethnic minorities have either been denied a voice, or were given one that is inappropriate, often to the point of being insulting. In the early days of television, when the immigrant population of the UK was very small, blacks were used to spice up an evening's viewing by adding a touch of the exotic.
Characteristically they came from the USA and liked to sing about Dixie. Performers included Buck and Bubbles, a song and dance duo who performed on "Calling All Stars" in the 1930s, and stars of more lasting renown such as Harry Belafonte and Earths Kitt.
This was to prove a persistent strand. Cliff Michelmore's longrunning Tonight programme featured a nightly topical song by a black actor called Cy Grant, who says that the show was fun but "there was a terrible price to pay" Michelmore patronised him, he felt like "a performing animal", and nobody ever offered him any serious acting parts.
In other contexts, blacks also received short shrift. Emergency Ward 10 featured a romance between Louise, a young black hospital doctor, and her white colleague, Giles. Plans for a screen kiss between the two were leaked to the press and the
resulting furore led to the encounter being transplanted from bedroom to garden and a very chaste affair it proved, more of a leisurely peck than a real kiss, broken off by Louise saying briskly: "Early call for me tomorrow!" The romance was shortly afterwards abandoned, and Louise was written out, dying from, of all things, a snake bite.
By the 1950s, with immigration growing rapidly in response to the UK's need for labour, blacks were becoming an issue. The tendency was to cast the immigrant population as a social problem.
But there were serious attempts made to reach beyond the unofficial colour bar. John Elliott's 1956 drama A Man from the Sun showed working class black immigrants as real characters experiencing the clash between the myth and the reality of Britain in workplaces where routine banter included: "Wotcha Sambo...you stink...why don't you learn English?"
Yes, we have come a long way since then. Black and Asian characters now appear in plays, sitcoms and soaps without its being an issue, and blacks and Asians make documentaries and read the news. But there is a reason to regret the 1950s and 1960s. Today serious new drama on television is under budgetary siege and plays like Fable, confronting social issues head on, are increasingly unlikely to get made. Racism still exists in the UK, and if it is more subtle, then that only makes it more dangerous. Exploring the situation by means of drama might stimulate some useful debate.
THE WEEK AHEAD Sunday July 5
18.40 Titchmarsh on Song BBC1 How the human voice has praised God through the ages.
22.15 The Elvis Cult, Radio 4 "Disciples" of Elvis Presley believe the deceased singer helps them do good works in his name. 22.30 Heart of the Matter, BBC I Joan Bakewell meets two Catholic women wanting children late in life. 23.30 Seeds of Faith. Radio 4.