When I started watching the new BBC drama Noughts & Crosses I was pretty sure I’d seen something like it before.
A society where racial oppression holds sway in much the same way as it did in apartheid South Africa except the twist is that the roles are flipped, black African-heritage people are the oppressors and the white population of a fictitious England the oppressed?
Then I remembered my cockney working-class father being more than a little outraged at the self-same premise of another play by the BBC. It was called Fable, written by John Hopkins for the groundbreaking Wednesday Play slot, and broadcast in 1965. Its screening was delayed for a week lest encouraged racists to go out and vote!
Worthy though the BBC’s latest effort is, it can’t be as hard hitting as the one that went out fifty-five years ago and seems to owe more to West Side Story than Orwell’s 1984. Noughts & Crosses naturally earned an obligatory attack from failed Brexit Party candidate Calvin Robertson in the Daily Mail, but even that rag has not been unduly outraged by the series.
If episode one is anything to go by, the whites do not seem to be spectacularly oppressed, added to which there’s an agent provocateur in their midst who wants to stir them up against their black rulers. Black policemen and black news presenters don’t seem particularly out of place to the general viewer either. And we have in our present government people from BAME backgrounds - albeit enacting immigration policies which would have excluded their parents from coming to this country in the first place.
What was shocking about Fable was that it came at a time when, nearly twenty years after Windrush, not a single member of any UK police force was black, there were no black newsreaders or presenters, and no black MPs. Black faces weren’t common on television either unless you count the notorious Black and White Minstrel Show, where white men “blacked up” their faces to sing “traditional” minstrel songs.
Fable actually provided black actors with a rare opportunity of employment on TV at the time although they saw their roles as oppressors a frightening experience. According to cast member Carmen Munroe “suddenly you were being asked to perform the sorts of acts that were performed against you in real life.”
Hopkins’ drama attempted to examine race relations in Britain by imaging the country under a brutal, Black dominated authoritarian regime. His intention was to use the play’s black-white power reversal to challenge views on the relationship between races.
He was dismayed that some viewers interpreted the play in the opposite way to that he’d intended. “I got a letter from a viewer which said ‘I really enjoyed that play. Boy, you showed them what would happen if they came to power.’ He didn’t even specify who ‘they’ were.”
The controversy the play aroused at the time was in its highlighting of the fear at the core of white supremacism that the oppressed would pay back in kind what their oppressors had done to them! It was behind every vile suppression of slave revolts and colonial rebellions. In 1960s Britain it had arrived in the form of the “threat” posed by immigration from the Caribbean.
Fintan O’Toole discusses this irrational belief in his thought provoking book on Brexit, Heroic Failures, when he talks about anti immigration sentiment embodying “the nightmare of reverse colonisation, of the Empire striking back by occupying England’s own streets.”
Such claptrap was spouted by Enoch Powell in his infamous “rivers of blood” speech made in 1965, which stated that “in this country, in 15 or 20 years time, the black man will have the whip hand over the white man.” Powell knew full well that the Afro Caribbean bus drivers and nurses, some of whom he’d been instrumental in recruiting to fill jobs which many in Britain were reluctant to do, had neither desire nor power to take up “the whip hand” in this racist fantasy. Nevertheless, his infamous “rivers of blood” speech played well to large sections of the public who’d grown up indoctrinated by racist and imperialist ideology.
The decision by the BBC to delay the broadcast of Fable for a week in 1965 was made “to avoid accentuating the colour issue” during the Leyton by-election. Patrick Gordon Walker was the Labour candidate. He was also Foreign Secretary since Harold Wilson’s October general election victory of the previous year, despite not having a seat in parliament.
The reason for this was that Walker had lost his Smethwick seat in that election through the Conservative candidate Peter Griffiths’ exploitation of racist attitudes. The local Tories had used the slogan “if you want a n****r for a neighbour, vote Labour” and were aided in their spreading of this through posters and stickers by Colin Jordan’s neo-Nazi British Movement.
Griffiths denied the slogan was racist, claiming it was instead “a manifestation of popular feeling” - a sound bite that sounds all too familiar today! Gordon Walker lost in Leyton also, but went on to win the seat in the Labour landslide 1966 general election.
We live in a time where Conservative politicians once again think it’s acceptable to use racist terminology, even though they claim Britain isn’t racist. Powell’s talk of “grinning piccaninnies” is echoed in the language Johnson uses.
Noughts & Crosses has definite merit in that it makes the audience think about the injustices and irrationalities of dividing and and discriminating against people on racial lines. Yet for me it lacks the impact of other dramas such as 2018s Black Earth Rising, which dealt with the Rwandan genocide.
It would be great if the BBC had a trawl through its vaults, was able to find a dusty old recording of Fable, and showed it again. If it still exists, its re-screening really would be a public service.