The media and ethnic prejudice in the 1960s and 1970s

Submitted by martin on 6 July, 2020 - 4:20 Author: Tilly Bean
Millicent Martin

Millicent Martin (above left) satirised the Black and White Minstrel Show in the short-lived show That Was The Week That Was, but this was also a time when words like "nigger" were widely used.


In order to analyse the contributions of the media to the social prejudices of ethnic minorities in the 1960s and 70s, we must first look back at the media’s actions in the previous decade.

The 1950s saw the beginning of what is called the "Windrush" influx (named after the Empire Windrush – the former German troopship sent to bring new workers to rebuild Britain after the Second World War.)

The media mirrored the panic felt by Attlee’s Government at the time, reporting on the attempt to direct the Windrush to East Africa to pick nuts. However, it was mainly in the local newspapers that the discussion of Black people in Britain took place. For example, in just one column of the Birmingham Daily Post in September 1954, many different prejudices were addressed:

“No New Moves To Keep Out Jamaicans / Colonial Office Attitude / Free to seek work in Britain

The position at present is that the Jamaicans are free citizens quite within their rights in coming to this country to seek work…. His department [the Colonial Office] had not any intention of attempting to alter this state of affairs".

The newspaper used comments made in the South African newspaper Die Burger "by one of its reporters…on what he calls the 'dark cloud gathering over Britain – the danger of serious and increasing racial friction on account of the influx of non-whites especially from the West Indies and Africa. In the working-class districts … a spirit of resistance is breeding which in recent times has even lead [sic] to bloody clashes.

"'According to reports of police chiefs… the trade in drugs and street women is mainly in the hands of non-whites… on a recent Saturday evening a dance hall cashier near Wolverhampton refused to admit three non-white men and this lead [sic] to a small storm.’ This series of articles is concerned mainly with the alleged crime and unemployment among these people as well as their dependence on state support.”

Such articles perpetuated the idea that these immigrants were only coming to Britain to benefit from the newly established welfare state and to live criminally. Additionally, the report of working-class districts resisting may validate the racist thoughts of the reader. Other articles documented a pub in Brixton that had banned Black people from entering the saloon bar, and the Sunday Graphic, 1952, discussed the “critical problem” of the (long-established) "coloured" community in Cardiff’s Tiger Bay.

It probably comes as no surprise that groups of white British citizens who most likely had only ever seen non-white people depicted in comics, minstrel shows and novels but never in real life, became scared of what was seen as a threat to their way of life. The race riots of 1958 were fuelled by the media. In Nottingham, reporters wrote about anti-black rioting on St Ann’s Well Road, a known area for new non-white residents. During the riots a TV camera operator staged a mock battle between black and white youth, windows of the homes of black people were smashed in and a West Indian man was stabbed.

Race riots moved to London. In Camden Town there was an attack on a West Indian family with a petrol bomb. The riots were given the nickname "Nigger Hunting". As word spread, so did the riots. The media’s promotion of ethnic prejudice in the following two decades stemmed from the coverage of those ethnic minorities arriving in Britain.

As the sixties swung in, the media changed dramatically. Britain was gradually lifting itself out of post-war austerity (with help from immigrants) and it became more commonplace for the modern family to have the breakthrough must-have household item – the television. Newspapers weren’t the only source of information for the public.

In the same year as the Nottingham race riots, The Black and White Minstrel Show aired on 14 June 1958 on the BBC. It ran for 20 years and was the most popular light entertainment show of its era.

"Minstrels" had been around since the 19th century, and were white men in blackface who sang songs made famous by African Americans of the South. They would be displayed on prime-time television with the minstrels sometimes in red, white and blue suits and the stage decorated with star spangled banners and even Confederate flags.

At its height the show had between 14 and 18 million viewers and included show songs, musical comedy, spirituals and dance numbers, performed by the choir George Mitchell’s Minstrels and supported by white women portrayed as ditsy, subordinate, and sexual objects. That chimed with the idea that black men were highly sexually charged and intended to spoil the ‘purity’ white women. The show was a benchmark for popular music, with chart hit after chart hit originating from the show, and even an award in 1961.

Music critic Stanley Crouch says “Minstrelsy was not invented to elevate Negroes. Minstrelsy was invented to give jobs for white guys who were imitating negroes to the best of their possible ability.” But as the years went by, the outside world was waking up to the sound of the civil rights movement and second wave feminism, and that was in no case reflected in the show.

In 1963, on the new satirical TV show That Was The Week That Was, Millicent Martin parodied I Wanna Go Back to Mississippi after the death of William Lewis Moore, a white civil rights activist who was shot on a protest march to Mississippi. Minstrels sang:

"Where we hate on the darkies and the Catholic and the Jews/ Where we welcome any man if he’s white and strong and belongs to the Klu Klux Klan/….So an uppity nigger gonna cast his vote/ I took that uppity nigger and I cut his goddamn throat"

However, it is unlikely such satire would have clicked with most the white audience. In a documentary by BBC Four, footage is shown of an episode of Open Air discussing the omission of repeats of the show from the 50th birthday celebration broadcasts. After a Black panellist called the show patronising and describes the make-up as racist, an older white woman responded with outrage:

"You’re going over the top! Nobody ever connects the minstrels with that!"

That demonstrates that at least a section of the white audience didn’t even notice the stereotypes being used in the show.

A more sinister interpretation of the show is that it was not malicious and intentionally racist, but rather ignorantly and innocently perpetuated tropes (created maliciously) which were being ignorantly absorbed by the audiences with no acknowledgement of how that affected their thinking. It was black Britons who experienced the effect The Black and White Minstrel Show had on society.

One famous black performer who appeared in a Christmas performance of The Black and White Minstrel Show was a 17-year old Lenny Henry. He was dressed as Santa Claus. Two ladies either side of him sang “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas”. Henry turned round and shouted in a Jamaican accent “Ya got no chance!”

The punchline was immediately about race, as well as the novelty of having a real-life black person on the show. He told me about his observations of institutionalised racism in show business at that time:

"When I watch my New Faces debut from January 1975 - I’m struck by some of the jokes I told - there were four race related jokes - one of which was a joke where my characterisation of Frank Spencer (Some Mothers Do ‘Ave Em) had found himself permanently black due to his new job working for Ambre Solaire - ‘I only put a teaspoon on I can’t get it off now’. The producers at no point advised me to cut any of that material, they just assumed it is what I wanted to do. My experience as a producer /script editor tells me that they had every right to take a more paternal role and advise a young /inexperienced performer to perhaps lose the material that was repetitive or could be misconstrued as rather too self-deprecating. This might only have been achievable if there had been someone watching out for someone like me, that actually looked like me".

Towards the latter half of the 1960s heading into the 1970s, while The Black and White Minstrel Show was still enjoying success, sitcoms inspired by the changing diversity of 20th Century Britain were coming to the small screen. These included Curry and Chips and Love Thy Neighbour.

Curry and Chips first aired in 1969 – 1970 (only six episodes) and followed the story of Kevin O’Grady ("Paki Paddy" to his colleagues), played by Spike Milligan in blackface, an Irish-Pakistani immigrant looking to “help [the] poor Queen and Prince Phillip back to prosperity” ("Prince" pronounced "prib"). He ends up in a factory that makes novelty goods and works with white men (some also Irish) who hurl racist abuse at him daily. For example:

"I’ve voted Labour all my life and my father before me. But when it comes to blacks, I’m with Enoch [laugh track]"

The running joke throughout seems to be the fact that a man who looks Pakistani and sounds Pakistani "thinks" he’s Irish. The first joke is him introducing himself as Kevin O’Grady, almost as if he’s an oxymoron: how can he be Irish if he’s brown?

More jokes about his heritage come as he doesn’t know what Guinness or whiskey are, and he doesn’t eat pork because of his culture.

Kevin is a product of Empire, proud of his Irish father because he has been taught to be proud by empire-minded education. He finds it absurd that his co-workers don’t understand that, and his frustrated head-wobbling and high-pitched exclamations then contribute towards more laughter from the studio audience.

A more complicated example of racism in British sitcoms was Love Thy Neighbour, the story of a white family coming to terms with having black neighbours (Bill and Barbie Reynolds). The first episode, aired in 1972, seems to be an experiment of "How many black stereotypes and racist language can one fit into half an hour?"

Eddie Booth rings the Race Relations Board to “complain about a nig-nog”, he fears his wife will be “raped during the night”, he fears the Reynolds’ will “stink [them] out” with curry and “muck like mangoes and yams”, and even when he finally sits down to talk with Bill he credits Bill: “You’re civilised now, you’re nearly like one of us.”

It’s obvious this racism is overdone to create the character of Eddie Booth, but he isn’t as fictional as the writers may have thought. This was a situation that white Britons were afraid of. Thus: “If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote labour.” – Peter Griffiths, Conservative Party election slogan in Smethwick, 1964.

The Windrush generation was threatening the idea of Empire that white Britons had been fed their whole lives. Eddie was an embodiment of this fear. It is argued that Love Thy Neighbour made the discrimination equal because the Bill Reynolds was also prejudiced towards the Booths, and the Reynolds also had the last laugh.

"Barbie: So, what did you call him? Bill: A loudmouth, white skin poof [laughter]"

The biggest contributor to ethnic prejudice in the 1960s and 1970s in media such as this, was the language. Watching clips and episodes of these shows demonstrated that television has come a long way in 60 years (although with further to go).

The words I heard from that period were ones which I would never hear today unless in a period drama. "Nigger” was in every part I watched. In The Black and White Minstrel Show I heard “uppity nigger”, “darkies”, “my little mammy”, and the make up used by the minstrels was Max Factor: Negro Number 2. In the sitcoms there were “nig-nog”, “sambo”, “wog” also “wog bird” and “wog land”, as well as talk of civility.

Language is an important influence because it makes its way into daily use, if used enough it could even have become a catchphrase. The fact this was at at the same time as Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech, the Notting Hill Riots, and the civil rights movement in America, shows that the power of the white Establishment was tightening its influence on the British public.

References

Kirby, T, Ross, J. (dir). (2019) The Unwanted: The Secret Windrush Files [BBC iPlayer]. British Broadcasting Corporation.

Time Shift (2008) [YouTube]. BBC FOUR, The Black and White Minstrel Show – Revisited. British Broadcasting Coroporation.

A London Staff Reporter. (1954) No New Moves to Keep out Jamaicans. The Birmingham Post, 25 September, 1.

Fryer, P. (1984) Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain. London: Pluto Press.

Martin, M. (1963) I Wanna go Back to Mississippi [live performance]. Performed by Millicent Martin and George Mitchell’s Minstrels. London: That was the Week that Was, 31 December.

Henry, L. (2019) Essay Statement. [email]. Sent to Bean, M, 22 November.

Curry and Chips (1969) [YouTube]. ITV, Series 1, Episode 1.

Love Thy Neighbour (1972) [YouTube]. ITV, Series 1, Episode 1.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Kirby, T, Ross, J. (dir). (2019) The Unwanted: The Secret Windrush Files [BBC iPlayer]. British Broadcasting Corporation.

Nostalgia Central (2019) Curry and Chips. Available from https://nostalgiacentral.com/television/tv-by-decade/tv-shows-1960s/cur… [accessed 5 December 2019]

Fryer, P. (1984) Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain. London: Pluto Press.

Pines, J. (1992) Black and White in Colour. London: British Film Institute.

Henry, L. (2019) Who am I, again? London: CPI Group (UK) Ltd.

Daley, K. (2019) Natives: Race & Class in the Ruins of Empire. London: Two Roads.

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