British Documentary

In 1992, BBC Television broadcast a season of programmes celebrating the contribution which Black and Asian people have made to British television. Prior to the five consecutive evenings' special screenings, BBC2 broadcast Black and White In Colour (26 June/3 July 1992), a two part documentary tracing Black participation in British television. The programmes resulted, in part, from the BFI (British Film Institute) Race and Ethnicity Project. This began in 1985 and aimed, through archival research, to examine Black people's involvement in British television, both on and off the screen. The research emerged at a time when the debate about race and cultural representation was at its peak, and when there was increasing criticism of images of Blackness on British television.

Black and White In Colour is a British Film Institute production, directed by the Black British filmmaker, Isaac Julien. It examines both the socio-political context and on-screen developments and in so doing, effectively traces the shifts and contours of Black British television history. The documentary uses rare archive footage, is narrated by Professor Stuart Hall and includes interviews with actors, actresses, cultural critics, directors and other key players in the making of Black British television history.

The first part of Black And White In Colour begins by noting Black American performers' contribution to British variety in the 1930s and 1940s. American entertainers such as Adelaide Hall, Buck and Bubbles and Elisabeth Welch were some of the first images British people saw of Black people. Compared to other genres, light entertainment was significantly advanced in celebrating Black performers such as Harry Belafonte and Shirley Bassey. Black And White In Colour goes on to discuss how the image of Black person as social problem was developed in the post-war years, particularly in news and documentary programming. The late 1950s saw the emergence of some innovative drama which focused on race and the Black British experience, for example John Elliot's A Man From The Sun (1956) and John Hopkin's Fable (1965). What Black And White In Colour highlights, is that in most pre-1970s programming Black people were quite clearly spoken about and referred to rather than directly addressed.

The second part of Black And White In Colour concentrates on Black representation on British television from 1962 to 1992. It begins by describing how Enoch Powell and his 1968 "rivers of blood" speech influenced perceptions of Black British people. The most popular programme on British television at this time, was Johnny Speight's sitcom Till Death Us Do Part which, although it rarely featured Black characters, gave space to the blatantly racist views of Alf Garnett (often described as Powell's alter-ego). Black And White In Colour points out that, generally speaking, the first part of the 1970s was an uncreative time in terms of images of Blackness. A number of situation comedies during the 1970s, such as Love Thy Neighbour, Mind Your Language and Mixed Blessings, claimed that they were diffusing racial tension by laughing at racism, but in fact developed their own set of racist stereotypes. During the same period, the first programmes which featured predominantly Black casts began to emerge. Empire Road (1978-79) was the first Black soap opera to be made for British television screens. Black And White In Colour also examines off-screen developments at this time, when many black artists were beginning to complain and campaign for better roles on television. For example, the Equity's Coloured Artists Committee was established in 1974. In 1979, the Campaign Against Racism In The Media critically assessed television's representation of race in It Ain't Half Racist Mum.


Black and White in Colour examines the impact of Channel 4 and the Black British independent film movement on black cultural representation during the 1980s. Black programming was built into the structure of Channel 4, which began in 1982. Subsequently black audiences were offered their own magazine programmes such as Eastern Eye and Black On Black and comedies such as No Problem!, Tandoori Nights and Desmonds. The specifically black programmes of the 1980s, triggered off a number of debates about black audiences, race and television.

Although Black And White In Colour traces a history which reveals an improvement in images of blackness on British television since 1936, the analysis makes it clear that representations of black people are far from prefect and that many of the early patterns are still apparent. In that sense, the two-part documentary is more a retrospective than a celebration. Most importantly perhaps, Black And White In Colour manages to illustrate how much black artists and practitioners have had to struggle to gain access to the British television institution.

-Sarita Malik

Documentary aired in two parts


26 June 1992
3 July 1992


Dhondy, Farrukh. "Black and White in Colour in the U.K." Intermedia (London), August 1992.

Pines, Jim, editor. Black and White in Colour: Black People in British Television Since 1936. London: British Film Institute, 1992.