THE BLACK AND WHITE MINSTREL SHOW

British Music/Variety/Minstrel Show

One hundred years after the "Nigger Minstrel" entertainment tradition had begun in London's music-halls, the convention was revived on television in the form of The Black And White Minstrel Show. This variety series was first screened on BBC Television on 14 June 1958 and it was to stay on air for over the next two decades. The Black And White Minstrel Show evolved from the "Swannee River" type minstrel radio shows. One year before it was first broadcast on television, George Inns produced the 1957 Television Minstrels (BBC TV 2 September 1957) as part of the National Radio Show in London.

The occasional television specials soon developed into a regular series with a forty-five minute non-stop format of Mississippi tunes and Country and Western songs. The series was devised and produced by Inns and featured music conducted by George Mitchell and the Television Toppers Dance Troupe. The series showcased the Mitchell Minstrels as well as solo performances from entertainers such as Tony Mercer, John Boulter and Dai Francis. During the early years, various comedians such as Lesley Crowther, Stan Stennett and George Chisholm acted as "fillers" between the slick song and dance routines.

The Black and White Minstrel Show won the 1961 Golden Rose Of Montreux. The variety series could almost always guarantee an audience of at least 16 million, but frequently managed to top 18 million viewers. At a time when the variety show was a popular television genre for the whole family, The Black And White Minstrel Show established itself as one of the world's greatest musical programmes on television. The music from the show broke sales records and the stage show was equally popular. Robert Luff's production opened at the Victoria Palace Theatre in 1969 and established itself in The Guinness Book Of Records as the stage show seen by the largest number of people. At this time, the creation had gained considerable international respect and kudos. The Black And White Minstrel Show's success was marked by its regular Saturday night transmissions over a vast period. The programme managed to maintain its freshness, its manic pace and its nostalgic premise on a weekly basis.

What accounts for such immense popularity? Part of the explanation was undoubtedly the pleasure many got from the programme, with its meticulously choreographed dance routines and popular songs and melodies. George Inns combined white dancers with black-faced singers and this was believed to be visually striking, particularly when colour television was introduced in 1967. The Black And White Minstrel Show harked back to a specific period and location--the Deep South where coy White women could be seen being wooed by docile, smiling black slaves. The black men were, in fact, White artists "Blacked-up." The racist implications of the premise of the programme were yet to be widely acknowledged or publicly discussed. But it was this which largely led to the programme's eventual demise.

Many felt that a large part of "minstrel humour" was based on caricaturing black people and depicting them as being both stupid and credulous. This image was felt to be insensitive and inappropriate in an increasingly multi-racial and multi-cultural Britain. The Black And White Minstrel Show therefore, is important in the context of British television because it outlines how racist representations became part of public debate and how performance was linked to social context. The programme revealed a tension between the television controllers, critics and audience. Many were angry at the fact that during this time there were very few other representations of black people on British television. On 18 May 1967, the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination delivered a petition to the BBC signed by both black and white people, which requested that the programme be taken off television. Despite the controversy, the programme continued until 1 July 1978. Ultimately, its removal from the air coincided with the demise of the popularity of the variety genre on British television.

-Sarita Malik

 


The Black and White Minstrel Show
Photo courtesy of the British Film Institute

REGULAR PERFORMERS

Leslie Crowther
George Chisholm
Stan Stennett

SINGERS

The Mitchell Minstrels

SOLO PERFORMERS

Tony Mercer, Dai Francis, John Boulter

DANCERS

The Television Toppers

PRODUCER

George Inns

PROGRAMMING HISTORY

BBC
June 1958-July 1978