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.
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.
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.
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.
The Black and White Minstrel Show
Photo courtesy of the British Film Institute
Mercer, Dai Francis, John Boulter
June 1958-July 1978