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Black TV Writers

Small-screen pioneers

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The experience of black television writers is little studied, but the precise reasons why some of those who derive from Africa, the Caribbean and South East Africa have successfully penetrated Britain's television institutions while others have not are an important part of our broadcasting history.

What is clear is that it is a story that has been deeply shaped by issues of blocked access, limited opportunities and concerns around on-screen representation. Far from being passive in the face of such obstacles, a number of black cultural practitioners during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s - among them Pearl and Edric Connor, John La Rose, Obi Egbuna, Ed Braithwaite and Oscar Abrams - helped to form agencies and movements that sought to develop and support other black artists, including writers. While black actors were beginning to be seen on-screen during these decades, it was solely down to the creative vision of trusted white television writers such as John Elliott, Ted Willis and John Hopkins to script white-authorised representations of 'blackness'.

Interestingly, the 'break' for many black writers was theatre, which was typically more open to taking so-called 'risks' and helping develop new writers. Organisations such as the Royal Court Theatre and Theatre Royal Stratford East served as important launch-pads for many of Britain's most successful black television writers, including Mustapha Matura, Trix Worrell and Michael Abbensetts.

In spite of such long-standing absences and omissions, a handful of early black writers eventually began to see their work produced on television. These included Horace James (Rainbow City, BBC, 1967), Jan Carew and Sylvia Wynter (The Big Pride, ITV, 1961), Errol John (Moon on a Rainbow Shawl, ITV, 1960) and Barry Reckord (You in Your Small Corner, ITV, 1962). In the decades that followed, their successes paved the way for other writers such as Michael Abbensetts (Black Christmas, BBC, 1977; Empire Road, BBC, 1978-79).

The first black television writers tended to work in drama. Other genres such as comedy were still off-limits, although white comedy writers demonstrated an obvious preoccupation with the topic of race and racial difference throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Some progress was made in writing for feature films and for radio, but the specific politics of television as a 'public service institution' made it impenetrable in different ways and despite being apparently more accountable to the British public it was intended to serve. Black women writers, meanwhile, had a double struggle, obliged to challenge not just racial but gender hierarchies within the industry. Only a small number succeeded in doing so; Sylvia Wynter and Buchi Emecheta ('The Ju-Ju Landlord', Crown Court, ITV 1976; Nigeria: A Kind of Marriage, BBC, 1976) stand out.

Although by the 1970s there was a growing interest in writing about the specific experience of being black in contemporary British society, the bulk of early work revealed a dual concern with issues connected to the writers' homelands and to the status of the new black diaspora. British society was undergoing significant changes in the ways it dealt with new kinds of racial difference, while a new consciousness was emerging among black cultural practitioners, stemming, as writer Mustapha Matura described it, "from the intellectual realisation of our history: how you could perceive your self had changed," but also about "the political change, the metamorphosis happening to me and others around."

The 1980s and early 1990s brought new opportunities as part of a broader drive towards multiculturalism and anti-racism. This was a critical juncture in black British culture, spawning not only a range of creative interventions in response to a history of marginalisation, but also attempts to find a unified public voice under the umbrella of 'political blackness'. South Asians, too, were an important part of this movement, and it is difficult to separate that community from the evolving cultural politics of which black writers were an important part. The first 'black programmes' began to emerge at this time, and a growing number of black writers became involved in contributing to the scripts of documentaries and other kinds of actuality formats. Elsewhere on-screen, Matura and other writers such as Rudy Narayan, Tunde Ikoli, Edgar White (Black Silk, BBC, 1985), Horace Ové (The Garland, BBC, 1981; The Orchid House, Channel 4, 1991), Caryl Phillips (The Record, Channel 4, 1985; The Final Passage, Channel 4, 1996), Michael Ellis (South of the Border, BBC, 1988) and Mike Phillips (Bloodlines, BBC, 1992), each helped to transform conventional television treatments of black-related issues.

By the early 1990s, comedy had emerged as a more accessible space for black writers. Initiatives designed to develop black writers within the genre, such as the 1990 'Step Forward' workshops led by Lenny Henry and a 1992 scheme launched by the BBC's comedy department were the foundation for new openings and led to a new black sketch comedy series, The Real McCoy (BBC, 1991-96). Writing credits on the series include Perry Benson, Fraser Downie, Robbie Gee, Llewella Gideon, Terry Jervis, Collette Johnson, Ishmael Thomas and Curtis Walker.

Other long-running comedy series such as Desmond's (Channel 4, 1988-94) also provided valuable writing opportunities for newer and more-established black writers. Lenny Henry, as one of the few black artists to have forged his career on British television, served as an inspiration for other black writers, including Ninia Benjamin, Kim Fuller and Jocelyn Jee Esien, all of whom have written for The Lenny Henry Show (BBC, 1984-). Notably, Jocelyn Jee Esien has since written and starred in her own comedy sketch show, Little Miss Jocelyn (BBC, 2006-). Comedy has clearly been an important genre for developing black female writers in recent years, sometimes offering routes into writing television drama (Liselle Kayla, who wrote the comedy Us Girls (BBC, 1992-93), went on to be a scriptwriter for EastEnders, BBC, 1985-).

Over the years, claims of a 'lack of good black writers' have been a common defence of commissioners and executives. The quantity and quality of black writers who can contribute to how our increasingly multi-ethnic Britain is represented on screen should now be beyond doubt. But as The Real McCoy actor, Robin Gee, recently claimed, "They always seem to hide behind the fact that there are no writers out there - and there are loads of writers out there - hundreds. A lot of stuff is written and just shelved." It has often taken quite purposeful writing development initiatives led by the industry - for example, Single Voices (Carlton) and Funky Black Shorts (BBC Continuing Education) - to spearhead an interest in black writers and their work. When drama producer Frances-Anne Solomon launched the 1993 Black Screen initiative for black writers new to television, she was besieged by over 600 scripts.

Black writers continue to face a 'burden of representation': the sense that their work has to solve all the problems of black representation at once and match up with a particular version of reality against which all representations can be tested. Shoot the Messenger (BBC, 2006), a one-off drama about a black man's psychological journey by black writer Sharon Foster (who had also written the BBC series Babyfather, 2002), produced strong reactions among viewers, and an African organisation called it "one of the most racist, demeaning and misrepresentative films ever broadcast and commissioned by the BBC". Nevertheless, Foster was awarded BAFTA's 2007 breakthrough talent award.

There remains, too, an expectation that black writers can only write 'black parts' or 'black stories'. But an increasing availability of writing opportunities has, to some degree, materialised through ongoing drama series and soaps such as EastEnders, Hollyoaks (Channel 4, 1995-) and The Bill (ITV, 1984-), all of which demand a continuous supply of writers to work on universal (not just 'black') storylines.

Further Reading
Malik, Sarita (2002) Representing Black Britain: Black and Asian Image on Television, Sage
Pines, Jim (ed.) (1992) Black and White in Colour: Black People in British Television since 1936, British Film Institute

Sarita Malik

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