Having remembered ‘Roots’ from the 70s, I went searching my bookshelves for a book I bought just after I watched the series. Called ‘The Inside Story of Television’s Roots’, it is the insider account of how Alex Haley’s novel was turned into a television series. Thinking about it now, with the history books telling us what a success it was and what a landmark event it represented, it is easy to forget the size of the risk taken by David Wolper who co- wrote this book with Quincy Troupe. Planning the series began even before it was clear that the novel itself was going to be successful.
Broadcasting over eight consecutive evenings is often cited as a master stroke and part of its success story but, as this book reveals, the decision was taken partly because schedulers were concerned that the audience might be put off by a programme with black characters centre stage, so to speak. The eight consecutive evenings idea was, in part, to minimise any damage to ratings should the audience fail to materialise. Indeed, most of the book covers the planning and filming when nobody knew how it would be received.
My copy of the book was published in 1978. I read it that year and then again more recently after watching the series on DVD. There is an anecdote which Alex Haley relates on page 84 which I don’t recall making much impact on me in the 70s but which certainly did reading it again in the 21st Century! LeVar Burton who played the younger Kunta Kinte is an actor from California. In between filming in Savannah, Georgia he was socialising in a bar with some friends from his college. They happened to be white girls. He was oblivious as he danced with his white girl friends but Alex Haley and older black actors saw what he didn’t: the room was full of local white men watching a young black man dancing with white girls. As Haley relates, he took on the role of older and wiser confidante who told LeVar Burton that in the South, customs were not the same as in California.
‘Roots’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?