I have been exploring the excellent BFI archive recently and came across two documentaries about race relations in Britain. The first, from the 60s, was part of the ITV current affairs series ‘This Week’ and the second from the ITV current affairs series, ‘World in Action’. I may well have seen the second of these programmes, called ‘Black to Front’ since I was a keen watcher of ‘World in Action’ in the 70s as well as an awakening political activist.
‘Black to Front’ covered the by-election in Lambeth Central in 1978 when the threat of the racist National Front was all too real. The far right party had gone through a period of rising support, especially in parliamentary by-elections, often defeating the, then, third-party the Liberals into fourth place. This particular by-election was important as Brixton, with its increasing black population, was part of the constituency.
In Leeds in 1965, the late great Desmond Wilcox interviewed families for a documentary called ‘The Negro Next Door’. The attitudes of the white residents seem somewhat shocking today but Wilcox was a brilliant journalist and his questions kept gently probing the preconceptions.
Despite being a decade apart, both documentaries took one street to act as a microcosm of the whole nation. In both programmes, neighbours were brought together to discuss the issues. This was more awkward and revealing in the 1965 documentary since the attitudes had yet to soften or get hidden behind a veneer of politeness.
The BFI archive is fascinating with many programmes available free of charge. It acts as a fascinating resource for seeing how the country has changed (or not) and how social attitudes build national character. I like going through programmes from my younger years even if I missed them at the time. Watching the world as it once was, from traffic to fashion, is a way of revisiting my childhood and teenage years.
These documentaries from the BFI archive are in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
The BFI player is a wonderful resource and I was able to watch a programme I first saw in the late 70s. London Weekend Television used to produce some impressive dramas and this one, about a children’s home, was broadcast on a Friday night. Called ‘Kids’ the series had linked dramas with each story apparently based on real life stories. The central cast of actors who played the professionals stayed the same each week but the children and teenagers changed from story to story.
James Hazeldine played the benevolent manager of the centre who did his best in an uncaring system. The episode here was remarkable for me because it portrayed a gay character. This was still a rarity in the 70s and even in this episode, written by William Corlett, the gay character is viewed with suspicion.
Liam is the camp, gay boy who has no friends and who refuses to tone down his behaviour to suit other people. Advice given to him is that if he changed his mannerisms and ‘hid’ his gayness, he might get on better with other people. Such were the times that the problems were all seen as his. When Michael arrives at the home after a suicide attempt he becomes the only one who befriends Liam. They get on but there is a switch in their friendship towards the end of the episode that shows the prevailing attitudes of the time.
It is an interesting period piece now and the production values of television were, then, behind those of cinema but as a reminder of how gay people were portrayed, if they were seen at all, it is worth watching.
Sathnam Sanghera’s memoir was a brilliant evocation of his childhood as well as an exploration of what it is like to have a past truth revealed. In this case, the discovery of his father’s mental illness and the impact this must have had on his mother. Dealing with the past as an adult threw up for him his feelings about what he might have known but did not confront. It was a terrific exploration of how families cope and how they create their own histories. It was a wonderful book so no surprise that BBC television made a film version.
Sacha Darwan plays the adult Sathnam Sanghera as he heads back home from his high powered job on a national newspaper in London. His family in Wolverhampton have a life that seems alien to him now, especially as he has a girlfriend in London who is neither Punjabi nor Sikh. He has yet to reveal this truth since it would break with family tradition. On the other hand, his parents have a secret from him, one that is revealed when he helps them with packing. The medication for his father is to control his schizophrenia. The shock for the adult Sathnam is that he never knew this central aspect of his family’s story. He was equally unaware that his sister seems to exhibit the same symptoms as his father.
This is a story of uncovering the past and coming to terms with it. The film shows the younger Sathnam as a shadow figure looking on as his adult self walks the old streets of his childhood city. Coming to terms with the past also involves coming to terms with the present: there is a partner, who as white British, may not be accepted in his family; the time has come to find out.
The book was excellent and the film lives up to the calibre of the written word even if the story has to be pared down for the benefit of the screen. In telling the central story much of his school life is jettisoned here. Yet it is a film with heart and one that does justice to Sathnam Sanghera’s memoir.
I am not sure if I would have been able to cope with the Peter Brook stage version of the Mahabharata, which I believe ran to nine hours (across three plays) but the television version shown by Channel 4 in 1990 was an event in itself. As in the stage version, the television dramatisation of the Hindu holy work was split into three films. ‘The Game of Dice’ is the first, taking its title from the pivotal moment in the original texts.
The Mahabharata is fifteen times longer than the bible so obviously takes a visionary of the likes of Peter Brook to bring it to the stage and screen. Brook’s creativity is needed to provide a way for the viewer through the complexities of the story. The first episode opens with a boy and a poet. This device allows us a narrator, a poet, who tells the story to the boy with the help of Ganesh, the god with the head of an elephant.
We are introduced to the main characters and their mythic origins. Central to the on-going story is the animosity between the Pandavas and the Kauravas, two branches of the same family. This leads to a game of dice; a challenge from a Kaurava brother to the leader of the Pandavas. The Pandava brothers know their leader is a gambler and will not know when to stop. The Kauravas know that they can send their best dice player to the game on their behalf. What follows is inevitable and we are left to wonder what will become of the Pandavas once they have lost their wealth, their prestige and their freedom. As part two has the title ‘Exile in the Forest’ it becomes clear!
Watching this dramatisation again after so many years, it struck me that it has not lost any of its power. ‘The Mahabharata: A Game of Dice’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
The Mahabharata (1989) TV mini series Directed by Peter Brook
Children’s television in my youth was an electic collection of styles and genres, maybe more than it is today. I suppose it was a complete television service in miniature. The BBC used to show drama series under the umbrella title of ‘Tales from Europe’ and the one that stood out, possibly because it was so unusual, was ‘The Singing Ringing Tree’ from East Germany.
I saw the series in the 60s; it was repeated several times over the years. It was actually made in 1957 by the East German DEFA studio as a film. The rather surreal story of a difficult and spoilt princess who rejects the proposal of a prince and all the gifts he offers has to be seen to be believed. She challenges him to present her with the mythical singing ringing tree of the title.
The series involves a bear, an evil dwarf and a giant fish. The singing, ringing tree will only sing if the prince and princess are in love so the ending is always in sight with no great surprises but a lot of fun on the way.
‘The Singing Ringing Tree’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
There should be a law in Britain against using cultural icons from my childhood in adverts on television. It is bad enough when people I admire sell their talents to companies I would rather not support but when cartoon characters turn up in modern form to push profits the anachronism is too much. The latest cultural vandalism is against Top Cat and his gang.
The good news, I suppose, is that it made me think back to the 60s when BBC television broadcast the series ‘Boss Cat’ featuring Top Cat and the lovable rogues who formed his gang. Brain was always my favourite although Benny the Ball came a close second.
It took me years to work out why it was called ‘Boss Cat’ on BBC when the character was Top Cat: there was a British cat food called ‘Top Cat’ and the rules on advertising on BBC television meant that broadcasters considered it safer to change the name. It was a stupid move really since we all talked about Top Cat and never Boss Cat.
The series was American, created by Hanna- Barbera who made so many of our favourite cartoon series. At the heart of each episode a story about the cats outwitting Officer Dibble. Their get- rich- quick schemes rarely worked but were lots of fun. Best of all, I just have to think of the characters to hear their voices across the years.
There were many television programmes in my childhood that I took for granted and only appreciated once they were gone. ‘This is Your Life’ was one example of a show that was simple on format but very enjoyable when the surprised guest was right. Throughout the seventies, I was aware of this programme, presented by Eamonn Andrews. He had actually presented it in its initial British version from the 50s to 1964 and then again from 1969 until he died in 1987. Michael Aspel took over for a time in the late 80s until it finished in 2003. Although I saw some of the Aspel programmes it is Eamonn Andrews I remember well, along with the music of Thames Television’s audio ‘ident’.
Back in the 70s, with a limited number of television channels, each programme was guaranteed a very large audience so television series as this were known to most of the country. Watching a famous person being surprised by Eamonn Andrews was part of the fun; the ‘victims’ were never in the know but they knew what seeing Eamonn Andrews meant, especially when he had a red book in his hands.
The episodes I remember best of all were Frankie Howerd’s when he cried, made especially poignant when it later turned out that his partner in life was discretely placed across the stage; heterosexual couples sat side by side! I also remember Reg Varney from the phenomenally successful sit-com ‘On the Buses’ looking alarmed when his rehearsed spot was interrupted by the red book.
It was classed as popular entertainment but, like much of television from that era, it treated the audience’s intelligence with respect.