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.
In Winchester for the first time in years, so off to see the Elizabeth Frink sculpture of ‘Horse and Rider’ erected in 1975 at the top of the High Street. It is a companion piece to the one of the same title in Mayfair, London installed a year earlier. The man is naked and sits on the horse with no saddle or bridle.
This 2016 film from Thomas Vinterberg, while not his best work, is interesting. The cast includes actors well-known internationally from other Danish films in an exploration of the conflicts of communal living and personal desires.
Ulrich Thomsen and Trine Dyrholm play a married couple who inherit a large family house and decide to invite others to live there with them. The disparate group they put together form a sort of extended family in the best spirit of communal living. Their relationship fractures, though, when he has an affair with a student at the University where he lectures and, rather than keep it quiet, he confesses to his wife and they split… sort of, since neither moves out.
The spirit of inclusion engendered by the commune is now called upon to include his new partner and the communal members decide to invite her to live with them all. The effect on wife, husband and daughter may be obvious but the film shows the individuals dealing with the reality as it touches on their principles. Set in the 70s, the film is an interesting exploration of themes of peace and conflict.
The work of Joe Sacco inspired me to find more graphic novels and graphic reportage so, after years of never going near the shelf with all the ‘comic books’, I now look out for new titles that are worth reading. This memoir by Marcelino Truong is brilliant. It follows an earlier work that I have yet to read but this volume covering the years 1963- 1975 is an excellent evocation of an interesting era. It makes it more interesting that the author/artist has dual heritage: his mother was French and his father Vietnamese. His father’s job in the Embassy in London brought the family to Britain and, although he changed jobs, this where they stayed.
Truong combines information about the Vietnam War with a personal family story. Where the two overlap, the most insights are to be found. In some senses, this is the story of every family. ‘Marco’ grew up in London at the same time I did so the references, both pictorial and written, to the changing times are of particular interest. So, too, is the invitation to consider the Vietnam War from a different angle. It isn’t the American angle but neither is it the contrary North Vietnamese view of things. Instead, Marco sees the radical students around him supporting the anti- colonial forces of the north and cannot understand why the communists are seen as benign. His position is one of concern for the family and friends in South Vietnam.
As his hair grew longer in the 70s so did his understanding of what was actually going on in Vietnam. When he moves to France as a teenager, he continues to find himself in the middle of the conflict between North Vietnamese supporting students and those who support the ‘western values’.
This memoir has a parallel story, though. It is one of being of mixed heritage and of living with a mother who has bipolar disorder. The effect of these two factors in his growing up and the directions taken by each of his siblings make for a poignant reminder of what family life can be.
‘Saigon Calling’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
The Penguin poetry collection called ‘The Mersey Sound’ was published 50 years ago this year. That is staggering news since the poetry of all three is alive and relevant right now. Although it first appeared in 1967, I became aware of it in the 70s when I reached my teens and turned away from the poetry of school and towards poetry I found for myself. Obviously, I thought I was something of a pioneer when I discovered this volume and was nonplussed when an English teacher knew more about it than I did! He didn’t bring these poems to class.
I first heard Roger McGough live and in person in Oxford when I was a student and I have heard him in several other places since. It may be true that poetry is like rock n roll since I have found myself in the audience just hoping he will read my favourites. He has packed many venues. When I last heard him, the audience in Bath was terrific. But that first time, back in Oxford, there were only a few of us. I know tickets have to be sold, but this was the reading I remember most fondly.
I heard Brian Patten many years later in Bath at the literature festival. He, too, was fantastic and I would love to hear him again.
I also have a story about Adrian Henri! He gave a reading at the festival in Bath and I had a ticket. But I was ill! I decided to give the evening a miss with the thought that I could always hear him some other time. Oh, the ifs of history.
‘The Mersey Sound’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This short book by Antonia Fraser is worth reading as an evocation of a specific time and place. Historian and writer Fraser travelled with her partner, the playwright Harold Pinter, to Israel in 1978. He was Jewish and she was not; she refers to the differing perspectives in her diary.
These are not anonymous travellers observing quietly in a strange country. It isn’t the type of travel book that shows the exotic. They have connections and know many of the great and the good of the country; at one point they dine with Shimon Peres, leader of the Opposition and future Prime Minister and President. The PM at the time was Begin, a controversial figure as far as Harold Pinter was concerned.
They visit the sites many tourists take in but this trip has access to many other areas. It is the actual diary Antonia Fraser kept while travelling, discovered recently by the author. It reads with the immediacy of a journal. These are not the carefully sculpted sentences of her historical works. It is worth reading for the sense of a journey taken and the growing relationship between two people.