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.
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.
This documentary series, broadcast on ITV, was an important part of my education in current affairs and politics when I was growing up. The 30 minute programmes opened my eyes to global issues as well as the social situation in Britain. It ran from the early 60s until the 90s but I was most aware of it during the 70s, a decade when some of the most amazing programmes were broadcast.
The programme was created by ITV when it wore its regional and federal structure with pride, a situation that meant that different television companies contributed their best ideas to the network knowing there was competition in intellectual terms from the other companies in the ITV group. Maybe this is why ITV has dumbed down over the years at the same pace as it has become one company rather than a federation of regional franchises. Granada was the company in the Manchester and north-west region.
I encountered some of the most important journalists of my youth on this series, John Pilger the most notable. His films about Vietnam were excellent. I also remember programmes about the far right National Front party which was growing in the 70s and Gay Pride, a film from 1979.
This series was broadcast at a time when television treated its viewers as grown ups. It is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
Reading Anthony Sattin’s book reminded me of this television drama from 1992 with the excellent Ralph Fiennes as T. E. Lawrence, otherwise known as Lawrence of Arabia. In this particular film, the drama revolves around the post- war peace conference in Paris where the victorious allies carved up the world. This was the stage on which Lawrence, acting as an adviser to Feisal, the would- be leader of a new Arab nation; one that they believed had been promised by Britain during the war in return for Arab support.
The Ottoman Empire collapsed and the spoils were there for the taking by Britain and France. Both countries wanted influence in the area and the claims of the Arab peoples, themselves, were forgotten.
Denis Quilley played Lord Curzon and Nicholas Jones played Lord Dyson. The fact that both key players on the British side were Lords says a lot about the times! Feisal was played by Anthony Siddig.
The film shows clearly the growing British exasperation with Lawrence, especially over what they see as his disloyalty, while Lawrence shows his contempt for duplicitous politicians. The peace conference is the perfect setting for the political manoeuvering of nations. It also shows how the establishment deals with outsiders.
At this stage of his life, Lawrence is famous. A stage show in London portrays him as a heroic figure in the Middle East. Whether the man himself is happy to be portrayed in this way is left open but the film does show that identity can be forced on people as well as embraced. By showing how awkward he is with women, the implication is that he prefers men for intimacy. I prefer Anthony Sattin’s conclusion that we do not have the evidence on which to conclude whether or not he was gay. I suppose in a way it proves its own point: identity can be forced upon people.
‘A Dangerous Man: Lawrence After Arabia’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
Back in the 70s, this television programme broadcast on ITV was a popular one in my family. It tells the story of one extended family at the start of the Second World War and follows them through the war years to peacetime, with the inevitable loss of family members on the way.
My young self was most interested in the idea of war and it was hard, back then, to see that the title was a metaphor and a pun and that the home front was very different from the war films of my youth. However, the story of one family was compelling. Britain is obsessed with class and, while the distinctions may be disappearing, they were quite clear back then.
The Ashton family live in Liverpool. Edwin, the father, has moved up the social ladder, mostly because of his marriage to Jean whose brother owns a business. Promotion at the factory seems assured but it is his nephew who is brought in above him, putting him firmly in his place. Interestingly, his nephew is closer to his uncle than to his own single father and the two households are often shown in contrast to each other; the wealthy Briggs family has little of the heart shown in the Ashton household where four sons and daughters fill the house.
The accents of the four younger Ashtons vary but the sense of upwardly mobile people in a world where barriers have been shaken by the war is a strong element.
Ultimately, the programme’s strength is showing family dynamics when under pressure. Jon Finch wrote the series. His later television series ‘Sam’ set in an earlier time also showed families fracturing under difficult circumstances. As with most dramas made back in the 70s, it was mostly studio based so the sense of it being a city as large as Liverpool was minimised.
‘A Family at War’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
I remember fondly this television series from the 70s. It was an age when television for children involved quite complex ideas as well as good adventures. In this series, Murray Dale plays Dominic the same character he played in ‘Boy Dominic’ but now he is older and a sea cadet at a naval academy, ready to follow in his father’s footsteps.
The earlier series was episodic in nature; there was a different story in each programme with a background on-going story of Dominic’s father’s quest to return home after a ship wreck. In this series, there is one central story which sends Dominic away from the academy and in search of the killers of his parents. His mother and father were attacked by robbers who believed they were in possession of a treasure.
I thought Murray Dale would go on to have a long career in acting but this was the end of the road for him in this particular sphere. I believe he continued a career in film but in production rather than performing even though there was brief time when he was part of a musical group with his brother.
The cast of this series includes heavyweights such as Thorley Walters, John Hallam and Gordon Gostelow. Richard Todd reprised his role as Dominic’s father for the first episode.
‘Dominic’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?