The disconcerting world of ‘The Black And White Minstrels’

❉ Stephen Graham leafs through the 1962 Black and White Minstrel Show book.

“Rightly regarded now as an embarrassing stain on BBC Light Entertainment, the show nonetheless was massively popular in its day, with over 18 million viewers tuning in.  It is not surprising that the BBC view this programme as an embarrassment; it is a relic of a less enlightened period, and a reminder that not everything from the period of nostalgia should be viewed with warmth.”

As is his wont, your humble correspondent was passing a Sunday afternoon perusing one of Edinburgh’s many book markets.  The eye of his companion having been caught by a leather-bound set of 1910 encyclopaedias, our dashing hero wistfully perused a shelf of old annuals.  It was then that the stall’s proprietor turned to him:

‘You look quite politically incorrect, sir!’

Reader, I must confess to being stumped as to how the vendor reached this conclusion.  Your humble correspondent exudes an air of piety and innocence, contained in a package whose main fashion inspiration was Rupert Giles.  Nevertheless, my curiosity was piqued.

With a knowing smile, the stallholder directed me to a shelf, upon which lay the most curious artefact.  The title alone was enough to illicit a deep sense of dread.

Oh God.

The 1962 Black and White Minstrel Show book, former property of a lady residing in the leafy bungalows of Strachan Gardens, a short distance from the famous Fettes College.

The moments that followed were something of a blur, but I somehow found myself outside the market a short time later, five pounds lighter and with this book tucked under my coat like an illicit jazz mag.

Rightly regarded now as an embarrassing stain on BBC Light Entertainment, the show nonetheless was massively popular in its day, with over 18 million viewers tuning in.  This book, for the princely pre-decimal sum of seven shillings and sixpence, gives the enthusiastic fan a peek behind the scenes at a time when the processes of television production would have been a mystery to most.

Unfortunately though, this book is every bit as disconcerting as the series it celebrates, starting from the foreword by Kenneth Adam, the BBC’s Director of Television.  He opens the book by recalling his first encounter with a minstrel troupe in sunny Bridlington in the summer of 1914 (a few short weeks before Kaiser Wilhelm put the show to a halt; maybe history has been too quick to judge him…).  He then reminisces of how charmed he was by, “the gay and melancholy c**n songs” of the, “N****r Minstrels”.

Eerily similar to Morgus from ‘The Caves of Androzani’

Certain higher-ups at the BBC, Adam admits, had been hesitant about bringing such a programme to television, while “some misguided critics tried to make a political issue out of it”.  He is perfectly certain, however, that the programme represents, “no kind of insult to the negro”.

That’s alright then, isn’t it?

In any case, the show was the brainchild of George Inns, a man who started work for the BBC in 1926, as a rodent-catcher and dogsbody.  Working his way into sound production, he found himself providing effects for ‘The Kentucky Minstrels’, a successful radio show in which the BBC Male Voice Choir sang black songs from the American South.  Minus make-up, of course.

A television version of this programme followed after the war, eventually evolving into The Black and White Minstrel Show in 1958 (the ‘white’ was provided by the Television Toppers, the show’s dance troupe of “twelve young ladies of sharply contrasted good looks and personality”).

The Guilty Man, brandishing the Golden and Silver Roses on Montreux, won by the show in 1961.

As well as the familiar songs, it was the show’s pacing – faster than anything else on the rather stilted world of early television – that made it a success.  It was this which Kenneth Adam credited with the show’s success among, “less sophisticated European audiences”, who saw fit to award the show the Golden Rose of Montreux.  Somehow, it won over several lavish European and Russian productions, including a one-off special starring Fred Astaire and Sammy Davis Jnr.

There were also comedy spots from future stars such as Kenneth Connor and Leslie Crowther, and guests from the world of variety.  These would include a certain G.H Elliot, himself a minstrel performer who was cheerfully known as, ‘The Chocolate Coloured C**n’ (he even has this inscribed on his headstone).

On the making of the programme however, the book is dry and long-winded, in contrast to the pacing of the show itself.  One article that does stand out, though, is entitled, ‘The History of Blackface’.

Here, we learn of the original minstrel troupes of early 19th century America, who lived a vagabond life not too far removed from medieval performers.  Roaming from town to town, they were, “Suspected by the respectable, denounced by the Church as ‘agents of the devil’, condemned by the Law, hunted and hounded by the Constabulary”.

Given their shunning by society, the author of this piece ventures that, “There must have been a bond of sympathy between the negroes and the Minstrels”, although she seems not to consider the fact that the men they were impersonating were slaves.  That the songs sung were originated by men bound together on a long chain, strangely, does not seem even to phase her.  Instead, the author ventures the superiority of the blackface as a dramatic guise over a Greek mask, as it allows the performer to utilise his facial expressions.

The bizarre and unsubstantiated point is again made during this article that, even though the Minstrels were often violently driven out of town, the impersonation of black people apparently did not cause offence to the subjects of the lampoon.

But the show isn’t all about racism!  The 1960s were also a prime time for sexism too, with patronising adjectives applied to female members of the crew, such as the lead make-up artist being, “a lively and efficient young lady”.  And I cannot begin to imagine the mind that found it appropriate to publish a photograph of the ladies’ dressing room:

YEWTREE KLAXON

It is, of course, unfair to judge the attitudes of the past by our own standards.  But if there is one thing that this book certainly proves, it is that if the past is another country, some corners of entertainment were a remote island tribe untouched by civilisation.  It is not surprising that the BBC view this programme as an embarrassment; it is a relic of a less enlightened period, and a reminder that not everything from the period of nostalgia should be viewed with warmth.


Stephen Graham is currently appearing in ‘Whoops Vicar, My Trousers!’ at the Bristol Hippodrome, and can be followed on Twitter at @PlopGazette

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