Blackward Television

We are in 2010 – on the cusp of 2011.  Can you tell me how many black UK television shows we have?  It’s ok I’ll wait, I’m in no rush…… No?  Any?  None?  Just what I thought.

How is it that in the new millennium we have no black TV shows or comedy shows on television?  Does it make sense that up to 20 years ago we were being entertained with shows like Desmond’s, The Real McCoy, Blouse & Skirt and Brothers & Sisters (not to be confused with the recent US show), and yet in 2010 we have nothing?  And I’m referring to terrestrial television, not satellite.  There are teenagers who probably have no idea what these programmes are.  You would have thought that by now British television would be catering to all races, but I don’t think it is.  A lot of things, to me, still feature the “token” character.

I read an article on the Guardian online, from April this year, which was about the black stand up comedy circuit in the UK, but it also touched on black comedy on television too:

” Black comedy on TV is severely rationed. “It’s one in, one out,” says (comedian Stephen K) Amos. “Richard Blackwood had his own show, then Jocelyn Jee Esien had hers [Little Miss Jocelyn].  But I can’t remember when two black comics were ever on TV at the same time.”  BBC3’s hidden camera show 3 Non-Blondes, featuring Esien, got two series in 2003 and 2004, as well as rave reviews; but its performers decided against a third series when they became too well known (the comedy depended on disguise).

Because there are so few black comics on TV, each performer shoulders the fortunes of the whole scene. So when 2004 series The Crouches flopped, “the BBC pulled back and said, ‘We can’t do black sitcom’,” says Le Mar. “That’s too much pressure.  Why do we always have to be fantastic, or die?”

Ah… The Crouches.  The poor old Crouches.  They were the BBC’s attempt at providing us with a sitcom featuring a black family as the protagonists, from 2003 – 2005, but it didn’t go down too well.  This was initially put down to the fact that the writers were all white, led by Ian Pattinson who was the creator of the dirty, drunken Scottish character Rab C. Nesbitt.  By the time the second series arrived, armed with new black writers, viewers had pretty much given up.  Even though it featured established actors and entertainers such as Rudolph Walker, Robbie Gee and Mona Hammond, I think that in a way it would probably have been given a better chance if it was shown on Channel 4 or even BBC2, which are channels we are used to seeing culturally diverse programming.  But because it was BBC1, which has the stiffest upper-lip reputation, people shot it down pretty much instantly.  I wanted to like it, I really did, but I found it a bit too corny and “try-hard.”

The cast of BBC1’s ‘The Crouches’

I guess the problem is as comedienne Gina Yashere says in the Guardian piece – television is run by white, middle-class men, and realistically they don’t want to see what they can’t relate to.  But execs please, try it… you might like it!  So many of us are enjoying the current series of ‘The Family’ on CH4, something that many black/African families can relate to, because the family featured are of Nigerian origin living in London like so many of us.  So execs, I’m not calling for a complete TV black-out, of course not – just please acknowledge that we have stories too…

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5 comments on “Blackward Television

  1. The thing is that yes, the BBC is mostly white, middle-aged, middle-class mofos whose argument for not promoting ethnically diverse programming is this: we (the efniks) only make up 2% of the population.

    My view? Not in the main cities (where most immigrants are), we don’t – which is why we want to see on TV what we see in real life. But that damned statistic is thrown back at us every time.

    The representation needs to change behind the cameras before it’ll change in front of it. More minorites in the media, please! The few people who are on telly enough to wield any influence ought to start swinging their weight around, setting up production companies and the like. Not that that isn’t happening at all, I’m sure, but that’s just opinion of a non-TV person; can anyone in the industry shed some light on what’s going on behind the scenes?

  2. I’m glad you brought this up. I think we do all right actually. I agree with their position on it, there is broadly speaking a representative number of black characters on shows and programmes for a black audience meet a quota which is proportionate to the demographic which would consume it.

    As Ruby A mentions we represent higher in the cities which is why programmes like Eastenders has a higher number of black and Asian characters and programs set rurally don’t. I don’t believe broadcasters (ned to) set out to deliver for any particular race, gender, sexuality etc. They set ut to deliver what ever will get the highest viewership.

    I don’t believe that we need to continue lobbying for more black programmes on terrestrial television, nor for the ones they show to be on in prime time. This is London. This is England. It’s not Kingston, Accra or Lagos. When will we stop demanding for what makes no economic sense?

    There is nothing preventing us now creating our own digital networks. Channel U did it with Grime music and it was successful for young people and the Grime movement (there would likely be no mainstream hits for Wiley, N-Dubz or Tinie Tempah without it). There are black channels on Sky TV. I don’t have Sky so I can’t comment on their content but I know many are African and others are religious. What’s to stop us then creating (more) viable Black British networks with compelling Black British programming? And supporting those. Advertising with those. Growing those. I’ll tell you, procrastination and lack of ambition. Because we’re waiting for handouts. Relief drops out of the Sky from the great aid agencies BBC, ITV and Channel 4. Please sir I want some more.

    We tend to compare the penetration of black representation on television here with the US. However, US television is network based meaning it took entrepreneurs creating their own black network television channels for them to get to where they are now. The same with black music. It took Americans creating their own radio stations, their own awards shows, their own audiences to catapult Hip Hop and RnB to massive mainstream appeal. To a point where the Majors had to start taking note and bring those labels under their umbrellas. All I seem to hear over here is how the BBC and ITV need to do this or do that. I still get exasperated when I hear my peers and older generations saying things like “they” as in “they don’t let us break through”. I hate hearing that. There is no “they”, there’s just us making excuses.

    Young people are amazing, they inspire me. They are harnessing technology to develop their own channels, their own online radio stations, their own publishing outlets. They’re not complaining, they’re not focussing on obstacles or limitations, they’re just doing. They’re doing what we should have been doing a long time ago.

    Finally, from my observation of young people here in the UK, particularly London, I don’t think shows like the ones we had (and you mentioned) would work here any more. Young people are so much more integrated culturally than our generation was. When I was growing up the black experience was predominantly a West Indian one which is reflected in the programmes you mentioned. I don’t think its that way now. The black experience is more of a West African one now, although ultimately the cultural landscape is very mixed, very ‘urban’, one only has to look at who is banging out Grime to see that. I think Noel Clarke has captured it well in his films.

    I’m glad you wrote this article and opened this debate, Wendi, I just disagree with the central premise of it.

    Just my opinion

  3. Wow!! You are right there are no shows featuring a predominantly Black cast in 2010. Shocking! I guess because we have BET people feel that is all we need. Or maybe as Lets Go Deeper suggests, Black people are not only creating their own TV world what with TV on Demand and Streaming we can tap into whatever TV shows we want at whatever time. I myself no longer bother with British TV and I watch very few shows on the BBC except EastEnders. Also with technology getting cheaper this has meant that more people can make their own shows and stick them on YouTube or on their own website. Ashton Ktcher did this with his series, A Beautiful Life when it was cancelled from CWTV after only two shows and he got a lot of hits. To me I think terrestrial TV is very much over. I think the success of a show like The Family shows that is a market for stories about African Caribbeans but are the TV execs willing to invest in them?

  4. Pingback: Is Black Love Too Dark for British Television? | LetsGoDeeper

  5. Ownership is the key, but most of us (not all) don’t wanna really own anything that doesn’t have an immediate financial return. It’s a risk making a television show for black folks, it’s especially a risk to do it on primetime.

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