2015 has seen the British Film Institute (BFI) take very real steps to redress the imbalance of audience exposure to the untold stories and unheard story tellers which, contrary to mainstream belief (and as TBB can attest), actually exist in great numbers within the British film industry. Arrangements were unveiled at the 2015 London Film Festival (LFF) Diversity Forum last month under the oft repeated sentiments, ‘recognising the quality of difference’ and, turning, ‘tick boxes’ into ‘standards’ of practice.
As the LFF gave way to the BFI’s winter season celebrating Love (October-December), they flew African-American writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood over to participate in Q&As after back-to-back screenings of her two modern love stories – ‘Love and Basketball’ (2000) and ‘Beyond The Lights’ (2014) – both of which feature romantic leads of African descent. We were delighted! We attended! [Click here to read TBB’s interview with GPB]
We were even more intrigued when we heard that the BFI’s Marcus Prince would be hosting a 90 minute discussion called Race and Romance on TV, provocatively promising that the distinguished panel would investigate/discuss, “… how TV has represented BAME relationships over the years, from the ‘radical’ plays of the 60s that aimed to break taboos, right up to the present day. We pose questions such as where is the black-led ‘romantic’ primetime series? And is TV guilty of turning romance into a white middle-class affair? Our distinguished panel will discuss these important issues and how TV might address them in future.”
It was a great panel, chaired by BBC Radio 4 ‘Front Row’ presenter Samira Ahmed, and included actor Adrian Lester, actor Art Malik, writer-director Gurinder Chadha and BBC Head of Drama Hilary Salmon. Opening comments were invited on the process of thinking about on-screen romance with the race element.
First and foremost, Chadha admitted that she thinks only of writing a love story first and then considers how much more interesting it would be to be culturally enriching, especially in the context of cross-cultural characters. Lester felt that it was tricky. He admitted that on graduating drama school, he thought he would just be a good actor and didn’t foresee becoming part of a social commentary. That said, he felt it was important to be objective about oneself, to imagine what someone else is going to ‘see’ and to develop that third eye through which to add to the conversation. Malik agreed with Lester, since, ‘romance is just romance’. He felt that it becomes important to discuss race within relationships, but felt, quite strongly, that TV isn’t really needed to inform us (society) about how advanced we are, especially since Britain has the highest percentage of mixed race children, certainly in Europe. Salmon found joy in being able to tell stories not seen or heard before. Having co-produced ‘Babyfather’ in 2001, she felt that at that time, there were lots of 30-something dramas – none of which were set in the black community.
With opening comments aired, the evening settled into the format of showing archived clips from TV shows past and future leading comments and questions from the panel. The first clip from Peter Morley’s 1964 Documentary ‘Black Marries White: The Last Barrier’ alternated between a priest’s speech at a wedding, and a blues featuring mixed couples dancing, singing along to old soul classics and occasionally smooching. All featured couples appeared to be black males, white women. The documentary was one of the first to have the subjects present their own stories, ‘reality’ style.
Next, came 1964’s 2nd episode of ‘Emergency Ward 10′ (ITV) and the beautiful Jamaican-born Joan Hooley as Dr. Louise Mahler. About to embark on a relationship with white Dr Giles Farmer (John White), she delights him by allowing him to kiss her. In her own words, she said “My part suddenly evaporated and Dr Mahler was sent back to Africa on a holiday where she was bitten by a snake and died.” She also admitted that the media furore hit her self-esteem quite hard.
Actress, Joan Hooley in her character role as Dr. Louise Mahler in ITV’s ‘Emergency Ward 10′
(1957 – 67)
Image courtesy of BFI website
Then, came the scene the BFI recently dubbed the first televised inter-racial kiss in Barry Reckord’s 1962 ITV Play of The Week ‘You In Your Small Corner’, originally staged at The Royal Court Theatre. The couple? Middle-classed Jamaican Dave (Lloyd Reckord) in England to attend Cambridge University, and working class factory worker Terry (Elizabeth MacLennan). In fact, even more recently discovered is a picture of Reckord’s Jamaican Sonny Lincoln in another interracial kiss with Andrée Melly’s Kathie Palmer from Ted Willis’ 55 minute 1959 ITV -Armchair Theatre teleplay ‘Hot Summer Night’ – an ‘intense drama about the impact of a black-white relationship on a family… When the daughter of a trade union organiser announces her relationship with a black man, the revelation exposes deep prejudice and hidden conflicts in her family’. ). It had premiered on stage in 1958 and was later remade as Roy Ward Baker’s feature film ‘Flame in the Street’ (1961). Interestingly, the Progressive Players Gateshead (Newcastle-Upon-Tyne) staged it in 1964 with white actor Sid Nichols in black face as Sonny.
Lester immediately said that for every clip just played, there were at least 10 which validated prejudice. Malik found it slightly terrifying to be taken back to that time which was ‘not fun’. Chadha was optimistic, saying that the critical acclaim and popularity of kitchen-sink dramas of that time made it easier to then explore class and race. Though, she conceded that it was the norm to ask the white actress if she was OK with having to kiss/be kissed by a black actor… Salmon agreed that A Taste of Honey, 1958, depicting Jo (Frances Cuka) in a romantic relationship with ‘The Boy’ Jimmy (Jamaican, Clifton Jones [David Kano in Space: 1999, 1975]), who has to leave her unknowingly pregnant as his ship sets sail, was hugely inspirational. She found You In Your Small Corner intense and provocative and would have been proud to have produced it.
Ahmed moved the conversation along to ask Malik’s view of romance in a political context, since he starred as Hari Kumar in ‘The Jewel In The Crown’ (1984). She admitted she found it difficult to continue to watch thereafter, and really wanted to know what became of Hari and Daphne’s romance. On seeing the clip of his first kiss with Daphne Manners (Susan Wooldridge) and his subsequent torture, he affirmed that this was Paul Scott’s apology for 200 years of imperial rule and atrocities. [Where is ours? I thought to myself…] Chadha felt that it was a distressing and very subversive piece, casting Merrick as the villain and Hari simply disappearing from the story the way he did.
Next came two more contemporary dramas – Horace Orvé’s 1987 TV film comedy ‘Playing Away’ (screenplay Caryl Phillips), described as ‘a gentle comedy of manners and unexpected reversal of white and black stereotypes,’ when the Caribbean Brixton Conquistadors travel North into Suffolk for a charity match in aid of the Sneddington Village Third World Week. A New York Times reviewer called it “witty and wise without being seriously disturbing for a minute”, which is interesting, since the clip chosen was a tense one involving Yvette, a young black woman (Suzette Llewellyn), in a car with 3 white men, a couple of whom threaten to gang rape her! What an extraordinary choice! There was nothing romantic about the clip or, from what I gather, that ensuing storyline! This was followed by a masturbating scene between Karim Amir (Naveen Andrews) – himself a mixed race teen – and Charlie Kay (Steven Mackintosh) from 1993 serial ‘The Buddha of Suburbia’. Chadha assured the audience that Playing Away was indeed a delightful comedy. Other than that, neither clip added much to the conversation, except that Salmon said that Buddha was hugely inclusive at the time, with a lot of elements that would broadly resonate, such as Karim being a suburbanite and a big Bowie fan, as well as those less mainstream characteristics – being Asian and gay.
(l-r) Cast of BBC series ‘Small Island’
Ruth Wilson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ashley Walters, David Oyelowo, Naomie Harris
Chadha went on to say that when a black film making team is given the chance at producing work, we tend to throw everything in there – all the issues, every theme, Because we just don’t believe we will ever be given the chance again.
Lester said the ’80s was a time of 3D characters exploring what made a country tense about race. He reflected on a particular job where the character list gave name, age, occupation, and a brief paragraph of character motivation, until it got to his character - ‘Phillip, 19, black.’ There was nothing else to inform the casting, so the director simply mined what he could from stereotypes because ‘skin colour was the character!’ He longed for the day when the term ‘colour-blind casting’ is replaced with ‘historically accurate’, since especially England’s port towns (Bristol, Liverpool, London) have centuries of proof of being multi-racial societies and all that that entails. He longed for the day when a white actor wearing black face is a true reflection of ‘artistic expression or experimentation,’ rather than ‘an act of exclusion.’ Malik thought change takes time, but in the meantime, why bother with arguments about the first non-white or female James Bond or Dr Who? Couldn’t we just have another hero written that way? He was looking forward to Chadha’s forthcoming TV film ‘The Viceroy House’, which would be something we won’t have seen before – a Raj drama in which the extras from The Jewel In The Crown are now the main players! The Viceroy House is currently in post-production.
Next, came a clip from Salmon’s modern drama Babyfather (2001) in which Linvall (Fraser James) discusses becoming a man, with his baby mother; and period drama ‘Small Island’ (2009) in which Hortense Roberts (Naomie Harris) propositions Gilbert Joseph (David Oyelowo) as part of a plant to get to London, where they eventually fall in love. Salmon produced Babyfather rather ‘opportunistically’ after having Patrick Augustus’ book stuck in development for a long time. They were on the verge of dropping it, when Greg Dyke took over the BBC and made his ‘BBC is hideously white speech’ on Scottish radio . Babyfather was green-lit immediately, and Salmon was proud that, because it was a black majority cast, set well within the black community, race wasn’t an issue. All of the main players problems were everybody’s problems. She reflected that one producer assured her that she ‘wouldn’t be able to cast it,’ because, ‘there weren’t enough good black actors’ to fill the roles. Unfortunately, she wouldn’t give up his name, but she did say, somewhat smugly, that they actually had multiple, good choices for each character, and she hopes that the production went some way to change the perception about black actors’ ability and availability. Of Small Island, it was pointed out that what made it particularly compelling to watch was the political interplay and arrangements between the sexes to get to England.
Oliver (Mo Sesay) and Hashida (Sarita Khajuria) in ‘Bhaji on the Beach’ (1993)
Next, came three clips from Chadha’s portfolio. From ‘Bhaji On The Beach’ (1993), we watched a tender scene between Oliver (Mo Sesay) and Hashida (Sarita Khajuria) in which they discuss togetherness in the face of the challenges to come. A still horrified Chadha reflected on an old school friend’s reaction to their kiss at a BFI screening, exclaiming, “Ugh! How could she do that!??” Paul Gilroy (1987’s There Ain’t No Black In The Union Jack) was sat just behind her! Of course, ‘Bend It Like Beckham’ (2000) and ‘Bride and Prejudice’ (2004) followed. In reaction to Ahmed’s introduction of the three as examples of her work being ‘full of warmth’ with ‘so much heart,’ Chadha admitted that it just wasn’t very nice ‘constantly being defined by others’ and constantly, ‘trying to defy others’ definition’ of you. So in her works, she attempts to take her ethnic characters out of that ‘problematic’ prism and take them the other way, to end in positivity, joy and redemption. She said that a black-Asian romance had not been tackled before and she based the story on an Indian friend’s experiences when she married a Jamaican man and, ‘all hell broke loose’. In actual fact, Denzel Washington’s Demetrius romanced Sarita Choudhury’s Mina in Mira Nair’s ‘Mississippi Masala’ in 1991.
Then, we were treated to the fantastic Mr Lester in action – clips as Danny in TV movie ‘Storm Damage’ (1999) – an ex-teacher who begins an affair with a co-worker at the children’s home he takes a job in; Richard in TV movie ‘Sleep With Me’ (2009) – a man who becomes involved with the mysterious Sylvie who is also becomes involved with his partner Leila; Jimmy in film ‘Born Romantic’ (2000) – a taxi driver dealing with a lost love; Pete in film ‘Scenes of A Sexual Nature’ (2006) navigating through an amicable divorce from a woman he still cares for; and Bobby in the TV movie of theatre play ‘Company’ (1995) – a single man unable to commit fully to any of his 3 girlfriends and the five married couples who are his best friends. Personally I wasn’t too convinced that these scenes particularly screamed ‘romance’, still, Ahmed asked if playing Rosalind in Cheek-By-Jowl’s all-male production of ‘As You Like It’ early on in his career (1991) had influenced his playing of love scenes. He admitted that it had – Rosalind had increased his perceived versatility, and he has since always hoped to be a chameleon and not be constrained. It also seemed to herald his mounting one kind of barrier or another – the first black Bobby (Company, 1995), the first black Hamlet cast by the RSC (2000).
Ahmed asked Malik of his approach to the playing of romance. Malik felt that the starting point must always be the script, the story, the scene. That the aim becomes trying to be present and get the scene right on the day, living in the moment between “ACTION!” and “CUT!” As far as love scenes and nudity goes, the joy in doing them is having a director who won’t make it the worst day of your life! Lester wholeheartedly agreed, adding that such scenes are easiest when totally choreographed as a piece of dance. Improvisation usually ends in disaster.
We were then treated to a preview of ‘Undercover’ – a forthcoming 2016 drama produced by Salmon and starring Lester opposite Sophie Okonedo. Peter Moffat wanted to write for Okonedo and became fascinated with the true life story of the undercover detectives who lived false lives as their false UC personas for years. Lester’s Nick is an undercover cop, twenty years married to Okonedo’s Maya, who is about to become the first black female Director of Public Prosecutions. They have children, but Nick has entered the marriage AS a deep undercover operative because of Maya’s activist past… It is as much an examination of a marriage as a thriller, and was given generous media coverage before shooting over the summer as a BBC rarity of featuring two black actors in the lead roles.
Hamza Jeetooa as ‘Nazir’ in BBC series ‘My Jihad’
The formatted part of the evening ended with a brief discussion of a clip from Shakeel Ahmed’s ‘My Jihad’ – a 2014 4-part muslim romcom and one of those unique, singular voices that Salmon appears drawn to.
For the remaining 10 minutes or so, the panel was open to questions from the audience. I am only going to discuss one – that from a beautiful, dark-skinned black woman who asked where the black women were in this discussion? From the synopsis – “… how TV has represented BAME relationships over the years… We pose questions such as where is the black-led ‘romantic’ primetime series? And is TV guilty of turning romance into a white middle-class affair?…” she had, perhaps understandably, booked her ticket with the expectation of a very different discussion of race and relationships. The only reference to considering mixed relationships was as a starting point “… from the ‘radical’ plays of the 60s that aimed to break taboos…”
If an exclusive look at mixed relationships was the aim, why not just say so? It is disconcerting in the extreme to be promised one thing and (sort of) receive another. WHY include those particular selections from Babyfather, Small Island, Undercover and My Jihad? The main relationships were/are not mixed. WHY include that dreadful gang-rape-threatening clip from Playing Away? If cross-cultural relationships was the aim, the night of passion between Michael and Queenie / Queenie having a black baby and begging Hortense and Gilbert to raise him in Small Island was of relevance. In regards to black women, only Louise Mahler’s clip from Emergency Ward 10 should have been included – Queenie’s story was not shown, and Mahler’s role was not discussed. In fact, Mahler actress Joan Hooley’s story should have been a great place to start. Because, of all of the mixed relationship clips presented, none of the actors actively suffered a career backlash – not like Hooley did. As it was, it barely inspired a comment from the panel.
This, unfortunately, dampened a great evening with a charismatic panel for me and a lot of other black women in the audience. The charisma of the panel still did not disguise the interesting fact that the voice of actresses in the TV depiction of romance were excluded. With the exception of characters Giles Farmer in 1962 (John White), Karim Amir in 1983 (Naveen Andrews) and Oliver in 1993 (Mo Sesay), and in this conversation, white women were constantly held up as the prize for which all of the difficulties of mixed race romances were worth enduring… and BAME men were the ones willing to endure. I exclude Lester’s Nick (2016) because, as a deep undercover policeman, his motivation for being in his marriage won’t become clear to an audience until the drama is aired.
Yet again, we were overlooked, as we have been in the context of romance on-screen for years. Is the BFI truly saying that in 100 years of film and television, there was only one example of a black woman depicted in a mixed relationship dating back 51 years? If it is so, surely this was worth including in any frank discussion, exploring if this is, in fact, the last taboo. That black women – especially medium-to-dark-skinned black women, in occupying a place so far removed from Western standards of beauty, are just not considered as viable, watchable, enjoyable romantic leads. If this is not so, this was a serious, disappointing oversight. It is one of the short-comings of the use of over-arching terms like ‘diverse’ and ‘BAME’. Black rarely includes the female variety in a capacity that’s equivalent to the others. This discussion just felt filtered through a very ‘white’ lens…
That said, I was delighted to learn that, there will be a rare screening of the full drama You In Your Small Corner at BFI Southbank on Sunday 13 December 2015 at 14.00. Particularly worth seeing is another hugely powerful scene shown after ‘the kiss’ as Dave’s mother tries to convince him to give up working class Terry in heading for Cambridge. He refuses. She says that he would never date from the lower class back home. He admits it to be true, but that it took a beautiful white face to show him his own bigotry. His mother is beside herself and refuses to accept what he intends to do, ranting that if he looks out there on London’s streets, what it is he will see “… the best of us with the worst of them… our highly educated men with ignorant white women… our beautiful young men with their old, ugly white women… our high-born men with their low-born…, It’s the slave in us… because when we bid for them, we bid low…” Forgive my slight paraphrasing of this fantastic monologue, written by Reckord’s brother and based on his own real-life experiences. Interestingly, this clip inspired only Salmon’s comment of the drama being ‘provocative’ and ‘intense’.
For more information on the BFI Love Season, visit: http://www.bfi.org.uk/love
For TBB’s epic discussion on black women on-screen in science fiction and fantasy, read here [Parts 1,2,3,4]
article for the british blacklist by @DescantDeb