There seems to be whole channels now dedicated to repeating old programming, Misfits on London Live, Top Gear on Dave and anything Period or Detective on Drama. However Black British programming has been absent from the recent nostalgic flood of old school British television. Pioneering shows that include The Real McCoy, The Fosters and Desmond’s have been left out of British television’s collective memory and instead, are only remembered in the reminisces of the older generations and the occasional reflective news feature on an anniversary.
The Real McCoy was a sketch show featuring an all Black British cast broadcast by the BBC (I know right AND there was no BBC3 back then to marginalize all the ‘diverse’ programming to). What distinguished the show was the fact that Black British comedians and actors (including Robbie Gee and Eddie Nestor) took control of their own narratives. Their comedy represented the diverse and niche parts of the Black British community – with characters who ranged from first generation Black and Asian Britons straddling the two different cultures; Black British Caribbean and Africans confronting the British culture to ordinary black men and women – transcending racial barriers to attract British audiences for six series. And though neglected from the stream of reruns, if you haven’t seen The Real McCoy, you can still find full episodes on YouTube.
YouTube isn’t the only place to find the long forgotten gems of old school Black British programming. For a long time now, the British Film Institute has not only championed the development and production of British programming throughout the UK, but also encouraged the development of British audiences, through film festivals, the BFI Film Fund and educational resources.
At the back of the BFI, hidden on the London Southbank, is the BFI Mediatheque, a cold and somewhat uninviting room stocked with computer screens. Often, individuals, or the occasional group, will be sat in front of the screens wearing headphones, discovering the diverse collection of films from the institute’s national archives, one of the largest collections in the world. And some of the films that have been collected in the archives, are evidence of early Black filmmaking in Britain.
For example, Jemima and Johnny, an intimate black and white short film, tells the story of a young Jamaican girl, who has only recently arrived in the UK, and her adventure around London with Johnny, the white English son of a National Front member. The film is mostly silent, adult conversation and racial tensions make up the background noise, whilst the innocent relationship between Jemima and Johnny remains at the center of the film. It’s a beautiful and amazing short that offers a look at a City (and a Britain) and an experience that has been long forgotten, written and directed in 1966 by the late Lionel Ngakane, who was born in Pretoria but worked in the UK as an actor and a director.
Ngakane’s Jemima and Johnny is just one example of films from Black British pioneers in filmmaking over the last century. Most of these filmmakers and their films have been hidden or have disappeared from public memory. Now, the memories of them are only disturbed during Black history month or when individuals accidentally stumble upon them online or in places like the Mediatheque.