Originally written by Guest Blogger Adam Marchan for The Black Pantheon blog.
First of all, a bit of context. I arrived in London in 1982, the last of the three years covered by this exhibition. It was a time of highly-charged racial tensions, a time when I’d regularly see the symbol of the far-right, whites only, National Front party graffitied in public places; its two conjoined letters – “NF” – spelling out an instantly recognisable, unambiguously hate-filled, message. It was time when some of my white classmates and their thuggish friends would boast about going “Paki bashing” (the vile terminology used to describe the attacking of South Asian immigrants). A time when the Police had been granted increased powers to stop and search people on the streets, powers which they were soon using disproportionately against Black youths, fanning the flames of resentment and distrust among an entire community. A time of rioting in various inner-city hotspots – in Brixton and Liverpool, in Birmingham and Leeds – which were fuelled, as these things often are, by frustration at perceived oppression by the state, and the marginalisation and criminalisation of Black communities.
It was also, by way of counter-balance, a time when people on the left of the political spectrum were coming together in myriad ways to fight for their own rights and those of others, when they were forming varied and various movements in order to challenge the iniquities of the system and campaign for positive social change.
A few examples: Rock against Racism was created as a response to the “increase in racial conflict and the growth of White Nationalist groups such as the National Front” and staged massive music events, and organised protest marches, throughout this period. The Anti-apartheid Movement was also highly active at the time, with frequent and regular demonstrations allied to a campaign to boycott South African goods as a means to ending the racist segregationist regime in that country. We had The formation of the Polish Solidarity Campaign (I remember seeing its poster every day on my bus-ride to school) with the objective of gaining “support in Britain for free trade unionism and democracy in Poland”. And in 1981 we had the beginnings of the now legendary Greenham Common Women’s Peace Protests against the siting of American Cruise missiles in on English soil.
The overriding feeling, among those on the Left, was that the forces of discrimination and oppression had to be stood up to and challenged, and that a better – and fairer – future could be created with the right kind of social activism, with enough political pressure brought to bear, with an appeal to common decency and common sense.
Such was the backdrop against which the Black Theatre Co-op operated. It was created in 1978 by the Theatre Director Charlie Hanson and the writer Mustapha Matura, and its mission was to put on plays by Black writers with Black characters that voiced the concerns, and represented the lives, of Black people in Britain. It was to be a space where the burning issues of the day could be explored, where experiences of Black people in the diaspora could be presented, discussed and shared. Its first play “Welcome Home Jacko” was produced in 1979, and within a short space of time the Co-operative was expanding, producing a series of successful shows that played both in Britain and mainland Europe. With its reputation established the Co-op was invited by Chanel 4 to devise a sitcom (eventually called No Problem!), which ended up running for three series, from 1983 to 1985, on national television, becoming the first Black British mainstream comedy show.
There was undoubtedly a need for companies such as The Black Theatre Co-op, if for no other reason than to provide a more balanced view of the society we were living in. At the time of its creation there was very little reflection in the media, or in the arts more broadly, of the multicultural society that we had already been for some decades. A case in point: the BBC had only cancelled its odious (but popular) Black and White Minstrel television show – in which, lest we forget, white performers put on black face make-up to entertain the viewing public with offensive Black stereotypes – the year before the Co-operative’s formation. And it was still thought okay to have a White actor playing an Indian character in the sitcom “It Ain’t Half Hot Mum” which ran from 1974 to 1981. The Jim Davidson Show (1979–1982) was one of the big television hits of the era, with its helmsman winning the TV Times award as the “Funniest Man On Television”. I shudder to recall that Davidson’s most famous ‘comic’ creation was Chalky, a naive and idiotic Black man from the Caribbean who cheerfully sang, among other demeaning things, “Day-light come and I gotta sign on”.
The Bright Young Tings exhibition at the National Theatre is a record and a celebration of the early life of the Co-operative, and of other Black Theatre Companies that were operating during that period. The photographs were taken by Michael Mayhew, the then Art Director of the National Theatre, who’d been asked to take publicity photographs of the Co-operative and ended up shooting more than 1000 stills of them, and of various other Black Theatre practitioners – many of which have been recently made available in the National Theatre archive. The exhibition also comprises posters of productions, excerpts from reviews, recorded interviews with those involved with the Co-op’s activities – all backed up by a series of events and discussions at the National Theatre focussing on the themes of the exhibition and the issues raised by it.
All of the photos on display are black and white; some are actual production stills, some show the company posing informally in public places – a group of enthusiastic, even idealistic, young men and women on a mission to create a more inclusive and diverse artistic platform. My only criticism, if it can be called a criticism, is that there wasn’t more work on display: the whole exhibition barely stretches across one wall of the Theatre’s Lyttelton Lounge. Notwithstanding, the pictures that are on display are evocative and impactive. I found it impossible to look at them without being taken back to the time that they were taken, and recalling my own experiences of life in a society fraught with racial tensions, where a battle raged between those fighting for an inclusive, cosmopolitan nation and those desperate for a return to the cultural homogeneity of a past that barely existed.
But as I looked at those young actors captured in the act of forging a career for themselves I couldn’t help wondering (given the changes in the Arts world, and in the wider society in general) whether it’s any easier for a young Black person to establish a successful career as an actor now than it was four decades ago.
The prima facie response is probably Yes, of course it is. Back in the late seventies there was a paucity of jobs for Black actors, and there were woefully few successful Black British role models in the acting world. And before any young Black person could even embark on the journey towards becoming an actor they’d have to survive an education system that had apparently been structured to manage and control its charges, rather than inspire and teach them, and certainly didn’t encourage disadvantaged kids to engage with Theatre or the Arts in any way, shape, or form. My own school class, by way of an example, made a grand total of zero visits to the theatre (despite us being in the City with perhaps the greatest theatrical tradition in the world), and it seemed we were only taught about Drama, or the Theatre, to the minimum extent required by the National Curriculum. And even when the Arts were taught, this was done in a way that could almost have been designed to snuff out any flicker of interest that the pupils might have had in them. Steve McQueen, the Director of 12 Years a Slave, talks, in a moving and powerful interview for The Guardian newspaper, about his experience of attending a London school in the early eighties.
By the age of 13, one class of academically gifted kids had been creamed off for special attention. Then there was 3C1 class: “For, like, OK, normal kids.” And then there was 3C2: “For manual labour, more plumbers and builders, stuff like that.” McQueen was put in 3C2. At first, he says mildly, “I don’t know why. Maybe I deserved to be,” and seems about to drop the subject. Moments later: “That inequality – I fucking loathe it with a passion. It’s all bullshit, man. It really upsets me.”
When he went back to present some achievement awards 15 years later, the new head admitted to him that the school had been institutionally racist. This did not come as news to McQueen. “It was horrible. It was disgusting, the system, it was absolutely disgusting. It’s divisive and it was hurtful. It was awful. School was painful because I just think that loads of people, so many beautiful people, didn’t achieve what they could achieve because no one believed in them, or gave them a chance, or invested any time in them. A lot of beautiful boys, talented people, were put by the wayside.
McQueen’s words resonate very deeply with me. Not least because his school was also my school: we were there at exactly the same time, subject to the same ignominies. It’s with a degree of sadness, and – let’s face it – anger, that I recall the enormity the situation that he describes. And what’s even sadder is the fact that our school wasn’t particularly egregious in its labelling and streaming of kids, its closing off of certain life choices when the kids’ lives are just beginning, its attempts to corral certain pre-defined sections of the community into blue-collar jobs, based on (let’s put it charitably) preconceived ideas about those kids’ abilities and interests, and what sort of employment was suitable for them.
Of course you could throw back the counter-argument that things couldn’t have been that bad. If they had been Steve McQueen wouldn’t have gone on to have such a glittering career in the Arts, and wouldn’t now have an Academy Award, not to mention a Turner Prize, furnishing his mantelpiece. But my argument is that he succeeded despite the situation and environment he was in. And that the road to his eventual success was much more rocky, much more strewn with obstacles, than if he’d been given the nurturing and support he was so obviously craving. And that many of his peers fell needlessly on the wayside while attempting their own journeys, or were discouraged from attempting them in the first place.
But let’s jump back to the present day. This brave new world, which has such people in it as Chiwetel Ejiofor, David Oyelowo and Idris Elba; bona fide Black British international film stars that young people can emulate and be inspired by. This enlightened age, in which major cultural organisations assiduously perform a range of (forgive the clunky contemporary buzzword) Outreach work, designed to engage and attract people from the disadvantaged sections of society that have too long been untouched by the Arts. This gilded moment, which has a profusion of Theatres and Broadcasters offering training and mentorships for Minority Ethnic people in Acting, Directing, Producing and other Arts-related areas. In which we’re told that not only do Black lives matter, but Black voices need to be heard, and Black experiences shared.
And yet, and yet… Something still isn’t quite working. There’s still a cultural divide, a deep open wound stretching right across the playing field which, no matter how level we’re told it’s being made, still clearly has a side for the privileged few, and a side for all the others. This cultural divide, and the disparity it engenders, was recognised by Sir Nicholas Serota in his recent first speech as the new Head of the Arts Council (the principal funder of Arts projects on this sceptred isle), in which he talked about the need for more diversity among practitioners and audiences, about the need for people from non-privileged backgrounds to have their creativity nurtured, and about the crucial importance of them encountering the Arts at an early stage of their lives. He also – tellingly – spoke about the need for more diversity in organisations such as his own which, like many major Arts organisations, is actually less diverse than most companies in the private sector.
So where does this leave our hypothetical young Black person aiming to work as an actor, or perhaps within the Arts more generally? Is he (or she – damn, these English gender pronouns are clumsy!) better situated than his counterparts in the early eighties? Again Yes, in many ways. He now has his role models, his inspirational figures, and can see the path that they’ve trodden before him. There are also, crucially, very much more (and very much more interesting) roles available for Black actors than there were a few decades ago. But, if our hypothetical aspirant is still in school, he’ll find that although the kind of brutal educational-apartheid that Steve McQueen suffered has perhaps now been attenuated, the amount of Arts-related teaching in schools is in the process of being systematically eroded to almost nonexistence across the entire National Curriculum, in favour or supposedly more ‘practical’ subjects.
And then, even as our young Actor steps onto his career path – perhaps having been touched by some of the aforementioned Outreach work, perhaps having been encouraged by some or other access initiative for culturally deprived communities – he’ll find that ever more obstacles are now blocking his way. One of the largest of these is the fact that the cost of Drama School training has increased to eye-watering levels and, unlike in the time of his above-mentioned predecessors, there are now no grants automatically awarded for such studies. So if, like huge swathes of the Black British population, his parents don’t have the wherewithal to assist him financially he’ll already be in worse situation, and facing a greater struggle, than his more privileged counterparts. He’ll also find himself living in a world where Arts funding of all types is being constantly reduced, and becoming more difficult to access. And a world in which young people are increasingly expected to do unpaid internships as a way into working in the Arts sector so that, again, he’s at a disadvantage compared to those people on the other side of the great cultural divide – those from families with the ability (and desire) to support their offspring at an incipient stage of their careers. If he attempts to claim State Benefits while he’s looking for employment as an Actor, or in any Arts-related field, he’ll find himself pressurised, in a way that he wouldn’t have been a few decades ago, into taking “any available job” (which means low-grade, almost certainly exploitative, work that will leave him hardly any better off that he would have been while claiming benefits) or being coerced into doing voluntary work in a sector completely unrelated to the one he’s aiming to work in.
The stark reality is that the well-oiled mechanisms of exclusion are still whirring silently behind the scenes, and the gains made in one area are often wiped out by the abrogations in other. We mustn’t allow the achievements and successes of a remarkable few to fool us into the thinking that the last few decades have cleared the obstacles from the path, much less created some kind of milk and honeyed utopia of diversity and open-armed inclusiveness. One only, for instance, has to step onto virtually any film set in England to enter an almost entirely white world – it’s rare to see a Black Technician, rarer still to see a Black Director, and almost impossible to see a Black Producer. If we look at the BBC’s Staff list, at Management level and above, we’ll see a sea of white faces belonging to people from similar socio-economic and educational backgrounds. And once again the air is becoming toxic with Racial tensions which can stifle, indeed already are stifling, the move towards greater diversity, not only in the Arts but in society as a whole. Our leaders feel compelled, and empowered by the mandate of a recent plebiscite, to negate and belittle the value of the Arts in society, and trample over the very concepts of inclusiveness and equality of access.
So if we are to build on the foundations laid by – among others – the Black Theatre Co-op, and if we’re to give full expression to the creative talent within the Black community, we can never allow the fact that we’ve come so far to blind us to how far we still have to go. And we must identify the obstacles in our path as a step towards removing them, or finding a way around them.
© Adam Marchan 2017
The Bright Young Tings exhibition is at the National Theatre until the 15th of April 2017, admission free.
According to their website, The Black Pantheon “focusses on three related areas. The first is to recognise and celebrate the contribution made by Black historical figures to British culture and society, in a whole range of different professions and endeavours.
The second is to research aspects of Black hidden history, shining a light on the lives and contribution of lesser-known Black historical figures in order to weave some of the missing threads back into the rich tapestry of our nation’s past.
The third is to explore issues related to race, racial dynamics, and the experiences of Black and Minority Ethnic People in the 21st Century.”