Those of you who read last month’s edition of the BUFF Blog will recall that the film in question was entitled ‘Woolwich Boys’ (2012) – the closing movie of last year’s British Urban Film Festival and which recently screened as part of this year’s BUFF Spring Season. For the record, and as is custom with all films that are ever made, disclaimers can occasionally be used to make political or similar points. This is neither. And in light of recent events, BUFF feels compelled to state that although ‘Woolwich Boys’ was based on a true story, all characters that were depicted in it are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. The blog in question (in addition to all the BUFF Blogs which have ever been published since April 2009) is still available to read online.
This month’s blog comes from another angle – dealing with the issues of perception, race and the media.
The recent BAFTA Television awards (broadcast on BBC One) seemed to reaffirm long-held prejudices (in this country anyway) with no black actors or actresses up for nomination in any of the appropriate categories but yet feature in some of the UK’s most watched and critically acclaimed television programmes.
Calling a spade a spade doesn’t apply to the BAFTA awards it seems. For instance – and completely off tangent – if you were the producer of the ITV documentary which exposed Jimmy Savile as a rampant paedophile and which, to this day, is still making the news with revelation after revelation, and you didn’t get the BAFTA award for best current affairs, how would you feel? For the record the award went to a BBC documentary about the Catholic Church and paedophilia…
On a lighter note, this month’s blog (guest-written by Ron Belgrave from Sankofa Televisual) welcomes UK audiences to a new brand of light entertainment – follow @buffenterprises and @Sankofa_TV and @AfricaChannelUK on Twitter…
Mirror, Mirror – Caribbean Programmes on British Television
There are a number of vertical glass surfaces in any home and many of these can reflect your image. Most of them are ordinary windows which, in the right light and with the right angle, can give a reasonably good reflection. Best of all are, of course, the mirrors which provide a clear (and hopefully pleasing) image. However, the glass surface that most disappoints in terms of reflection is the television screen – particularly if you are Black in Britain.
This is true for the 400 or so stations on the Virgin Media cable platform and for the 650+ stations on the Sky satellite platform. But where it matters the most is on the 50+ stations currently occupying the prime Freeview digital terrestrial platform that broadcasts, for free, into the vast majority of the 25 million households in Britain. Due to its huge reach across the population and that it is home to the nation’s flagship TV channels (including the global ranging and “public funded” BBC) Freeview wields immense power in shaping the country’s values and thoughts and how communities are (or aren’t) validated.
The issue of the absence of Black faces on TV in Britain has been a longstanding concern
going back to the 1970s and remains an unresolved issue. The fear of victimisation and reprisal has hampered many in the industry from speaking openly about what was happening to them and it took actor Patrick Robinson a decade to reveal that he was punished and denied acting roles for ten years after voicing his concerns about the BBC
. Recently David Harewood
, Morgan Freeman
, Lenny Henry
, Reggie Yates
and Paterson Joseph
have all also put their heads above the parapet and talked about the systemic and institutional blockades in the film and television industry in Britain (particularly on the main Freeview channels – BBC, ITV, C4, C5 and Sky). Hopefully united voices will mean that they won’t suffer retribution through denial of work and other punishment.
However, what are the roles/stories/programmes that these actors (speaking on behalf of the wider community) are seeking to see on British screens? Probably those that reflect the wide spectrum of the lives of Black people in Britain. That would be wonderful. But would that be enough?
Data from the 2011 UK census indicates that there are four interconnecting and overlapping elements of the Black community in Britain – Caribbean, African, Black British and mixed-race.
It is probably the Black British element that the actors above have (rightly) most strongly argued for but, despite recent and rare delights such as E4’s Youngers
, BBC’s Some Girls
and ITV’s Ice Cream Girls
, the amount of available content is woefully and disgracefully low. But one has to look way back to the 1970s, 80s and 90s to the times of ‘Empire Road’, ‘The Fosters’, ‘No Problem’, ‘Desmond’s’ and ‘The Real McCoy’ to find any regular Black faces on what would now be Freeview in Britain.
Although not on Freeview, the African community has done well to establish successful and sustained TV channels on the Sky satellite network. These channels reflect not only the lives of the British African communities but also strongly reflect the cultures that they still draw on from Africa itself. The existence of these channels also helped to support the development of the first ever British African sitcom series Meet The Adebanjos
The main element of the Black community that is therefore missing from the television screens of Britain is the Caribbean community. Despite Caribbeans living in the UK, in numbers, for over half a century there are no Caribbean channels on any of the platforms and almost no Caribbean content or programmes on any of the other 1,000 channels.
There have been attempts to establish channels in the past (such as ACTV and IDTV) but these have not been successful. Others are exploring going online with channels (like BVTV
) or web-series (like Brothers With No Game and All About The McKenzies
). But despite that, and after 50 years, British Caribbeans still have no regular (non-music) presence on any TV platform in the UK.
However, the first step in seeking to get Caribbean content regularly on British airwaves began in May 2013 with the broadcast of the first series to reach the UK from the Caribbean in many years and the first ever from Barbados.
Distributed by Sankofa Televisual, “Keeping Up With The Joneses” (KUWTJ) is a mockumentary-sitcom about a fictional family in Barbados. KUWTJ features the Jones family who reluctantly become the subjects of a reality show entitled “Life & Times in the Caribbean”. It requires that a camera crew follow the family around and films their every move. Irving (the father) signs the contract to do the show against Angela’s (his wife) wishes. Now, Irving, Angela, Tracy (their 17-year-old daughter) and Nathan (their 10-year-old son) have to coexist while looking good for the cameras, resulting in embarrassing encounters and hilariously awkward TV moments!
When KUWTJ was shown locally by the Caribbean Broadcasting Corporation in 2011 and 2012, it was viewed by record audiences given that it was Barbados’s first sitcom.
With a new episode broadcast every weekday in the UK from 13th to 31st May on Sky 209 and Virgin 828 at 2:30pm and 11pm each day, if KUWTJ attracts enough viewers then other Caribbean content may follow in the future. The video trailer can be accessed here
The drive to get Caribbean programmes (dramas, films and other general entertainment) is supported by the results of the 2012 British Caribbean Television Survey where 98% of respondents said that they wanted to watch programmes from the Caribbean on TV in Britain.
80% of the respondents also regarded having Caribbean programmes in Britain as important for young people’s development in the British Caribbean community. This is due to concerns that the younger generations growing up in Britain seemed to know less and less about the Caribbean and about their heritage and relations “back home” and whether there is an association with the extent of serious youth violence in Britain which very significantly affects the Black community in general (especially in London) but notably those of Caribbean heritage. The ages of 11 to 15 are crucially important to young people as this is the key period when they are looking to form their own identity and when they need to be able to draw on appropriate cultural reference points. When these reference points do not exist or are not sufficiently visible or mirrored in the media around them, then there is a mismatch which can have negative consequences.
In time, if there is sufficient support from viewers, the British Caribbean community may see its Caribbean heritage reflected in the mirror of British television screens (satellite/cable) more regularly but maybe not on Freeview (for the foreseeable future).
Ron Belgrave is the Director of Sankofa Televisual
© Ron Belgrave/BUFF Enterprises. All rights reserved.