Representing Black Britain: A History of Black and Asian Images on British Television

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Sarita Malik

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  • About the Series

    Culture, Representation and Identities is dedicated to a particular understanding of ‘cultural studies’ as an inherently interdisciplinary project critically concerned with the analysis of meaning. The series focuses attention on the importance of the contemporary ‘cultural turn’ in forging a radical re-think of the centrality of ‘the cultural’ and the articulation between the material and the symbolic in social analysis. One aspect of this shift is the expansion of ‘culture’ to a much wider, more inclusive range of institutions and practices, including those conventionally termed ‘economic’ and ‘political’.

    Paul du Gay is at the Faculty of Social Sciences at The Open University. Stuart Hall, is Emeritus Professor at the Open University and Visiting Professor at Goldsmiths College, the University of London.

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    Foreword

    How the ‘Black British’ experience has been constructed and made sense of on British TV over the years since World War II is a topic of recurring public interest. It has provided an object of policy debate and institutional reform; it has emerged as a topic of critical discussion and scholarly research; it has become a focus of political struggle, popular criticism and campaigning. Critics, academics, researchers and students in different fields have frequently made studies of its different aspects and will have much that is new and insightful to learn from this new study. What we may call ‘the race question’ – whether in the form of colour and biological, or cultural and ethnic difference – entered the mainstream political agenda with the rise of postwar migration and has never left the headlines.

    It would therefore be unthinkable for television – the mass medium of social interpretation, which ‘came of age’ during this same period – not to have played a critical role in how that issue came to be defined, understood and interpreted. At a certain moment, the question of how the issue was represented became a front-line issue in the new forms of cultural politics around race – the issue of ‘recognition’ and ‘the politics of representation’ coming to take their rightful place alongside, and without substituting, the politics of equality and social justice. During the 1970s and 1980s, when the question of ‘access’ to TV by neglected or marginalized social groups was pushed up the agenda by an active campaign, the question perforce became central to the institutional agendas of TV organizations, and to policymakers in a broader sense. From the beginning, it has been debated in the wider context of the recurring tensions which, over the years, have marked and disfigured racialized relationships between mainstream society and the so-called ‘ethnic minority communities’ within Britain.

    This study is therefore a timely and impressive contribution to that ongoing contestation. It is wide ranging in scope and ambition. It offers one of the very few over-arching ‘mappings’ of this field across what we may call the ‘high period’ of terrestrial TV broad-casting which – with the onset of narrow-casting and the digital age' – is rapidly coming to assume the shape of a distinct ‘era’. Of course, as Sarita Malik acknowledges in her introduction, her study cannot be comprehensive in the full sense. The subject is too wide to be easily encompassed by a single study; and the archives from which such a comprehensive history could be written are quite inadequate to the task – patchy, variable in quality and often, inexplicably, selective. That said, a very wide pathway has been carved here through the tangled mass of materials, in an attempt to establish significant patterns – of presences and absences, gaps and distortions – in the coverage. A very wide range of programming is referenced. This ‘survey’ aspect of the study – invaluable in itself – is complemented in each chapter by detailed, in-depth, case-studies of particular programmes so that the emerging generalizations about ‘patterns’ and the discussion of their causes and conditions of existence, are substantiated by concrete analysis. The result of combining these breadth-and-depth approaches is to enable us to understand more critically not only what was shown and seen, but how its meanings were actually constructed.

    What is more, this broader analysis of recurring and divergent patterns in the programming and significant moments of rupture and shift, are crosscut by a powerful understanding of the way the visual discourse of TV shapes ‘what is said’, and of the critical role which the television genres play in this practice of constructing meaning. In the case studies, the text mobilizes a number of critical concepts and engages a number of strategic debates in contemporary media studies and cultural studies fields, bringing them to bear on the main subject of the argument. As the study clearly shows, the ‘play’ of genre conventions (form) fundamentally reshapes and redistributes the meaning of what the programmes claim to represent (content). This approach has the added value of interrupting any temptation the critical narrative may otherwise have had to relapse into a ‘reflective’ or mimetic model of how television works.

    This rich analysis of programme materials and forms, which constitutes the analytic core and heart of the project, is solidly buttressed by two further pillars. On the one hand, it is set in the context of the shifting institutional framework of the television providers and of media policy more broadly, which throughout this period were adjusting both to the concrete demands for more, more adequate, and more complex coverage of ‘black experience’ (leading, for example, to the rise of ‘access television’, and later, to the minority interest brief for Channel 4), and to wider demands for access to the opportunities to work in television, and thus to influence from behind the screen what was (and was not) being shown on it (leading to a modest level of professional recruitment). This whole institutional and policy aspect demands a detailed institutional and political history of its own – but it is widely documented and integrated into the general story here. It is enriched and sustained by a series of interviews with key players which constitute a valuable cache of ‘primary materials’ lodged at the centre of the book.

    On the other hand the study provides a route-map for how we may set about ‘mapping’ the shifts within television and the television institutions against the broader socio-political history of race as it evolves in British society over the period. This is not only a reminder of how the climaterics of this tumultuous history made their impact within and on television. It also reminds that the medium is always located within a broader system of sociopolitical relations and forces – always part of a wider structure of cultural power. Television has been, throughout, attuned, in many indirect and often unconscious ways, to the changing cultural and political currents around race within which it operates. What is critical here is not simply the particular climaterics which have recurred, with predictable frequency and disturbing regularity, across the period – from Notting Hill and Southall, the ‘sus’ laws, policing and urban resistance, through the first wave of Pakibashing, to the uprisings of the early 80's, the murder of Stephen Lawrence the high drama of the Inquiry and its historic report, Oldham and Bradford – but also the broader currents of the political response to racialized disadvantage and social injustice: from assimilation, black power and anti-racism to multiculturalism to cultural diversity.

    What emerges from this study is the outline of what Sarita Malik calls the distinctive shape of ‘a racialized regime of representation’. This phrase is bound to be picked out and selectively ‘read’ by some critics; not least because, even after 400 years as a colonizing and imperial nation, the British still find it difficult, if not impossible, to tell the difference between ‘racial’ and ‘racist’. The subtlety of Sarita Malik's analysis eschews at every point any such vulgar and simplistic judgements as could be interpreted as suggesting all British television has been and is for evermore destined to be ‘racist’ – a phrase calculated to set alarm bells ringing deep in the collective unconscious of the British psyche. What the phrase means is that the Black British experience has been represented by British TV in very distinctive ways: ways which are different in certain critical respects (though not, of course, absolutely different), from the way other social groups and other cultural differences are represented. This ‘difference’ – itself changing in form over time – has something to do with a racialized nature of the way these people are collectively seen and their behaviour and experiences understood, signified and interpreted. What is distinctive – different – about this ‘regime of representation’ is the question at the centre of this challenging book.

    Stuart Hall

    Acknowledgements

    I would like to thank Stuart Hall and June Givanni for their tireless support and guidance throughout the project, from PhD to publication. It is a real luxury to have such positive, attentive and knowledgeable mentors.

    Thank you very much to BFI Stills, Jason Baron at Channel 4 Picture Publicity, Carl Daniels at the Black Film Bulletin and to Richard Paterson and all those at the British Film Institute and Open University who helped the foundation research progress. To Julia Hall, Rosie Maynard and Seth Edwards at Sage Publications for their continuous patience and professionalism. To my PhD examiners, Jim Pines and Ken Thompson, for their positive response to my doctoral thesis which led to the book. Thank you to all those whom I interviewed whilst at the BFI, including Imruh Bakari, Colin Prescod, Henry Martin, Parminder Vir, Trevor Phillips, Treva Etienne, Terry Jervis, Samir Shah, Narendhra Morar, Farrukh Dhondy, Ruhul Amin and Yasmin Anwar. Their testimonies proved to be an important part of the book.

    To Katie Epstein, Andy Medhurst, Charlotte Brunsdon, Richard Dyer and Reece Augusite who all, in ways they may not have realised at the time, have helped and encouraged me and my work along the way. Special thanks to my friends for their support (they know who they are), to my parents, Saroj and Inder Malik, for their constant love and assurance, and to all my family. To my dearest Bob, who without pause or end, gives me support, motivation, time and love.

    Figure 1: The SS Empire Windrush, courtesy of Camera Press Ltd.

    Figure 2: Eastern Eye, London Weekend Television for Channel 4, Presenters Aziz Kurta & Shyama Perera, courtesy of Channel 4 Picture Publicity

    Figure 3: Mind Your Language, a picture of the cast, courtesy of London Weekend Television/Rex Features

    Figure 4: Sacha Baron Cohen as Ali G for Channel 4's ‘The 11 o'clock Show’ courtesy of Channel 4 Picture Publicity

    Figure 5: Linford Christie holding the Union Jack at the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games © Mark Sherman

    Figure 6: Pressure ©1974 British Film Institute. All Rights Reserved. Image supplied by BFI Collections

    Figure 7: Bhaji on the Beach with Asha (Lalita Ahmed) and Ambrose (Peter Cellier) courtesy of Channel 4 Picture Publicity

    Figure 8: East is East, a shot of the cast, courtesy of Channel 4 Picture Publicity

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