Essays: Matter of black and white |
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Matter of black and white

GUESS who’s coming to dinner with Sue Lawley? Arthur Ashe. They were on Tonight (BBC1) together. A more handsome couple you couldn’t wish to see.

Poised in the knowledge of his own fulfilled abilities, Ashe is a glittering example of what a society can come up with when it at least tries to make racial equality real. It could still be said — as it used to be said of every black athlete from Jesse Owens to Rafer Johnson and every black singer from Bessie Smith to Leontyne Price — that so long as black Americans need to be outstanding in order to be treated as normal, for just so long America will be a racialist society. There is something in that argument, but not a lot — not when you look at the news footage coming out of Soweto. That’s what a racialist society looks like.

America, during its short history, has not been without Sowetos of its own, but it has been a while since anybody tried to justify them on ideological grounds. To the extraordinary pictures arriving by satellite from South Africa, one’s first reaction, after the initial horror, could only be to wonder why the stuff was being allowed out at all. Perhaps the South African Government were simply too confused to know what to do.

But since the first instinct of a police State under any kind of pressure is to stop things happening rather than let them happen, it seems more likely that the film was allowed out because of an unquestioned assumption that the portrayed enormities were evidence of what the black community was capable of if not held in check. Perhaps the authorities, if they thought anything at all, thought that the outside world would view what was taking place on the screen as an argument for apartheid instead of against it.

On The Editors (BBC1) David English of the Daily Mail and Harold Evans of the Sunday Times contributed to a discussion of what the British media might be obliged to do about reporting events which involved race. Evans said that the Press tended to put race in a ‘problem context.’ The thing to do was to be frank about the facts, but mention the ethnic background only where it was relevant, while doing your best to dispel the stereotype of blacks being responsible for the conditions they were forced to live in. English said that there was danger in not mentioning the ethnic background, since it was now clear that the Press, by playing down the fact that a lot of the muggings in South London were being done by West Indians, simply helped the problem to grow.

Obviously there was a fine line to be drawn. Evans was very strict about provincial papers which report traffic court sentences as ‘Indian fined £30’ and print racist letters signed G. A. S. Chambers. But it was clear that even when you avoided such elementary blunders, you were still left with the eternal problem of what to say in view of what people might think. Thoughtful types like Evans and English could undoubtedly work out a code of conduct for themselves. But not all editors are as smart as they are. Nor are most people in television. It seems likely that in time — and sooner rather than later — an enforceable protocol of ethics will have to be drawn up, one which might even have to include tokenism.

In most aspects American television is beyond comparison worse than ours, but in the matter of race it is less insulting to the society it reflects. The Day-Long deodorant commercial currently being screened here would be regarded as a throwback in America, where it is no longer permissible to show dumb Red Indians failing to understand the wonders of the white man’s cosmetics. Similarly the BBC’s ‘Black and White Minstrel Show’ would never be allowed on the air.

And just as there are rules — some of them stifling — about what you must not show, there are rules about what you must. Tokenism can have some absurd results. Often it merely renovates the attitudes it is supposed to be superseding, as when the black in ‘Ironside’ pushes Whitey’s wheelchair, or the black in ‘Mission Impossible’ carries the tools. When too much is prescribed, just as when too much is proscribed, art can suffer.

But the kind of television we are talking about is mostly something less than art. If it is mechanical anyway, it might as well be mechanical in a liberal direction. Besides, American television, having accepted self-censorship and tokenism, has gone a considerable way towards humanising both. A recent episode of ‘Cannon’ featured a mixed love affair in a redneck town. The white girl of course had to die, but her black lover survived, saved by Cannon from Whitey’s vengeful rope. Since miscegenation is at the root of the whole race issue, this was a bold topic for a hack series to deal with. Even more instructive, ‘Six Million Dollar Man’ recently featured a black villain with no black nice-guys to balance him out, thereby moving on a step from the general agreement that you can’t have Superfly without Shaft.

All this is tiresomely piecemeal, but then so is the business of filling up the screen day after day. Even in Britain, where we don’t suffer from the sponsored pressure towards blandness, the quotidian supply of tube-fodder is necessarily uninspired. ‘Crossroads’ wouldn’t — couldn’t — be any duller for being compelled to write a few blacks and Asians into the plot. As things are, ethnic actors get work according to caprice. In the final episode in the last series of ‘Monty Python’ every black actor on Equity’s books got a job playing cricket. In BBC1’s kids’ serial The Changes there is an interesting family of Sikhs at the centre of the action. But on the whole, British television is a trick mirror taunting a multiracial society with a smugly unreal reflection which the occasional jokey programme like ‘Love Thy Neighbour’ can only emphasise.

Clayhanger (ATV) wheezed to an end, thereby releasing Janet Suzman for more suitable things. The dullness of the series was the fault of its script, which was not fully dramatised — the voice-overs dissipated the immediacy every time.

Omnibus (BBC1) did a special on Gene Kelly, interviewed by Gavin Millar with the aid of clips loaned by MGM. The results were magic. Millar has turned himself into a good interviewer of screen heroes, asking the right simple questions from a hidden mass of complicated knowledge. And Kelly is a good interviewee, able to make his own memories vivid in a way that Fred Astaire is too shy to do. Not that Kelly is conceited — just publicly in love with his art form. He was good on details: the knee-slide in ‘On the Town’ needed 26 takes. He was good on generalities too: if the audience is aware that you’re working hard, you aren’t working hard enough. Kelly started getting out of scale with himself with ‘An American in Paris,’ but up till then he was one of the great poets.

The Beeb’s Wimbledon commentators have got the word ‘situation’ under stricter control this year, except for a beauty from Harry Carpenter: ‘Let’s just check on that Ashe situation.’ Which is where today’s column came in.

The Observer, 27th June 1976