Stephen Bourne looks at some of the early black writers of British television drama.
The recent losses of Michael Abbensetts (1938-2016) and Buchi Emecheta (1944-2017) are a reminder that they were among the early black writers of British television drama. When they began writing for television in the 1970s there had already been several African and Caribbean dramatists contributing to television drama since the 1950s. From Jamaica there was Evan Jones (The Widows of Jaffa, BBC 1957, In a Backward Country, BBC 1958 and Thirty-Minute Theatre: Go Tell It On Table Mountain, BBC2 1967) and Barry Reckord (Play of the Week: You in Your Small Corner, ITV 1962); from Guyana Jan Carew (Drama ’61: The Big Pride, ITV 1961 and Drama ’61: The Day of the Fox, ITV 1961); and from Trinidad Errol John (Play of the Week: Moon on a Rainbow Shawl, ITV 1960, First Night: The Dawn, BBC 1963 and The Wednesday Play: The Exiles, BBC1 1969). From Africa there was Obi Egbuna (Theatre 625: Wind Versus Polygamy, BBC2 1968). In 1961, when the Jamaican Sylvia Wynter collaborated with her husband Jan Carew on the script of The Big Pride, she became the first black female writer to contribute to British television drama.
In the 1970s Michael Abbensetts and Buchi Emecheta were part of a new generation of black writers who worked in British television. They were ambitious to create a new kind of drama, more radical, more exciting and using the language of their countries of origin and highlighting the lives of Britain’s black communities from their own perspectives.
It was the stage and radio work of writers like Trinidad’s Samuel Selvon and Mustapha Matura which began this process. Their work marked a turning point for black writers in Britain. Thereafter on stage, radio, television and occasionally cinema they broke new ground by encouraging their actors to use the dialects of Africa and the Caribbean. Roland Rees explained in his introduction to Plays, a collection of Alfred Fagon’s work published in 1999, that the language Fagon was being asked to speak when he started out as an actor in a play by Matura amazed him: “He had never before seen patois, an oral tradition, written down on paper. This was a clarifying moment for him and one which was to have far-reaching repercussions.” Matura’s writing had an enormous influence on the Jamaican-born Fagon, as Rees witnessed: “It persuaded him that he could write plays with characters that could tell his stories, culled from his own experience, in a language natural to them. He was convinced that this would lead him to write plays entirely different in style and emotional content to Matura. He knew he had a very different voice. But the one lesson he had learnt along with the rest of the cast was…they now knew they did not have to try to be English anymore.”
For BBC television’s Thirty-Minute Theatre series in 1973 Fagon wrote Shakespeare Country, a semi-autobiographical drama in which he explored the difficulties faced by a struggling black actor trying to exist in a profession dominated by the language of William Shakespeare. Fagon also acted on television in two dramas by a fellow Jamaican, Barry Reckord: Play for Today: In the Beautiful Caribbean (1972) and Second City Firsts: Club Havana (1975). Meanwhile Mustapha Matura wrote Full House: Bakerloo Line (BBC2 1973) and Samuel Selvon contributed Home Sweet India to BBC2’s Centre Play series in 1976.
Buchi Emecheta came to Britain from Nigeria in 1960. Her acclaimed 1974 autobiographical novel Second Class Citizen explored her unhappy and sometimes violent marriage which included her husband’s burning of her manuscripts. In 1976 Buchi contributed to Granada’s Crown Court series with a three-part story called The Ju-Ju Landlord in which a landlord is accused of harassing one of his tenants using a ju-ju (black magic) ceremony. In addition to casting several British-based African actors in important roles, the veteran Guyanese actor Thomas Baptiste was cast as Haverstock Brown QC. Also in 1976 Buchi returned to the theme of Second Class Citizen with A Kind of Marriage for BBC2’s Centre Play series. In this beautifully crafted drama, the Nigerian-born actress Jumoke Debayo took the central role of Maria, a devoted wife and mother, whose loyalty to her husband is tested when she discovers he has fathered a son outside of their marriage. When Buchi passed away on 25 January 2017, author Aminatta Forna described her in the Guardian as one of Wole Soyinka’s “so-called ‘Renaissance generation,’ those Africans who came of age at the same time as their countries. She and other writers all over the continent had both the challenge and the joy that comes with being first, of writing Africa and Africans into literary existence. They embraced the task.”
Michael Abbensetts came to Britain from Guyana in 1963. He was inspired to become a playwright after seeing a production of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger. Abbensetts began his writing career in the theatre, but soon moved into television. Abbensetts wrote his first television drama, The Museum Attendant, for BBC2’s Centre Play series in 1973. He later explained that it was based on his own experience as a security guard at the Tower of London: “During my rounds I used to write down things that I saw in a little notebook I carried around with me. Then the play was on television and the Head of the Tower wrote to me and said ‘I’m glad to see you didn’t waste all your time while you were working here!’” Abbensetts then became the most prolific black writer on British television, contributing on two occasions to Granada’s Crown Court in 1975 (Inner City Blues) and 1976 (Crime and Passion). For Thames he wrote Roadrunner in 1977 in which he explored tensions in a West Indian family when a secretive son, Jason Archer (Trevor Thomas), returns home to sort out some passport problems. Barry Reckord, in a rare acting role, is superb as the suspicious ‘Windrush generation’ father and Nadia Cattouse is also memorable as Jason’s kind and protective mother.
For the BBC Abbensetts returned to the theme of conflict in a West Indian home with the superb comedy drama Black Christmas (BBC2 1977). Carmen Munroe gave a magnificent star turn as the feisty wife and mother who is determined that her dysfunctional family will enjoy Christmas, but finds that her living-room is turned into a battlefield. Stephen Frears directed Black Christmas and he had previously directed The Museum Attendant. Both productions were shot on location, on film. Said Michael: “Black Christmas, again, was based on actual experiences that I had and on people I knew about. Sometimes people asked me why I portrayed West Indians in certain ways, and I would tell them that my characters were actually based on people I knew, that I never made up much stuff.”
In Black Christmas Carmen’s husband was played by the great Norman Beaton whose talents were showcased in Abbensetts’ next project, the ambitious Empire Road, which ran for two series on BBC2 in 1978 and 1979. Not only did the second series have a black writer and a predominantly black cast, it also had a black director, the Trinidadian Horace Ove. In 1992 Michael reflected: “That was even more special. If I’m honest, it is a time that I still miss…I loved it when everything was going well, like when we made Black Christmas. When they do a black series, it is usually a sitcom. I may be wrong about this, but I don’t think ITV has ever done any sort of black drama series or anything like Empire Road.” Michael Abbensetts passed away on 24 November 2016.
Note: The Michael Abbensetts quotes are taken from Jim Pines (ed.), Black and White in Colour – Black People in British Television Since 1936 (BFI, 1992).
Stephen Bourne is the author of the acclaimed Black in the British Frame – The Black Experience in British Film and Television (Continuum, 2001) and has contributed ‘Colour Balance: Black British Television Stars’ to Black Star – A BFI Compendium (BFI, 2016).
In 1992 Stephen curated ‘Black and White in Colour –The Early Years 1936-1966’, the first black British television retrospective, for the National Film Theatre (NFT) on London’s South Bank. This showcased a small but diverse collection of dramas including Othello (BBC 1955), A Man from the Sun (BBC 1956), Black Nativity (Associated Rediffusion 1962), Z Cars: A Place of Safety (BBC 1964) and A Fear of Strangers (ATV 1964). In 1996 Stephen curated a second black British television retrospective for the NFT called ‘Black on White TV’ which included Michael Abbensetts’ Black Christmas (BBC2 1977) and tributes to Norman Beaton and Carmen Munroe. After rediscovering an archive copy of Jan Carew and Sylvia Wynter’s The Big Pride (ATV, 1961), the earliest known surviving British television drama by black writers, Stephen screened this at the NFT in 1997. The screening was introduced by Jan Carew and attended by several of its cast members.