Guest post by Martin Stollery
Evan Jones, author of the BBC series The Fight Against Slavery (1975) was one of the first writers of Jamaican descent to make a career in BBC television, in addition to establishing himself as a film scriptwriter, most notably for director Joseph Losey. Jones’ first televised script was The Widows of Jaffa (BBC 1957), set in a Gaza refugee camp. It is perhaps unsurprising that this pioneering writer conformed in other respects to BBC norms; born into a wealthy Portland family, he graduated from Wadham College, Oxford, in 1952, the same year that his most famous poem, The Song of the Banana Man, was broadcast on the BBC World Service programme Caribbean Voices. Although a member of the Caribbean Artists Movement (CAM), Jones deliberately avoided being pigeon-holed as a writer confined to Caribbean subjects, working on projects as diverse as the cult television play The Madhouse on Castle Street (BBC Television, 1963) and the film Escape to Victory (John Huston, 1981). At the same time, there is a recurring focus on Jamaican issues, and on the Caribbean diaspora in Britain, in Jones’ television plays such as In a Backward Country (BBC, 1958), and in film scripts such as Two Gentlemen Sharing (Ted Kotcheff, 1969). The Bodleian Library’s recent acquisition of Jones’ archive, including much material relating to his major television achievement, The Fight Against Slavery, may now prompt literary, film and television scholars to research his career in more depth.
The Fight Against Slavery deals with the triangular trade between Britain, Africa and the Caribbean between the mid-eighteenth century and the 1830s, in six episodes that enabled Jones to explore black Atlantic issues at some length. Superficially, this series could be seen as a costume drama re-tread of the well-worn, often reductive abolitionist narrative, where the ‘saints’’ crusade led by William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson is all that counts, somehow redeeming several centuries of British immersion in slavery. However, as I have argued elsewhere, The Fight Against Slavery significantly expands this established narrative, and pushes against its limitations (Stollery 2017). For example, it includes Olaudah Equiano as one of its historical figures, in probably his first appearance on British television, closely following his literary rediscovery in the late 1960s. More consequentially, Jones’ script situates its protagonists not only as great men of history (women do not feature prominently in the series), but also as circumscribed and enabled by social and economic developments and seismic events such as the French and Haitian revolutions. Most significantly, like a number of other 1970s British television series (Greaves and Williams 2017, 89-90), there is a consistent undertow of ‘people’s history’ in The Fight Against Slavery that predominates in its sixth and final episode. The series’ conclusion fully affirms slave agency, culminating in a slave revolt, as a factor shaping the terms within which abolitionist debates were conducted, and as a historical force accelerating emancipation.
There are several reasons why The Fight Against Slavery has largely been forgotten, in both popular memory and scholarly accounts of television history. A BBC/Time-Life co-production, initially screened on BBC2 during March and April 1975, and on the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) network in the USA, it was simply overshadowed, in terms of cultural profile and viewing figures, after Roots was first screened on ABC-TV in America, and BBC1 in Britain, in 1977. The respective mainstream and minority status of Roots and The Fight Against Slavery, and the disappearance from public visibility of the latter, was compounded by the decision on how to disseminate it for home viewing. The Fight Against Slavery was released in 1977 as part of Time-Life’s Betamax Great Programs series, packaged in a gold-embossed vinyl case, connoting ‘quality’ through its resemblance to a classic leather-bound book. VHS triumphed as the predominant home viewing format during the 1980s, marginalising titles only available on Betamax. Hence, The Fight Against Slavery never made it onto DVD. However, the entire series has resurfaced on YouTube, which is where I first viewed it. Neglected by television scholars, it has fortuitously become available as online ephemera.
The Fight Against Slavery is part of the post-Forsyte Saga (BBC2 1967) boom in historical costume drama, but one reason why it has been overlooked by scholars is because it belongs to a specific production trend – we could provisionally call it the dramatised historical documentary – that has not been as thoroughly researched as other drama/documentary hybrids. The Fight Against Slavery incorporates elements of the presenter-led documentary; Jones appears at the beginning of each episode and provides intermittent commentary. It was produced by Richard Cawston’s Documentary Department, not Shaun Sutton’s Drama Department. Yet it primarily involves dramatic period reconstruction, featuring historical figures played by stalwart, bewigged British television actors including David Collings (Wilberforce), Ronald Pickup (William Pitt) and Louis Mahoney (Equiano).
The BBC press release accompanying The Fight Against Slavery’s initial broadcast described it as a ‘dramatised documentary’, adhering to principles articulated by its producer and director Christopher Ralling:
Never invent a major scene which did not actually take place.
Always use the actual words, if they are available.
Whenever possible use the actual geographical locations’. (Ralling 1980: 43)
Television historians have paid less attention to drama/documentary hybrids where these principles are applied to reconstructions of pre-twentieth century history, because ‘dramatised documentary’ and cognate terms are usually understood by scholars as applying to television productions about contemporary institutions and situations, or recent historical events. Research into Ralling’s work as a BBC producer and director during the 1970s, which includes other dramatised historical documentary series about nineteenth century subjects – The Search for the Nile (BBC2 1971) and The Voyage of Charles Darwin (BBC2 1978) – could therefore further expand and refine scholarly understanding of the history of, and multiple interfaces between, British television drama and documentary.
Greaves, Ian and Williams, John, ‘Must We Wait ‘Til Doomsday?’: The Making And Mauling Of Churchill’s People (BBC1, 1974–75), Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 37:1, 2017, pp. 82-95.
Ralling, Christopher, ‘What Is Television Doing to History?’, The Listener, 10 January 1980, pp. 41-3.
Stollery, Martin, ‘Overshadowed by Roots: The Fight Against Slavery’, Transition, 117, 2017, pp. 113-122.
(Martin Stollery is the author of Alternative Empires: European Modernist Cinemas and Cultures of Imperialism (University of Exeter Press, 2000), L’Emigre (Flicks Books 2004), and co-author of British Film Editors (BFI, 2004).)