Our Forgotten Black TV Drama season continues at BFI Southbank on Friday 15 February at 6.00pm with a screening of The Museum Attendant (BBC2, 1973), the first play for television by Michael Abbensetts, plus a short programme from 1983 about the Nigerian writer Buchi Emecheta, followed by her 1976 story for Crown Court: The Ju-Ju Landlord (Granada, 1976). The screenings will be introduced by season co-curator Stephen Bourne, who provides the following information about the writers and the screenings:
In the early years of British television, it wasn’t easy for black writers to find work, but there were some outstanding exceptions, and they are being remembered and celebrated in BFI Southbank’s Forgotten Black TV Drama season throughout February 2019.
Michael Abbensetts, who died in 2016, will be remembered with a screening of his first television play The Museum Attendant. Shown on BBC2 in 1973, it is a powerful, funny and shocking expose of the racism faced by a black museum attendant in his place of work. Semi-autobiographical, Abbensetts later recalled the play in Black and White in Colour – Black People in British Television Since 1936 (BFI, 1992), but he wrongly attributed the direction to Stephen Frears – it was actually directed by Derek Bennett:
Abbensetts came to Britain from Guyana in the 1960s. In the 1970s he became the most prolific black writer in British television with contributions to Granada’s popular daytime drama series Crown Court and single plays such as Roadrunner (Thames, 1977). For the BBC Abbensetts explored conflicts in a West Indian home with the outstanding 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 her home being turned into a battlefield. Carmen’s outspoken husband was played by the great Norman Beaton who then starred in Abbensetts’ next television project, the popular Empire Road, which ran for two series on BBC2 in 1978 and 1979. Abbensetts continued writing for television into the 1980s.
In 1992, in Black and White in Colour, Abbensetts reflected: ‘If I’m honest, it is a time that I still miss…I loved it when everything was going well, like when they made Black Christmas.’
Buchi Emecheta, who died in 2017, came to Britain from Nigeria in 1960. In 1974 the publication of her acclaimed autobiographical novel Second Class Citizen drew upon her personal experience of an unhappy and sometimes violent marriage. Opportunities for black women to write for television at this time were non-existent, but in 1976 Buchi was asked to contribute a three-part story to Granada TV’s popular daytime drama series Crown Court. She called it The Ju-Ju Landlord and told the story of a landlord who is accused of harassing one of his tenants using a ju-ju (black magic) ceremony.
The Crown Court series provided work for a number of black British actors in a diverse range of roles. These included Thomas Baptiste who plays Haverstock Brown QC in The Ju-Ju Landlord. In 1963, Baptiste, who died on 6 December 2018, was the first black actor to appear in Coronation Street. He then played a leading role in Fable (BBC1, 1965), shown in the BBC’s controversial Wednesday Play series.
In 1976 Buchi Emecheta returned to the theme of Second Class Citizen with A Kind of Marriage for BBC2’s Centre Play series (screened at BFI Southbank in 2018 as part of our ‘Drama She Wrote season). In her beautifully crafted script, Buchi explored the tensions in a marriage in Nigeria. When Buchi passed away in 2017, the author Aminatta Forna described her in the Guardian as one of the so-called ‘Renaissance generation’: Africans who came of age at the same time as their countries. Aminatta said: ‘Buchi 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.’
Stephen Bourne (Season Co-Curator)
For more information see Stephen Bourne’s Black in the British Frame – The Black Experience in British Film and Television (Continuum/Bloomsbury, 2001)