“As soon as I started doing it, I started getting letters,” remembers Lord Paul Boateng, “and when I went back to Ghana in 1972/73 I had people stopping me in the streets.”
In his twenties, Paul Boateng (now Lord Boateng) worked as a presenter on London Line. Produced by the Central Office of Information (COI), whose 75th anniversary is being marked this year, it was an extremely popular telemagazine produced for overseas audiences that ran between 1964 and 1978.
“Look, I was 20 when I started,” says Boateng, “it was just exciting to be working with Glenna Foster-Jones, who was in Hair, to be working with Jumoke Debayo, who was in an incredible film called The National Health (1973). These were stars.”
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London Line was a magazine show that relied heavily on foreign journalists, intellectuals and writers to ‘interpret’ Britain back to their home countries. Distributed for free to local television stations and by travelling cinema vans, the high quality of its presenters helped localised editions of the programme become extremely successful across North America and Australasia, as well as Africa, the Caribbean, and the Arabic world. For example, over the course of its existence, the African version of London Line featured the actress Jumoke Debayo, the journalist Israel Wamala and the filmmaker Lionel Ngakane.
The content of the programme was eclectic and could jump wildly from development economics to sport, poetry and medicine. Social and cultural interactions were the programmes focus, not high politics: African Student Families offers advice on fostering. By spinning a diverse web of connections the programme attempted to reflect, as well as engineer, friendship between a rising cosmopolitan elite. For instance, Hannah Neale (another London Line presenter) starred alongside Debayo and Ngakane in Wole Soyinka’s The Lion and the Jewel when it opened to great acclaim at the Royal Court Theatre in 1966.
“At the COI and at Bush House (the former HQ of BBC World Service) you saw Black technicians, Black presenters, Black programme makers, Black filmmakers,” says Boateng, “and that for a young Black guy at that time, in the early 70s, was very important.”
Alongside worthy items extolling the virtues of new methods of agriculture and the expansion of higher education, came items celebrating prefabricated buildings, affordable fashions and new media trends. Although the programmes are infused with a sense of propriety – overseas viewers often expressed the need for the presenters to speak English ‘properly’ – the programme also played on a widespread desire to ‘get’ the new forces shaping the world.
“London Line reflected the optimism and confidence which had invaded almost every aspect of British life,” remembered Neale. “Youth power had taken over; innovation, creativity, dynamism in fashion, music, art and culture all had new and exciting forms of expression. The skirts of the female presenters got shorter, and the men had brighter shirts.”
London Line promoted an appealing but particular image of Britain, rather than an incontestable representation of it. This was an approach that reflected a change of policy by the British Information Services. Before the Second World War, overseas programming kept at least one eye on expatriates, merchants and military families. But from the late 1950s British propaganda began to move away from this ‘extended family’ model and towards a format that more aggressively sold Britain as both an ‘open’ tourist destination and a popular culture.
While London Line was the product of an approach to cultural diplomacy that was generously vague, the programme’s success encouraged successive governments to adopt increasingly utilitarian positions. Politicians began to demand that programmes pushed more narrow commercial campaigns or addressed specific diplomatic problems.
Ultimately, London Line would be a victim of cuts to state expenditure and a new political strategy that focused on European integration at the expense of the wider world. But the programme left a rich and varied legacy which is not only interesting and important, but barely known about by anyone in Britain today.
“There’s an optimism about them,” agrees Boateng, “there’s a sense that things are going to go on getting better. [London Line is] uplifting and forward looking in a sort of quite unashamed way. I’m afraid we now live in a much more ambiguous and cynical world.”
Scott Anthony’s book on the story of propaganda film will be coming out from BFI / Bloomsbury in 2022.
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