Six black writers who blazed a trail in British TV drama

In the early years of British television, it wasn’t easy for black writers to find work, but there were some outstanding exceptions…

Stephen Bourne

Carmen Munroe in Black Christmas (1977), written by Michael Abbensetts

Carmen Munroe in Black Christmas (1977), written by Michael Abbensetts

Jan Carew and Sylvia Wynter

The Guyanese writer Jan Carew (1920-2012) and his Jamaican wife Sylvia Wynter (1928-) were among the first generation of black writers who contributed to British TV drama.

Carew had been established in London as a writer and critic since the 1940s, Wynter was an actress who also wrote plays, and together they were part of an important generation of African and Caribbean poets and novelists who lived and worked in post-Windrush era Britain.

They started writing plays for BBC radio in the 1950s. Based on real events in Guyana, 1960’s The University of Hunger told the story of three men who break out of prison, trying to escape not only from their past but also from the harsh reality of their lives.

In 1961, when adapting the play for television, they gave it a new title: The Big Pride. It was shown on ITV but was largely forgotten until the damaged negative of the recording was rediscovered and restored in the 1990s by the BFI. Carew and some of the cast attended a special screening at the BFI in 1997.

Carew also wrote The Day of the Fox (1961) for ITV, which starred Rat Packer Sammy Davis Jr in a rare dramatic role.

Barry Reckord

In 1958 the Jamaican dramatist Barry Reckord (1926-2011) made a breakthrough on the London stage with his play Flesh to a Tiger. He was one of the first black playwrights to have his work produced in Britain. In 1962 he adapted another of his stage plays, You in Your Small Corner, for television, which starred his brother Lloyd Reckord. This was an emotionally charged drama about a young black man who falls in love with a white woman, much to the disapproval of his mother who wants him to move up in the world.

In 1972, Reckord’s In the Beautiful Caribbean was shown by the BBC in their popular Play for Today series, but no recording has survived. He also returned to the theme of interracial relationships with Club Havana (1975) for the BBC’s Second City Firsts series.

You in Your Small Corner (1962)

You in Your Small Corner (1962)

Alfred Fagon

Alfred Fagon (1937-86) was a Jamaican actor who, in the 1970s, wrote plays for the stage and occasionally for television. Fagon was determined to write characters who were drawn from his own experience, and who spoke a language natural to them, like Jamaican patois. So, in 1973, for BBC television’s Thirty-Minute Theatre series, he wrote Shakespeare Country. This was a semi-autobiographical drama in which he explored the anger and frustration of being a struggling black actor trying to exist in a profession dominated by the language of Shakespeare.

Fagon continued to write for theatre until he died suddenly in 1986 following a heart attack. In 1997, with support from the Royal Court Theatre, the Arts Council of England, the Peggy Ramsay Foundation and the Talawa Theatre Company, the annual Alfred Fagon Award was inaugurated for a play by a writer from the Caribbean, or of Caribbean descent.

Episode of Crown Court (1976), written by Buchi Emecheta

Episode of Crown Court (1976), written by Buchi Emecheta

Buchi Emecheta

Buchi Emecheta (1944-2017) came to Britain from Nigeria in 1960. Published to acclaim in 1974, her 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 Emcheta 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 story provided work for a number of black British actors, including Thomas Baptiste as Haverstock Brown QC.

The same year, Emecheta returned to the theme of Second-Class Citizen with A Kind of Marriage for BBC2’s Centre Play series. In her beautifully crafted script, Emecheta explored the tensions in a marriage in Nigeria.

When Emecheta died in 2017, the author Aminatta Forna described her in the Guardian as one of the “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.”

Norman Beaton on the paperback tie-in for the series Empire Road (1978), written by Michael Abbensetts

Norman Beaton on the paperback tie-in for the series Empire Road (1978), written by Michael Abbensetts
Credit: Courtesy of Stephen Bourne

Michael Abbensetts

Michael Abbensetts (1938-2016) came to Britain from Guyana in the 1960s. He began his writing career in the theatre, but soon moved to television. His first TV drama, The Museum Attendant, was shown by BBC2 in 1973. Abbensetts then 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 (1977).

For the BBC, Abbensetts explored conflicts in a West Indian home with the outstanding comedy drama Black Christmas (1977). Carmen Munroe gave a magnificent star turn as the feisty wife and mother 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. This ran for two series on BBC2 in 1978 and 1979.

Abbensetts continued writing for television into the 1980s. However, in 1992 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.”

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