Through Channel 4’s September 2021 ‘Black to Front’ programming, I’m reminded of a time in British television when a cry would come from the homes of Black families via their living rooms: “Black people on telly, Black people on telly!” would be the clarion call. Rushing to meet the shrill voice in said living room, family members would huddle around the one television screen (yes, one screen in one house – how quaint!) to watch the rare event of a Black person on telly. Be it a sitcom, feature film or documentary, they’d marvel at the visions transitioning across the screen, weighing up every move for cues that might convey ‘normalness’ and as a result acceptance, that the Black television viewers might wear as armour once outside the comfort of their homes.

The bittersweet delivery of ‘Black to Front’ was not lost on me; the way in which the media told us about it through interviews and thought-pieces, that Black people were to be on telly… all day long. Unapologetic, Countdown, Love It or List It, Highlife and Big Age were among the shows that formed the programming, and Channel 4 went further to reach out to production outfits making ‘Black content’. The irony is that few of the companies commissioned were Black-owned. The historical lack of opportunity for Black-led productions to establish themselves sees few of them in the actual business of production.

I remember the broadcaster’s original creative remit in the early 1980s in a television entertainment world where just three UK television channels existed. Around the time of the ACTT Workshop Declaration of 1982, in a collaboration with the BFI, the then Regional Arts Association and Channel 4 emerged to champion so called avant-garde filmmakers who’d otherwise not have opportunity. Channel 4 was to provide “innovative, experimental and distinctive” programming. In its heady creation, Channel 4 promised to bring the visions we yearned for. Yet here we are nearly 40 years later and sadly, in the age of chasing audience figures, it’s debatably been a long time since Channel 4 provided that.

A fly in the industry ointment of Channel 4’s ‘Black to Front’ – though to be fair, it’s not alone – is another study that reinforces what many of us in the industry already know: ‘diversity schemes’ are now patronising at best. When they were first conceived, such programmes performed a reasonable role, but they’ve since failed to evolve with those they initially trained so that they could find productive career-building employment. In the report for the UK Film and TV Charity, Dr Clive Nwonka and Professor Sarita Malik revealed that since these training schemes persistently lacked evaluative strategies, their outcomes were murky and stale. Most scathingly, the data finds that the industry neglected those who are now considered the ‘elders’ of the industry, many of whom had to abandon their creative passions because they consistently received little gainful industry opportunity.

Unapologetic, hosted by Yinka Bokinni and Zeze Millz

I guess with Channel 4’s ‘one-day-scatter-gun’ approach, something would stick, and in my view it was the panel-discussion-led programme Unapologetic. Hosted by Yinka Bokinni and Zeze Millz, it explored subjects including the Black Lives Matter movement, online racism and colourism. Joining them were journalist Mercy Muroki, writer and professor Gary Younge and actor Dane Baptiste. The young presenters were at ease and seemed as if they had autonomy to express themselves as they investigated some of the societal issues facing their (presumably) Black audiences. They showcased talking heads from popular culture to walk audiences through the subjects at hand, lending nuance to the challenging subjects.

The continued perception that there is not enough British Black talent of quality in the film and television industry is anathema to me. Since I created the Women of the Lens Film Festival, each year of submissions sees the festival inundated with productions from uber-talented filmmakers. Their work investigates the minutiae of British ‘Black life’ in its complex, rich and realistic ways. The work spans ages, class and education. The professionals from these productions could easily fill many roles within mainstream organisations. These professionals should not be leaving the industry, or this country, because of the lack of opportunity.

One of the ingrained challenges Britain faces is that it is still coming to terms with all parts of its history; a history that includes its navigation of our globe and the subsequent invasion of lands where the vast majority of people were Black or Brown. Britain’s continued refusal to acknowledge its part in enriching itself at the colonial expense of others is a significant reason why Britain finds it hard to provide consistent, generational, equality of opportunity to those who have been othered. With the relatively new technology of the internet, our world has become smaller. It’s not as easy to other and denigrate groups of people without challenge or push-back.

‘Black to Front’, or any permutation of it, shouldn’t be resurrected. It should be embarrassing to curate the ideas of ‘Black to Front’ in the 21st century. If established broadcasters are truly dedicated to productive change, rather than performative programming, they really need to change the people in the decision-making rooms.