The Black and White Minstrel Show

The Black and White Minstrel Show was a British light entertainment show that ran for twenty years on BBC prime-time television. Running from 1958 to 1978, it was a weekly variety show that presented traditional American minstrel and country songs, as well as show tunes and music hall numbers, lavishly costumed. It was also a successful stage show that ran for ten years from 1962 to 1972 at the Victoria Palace Theatre, London. This was followed by tours of UK seaside resorts, together with Australia and New Zealand.

The Black and White Minstrel Show
Created byGeorge Mitchell
Country of originUnited Kingdom
Original languageEnglish
Production locationsLondon, England
Original release
Release14 June 1958 (1958-06-14) –
21 July 1978 (1978-07-21)

History edit

Minstrel shows had become a long-established feature of British music halls and seaside entertainment since the success of acts such as the Virginia Minstrels in Liverpool in the 1840s and Christy's Minstrels in London in the 1850s. These led directly to many British imitators, such as Hamilton's Black and White Minstrels in the 1880s and many others, with Uncle Mac's Minstrels becoming such a popular mainstay in Broadstairs, Kent, from the 1890s to the 1940s that a plaque was erected to honour their memory.[1] Though any development in the performance of such acts may have ended before the First World War, the "old-time" minstrel theme remained a consistently popular form of entertainment in the UK well into the 1950s.

The Black and White Minstrel Show was created by BBC producer George Inns, working with George Mitchell.[2] It began as a one-off special in 1957 called The 1957 Television Minstrels, featuring the male Mitchell Minstrels (Mitchell was the musical director) and the female Television Toppers dancers. The show was first broadcast on the BBC on 14 June 1958. It developed into a regular 45-minute show on Saturday evening prime-time television in a sing-along format, with both solo and minstrel pieces (often with extended segueing), some country and western numbers, and music derived from other foreign folk cultures. The male minstrels performed in blackface; the female dancers and other supporting artists did not. The show included comedy interludes performed by Leslie Crowther, George Chisholm and Stan Stennett. It was initially produced by George Inns with George Mitchell. The minstrels' main soloists were baritone Dai Francis, tenor John Boulter, and bass Tony Mercer.[3] During the nine years that the show was broadcast in black and white, the blackface makeup was actually red, as black did not register as well.[citation needed]

Prior to the creation of the television show in 1957, the BBC Television Toppers had performed on air since February 1953. Originally, the Television Toppers were dancers who performed weekly on a television programme every Saturday night, alongside different celebrities, such as Judy Garland. They also performed at Royal Command Performances. They were newspaper entertainment mini celebrities, and headlined as earning £1,000 a year in 1953.[citation needed]

The BBC Television Toppers were loaned for one day by the BBC under contract and appear in the film The Dam Busters (1955) in the spotlight theatre dancing scene. The filming of this scene was at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith. No credits are shown on this film as to who the dancers were, or the location of the theatre.[citation needed]

By 1964, The Black and White Minstrel Show was achieving audience figures of 21 million. The Minstrels also had a theatrical show at the Victoria Palace Theatre, produced by Robert Luff,[4] which ran for 6,477 performances from 1962 to 1972, and established itself in The Guinness Book of Records as the stage show seen by the largest number of people.[citation needed] At this time, the creation gained considerable international regard and was sold to over thirty countries;[citation needed] in 1961, the show won a Golden Rose at Montreux for best light entertainment programme, and the first three albums of recordings (1960–1962) were all hits, the first two being long-running number 1 albums in the UK Albums Chart. The first of these became the first album in UK album sales history to pass 100,000 sales.[5]

In the spring of 1962, the BBC musical variety show The Black and White Minstrel Show was to open at the Victoria Palace Theatre. While the three lead singers, Tony Mercer, John Boulter and Dai Francis, would be in the theatrical version of the show and also in the BBC TV version, both the chorus singers and dancers would be different groups in the theatre and on BBC TV.

Opening in Melbourne in 1962, the show secured full houses for all evening and matinee performances, so they were held over.[citation needed] This happened in both countries, and every box-office record was broken.[vague] The show continued for three years,[citation needed] and the Australian and New Zealand box office records it set have never been broken.[dubious ]

While it started off being broadcast in black and white, the show was first shown in colour on BBC2 in 1967. Several personalities guested on the show, whilst others started their careers on it. Comedian Lenny Henry, then in his teens, became the first black performer to appear on it in 1975.[6] In July 2009, Henry explained that he was contractually obliged to perform and regretted his part in the show,[7] telling The Times in 2015 that his appearance on the show led to a profound "wormhole of depression", and that he regretted his family not intervening to prevent him from continuing in the show.[8]

Controversy edit

Within five years of the show's premiere on UK television, its portrayal of blacked-up characters behaving with stereotypical African-American manners was already being observed by some as offensive and racist. After the murder in Alabama in 1963 of 35-year-old white postal worker William Lewis Moore, who marched from Chattanooga, Tennessee, to Jackson, Mississippi, to protest against segregation in the American South, the satirical show That Was the Week That Was parodied The Black and White Minstrel Show's trivialisation of the systemic racism in the Southern American states with a sketch in which Millicent Martin dressed as Uncle Sam and sang a parody of "I Wanna Go Back to Mississippi" ("Where the Mississippi mud / Kind of mingles with the blood / Of the niggers that are hanging from the branches of the trees").[9] accompanied by minstrel singers in blackface ("Mississippi, it's the state you've gotta choose / Where we hate all the darkies and the Catholics and the Jews / Where we welcome any man / Who is strong and white and belongs to the Ku Klux Klan").[10][11]

David Hendy, Professor of Media and Cultural History at the University of Sussex, comments that Barrie Thorne, the corporation's chief accountant, described the series in an internal memo to Director of Television Kenneth Adam in 1962 as being "a disgrace and an insult to coloured people". He continued: "If black faces are to be shown, for heaven’s sake let coloured artists be employed and with dignity".[12] Thorne raised the issue again in 1967 with Oliver Whitley, Chief Assistant to the BBC's director general, Sir Hugh Greene. Whitley responded: "The best advice that could be given to coloured people by their friends would be: 'On this issue, we can see your point, but in your own best interests, for heaven's sake, shut up.'"[12][13][14]

In 1967, the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination presented a petition to the BBC calling for the show to be cancelled.[15] The following year, the BBC experimented with a version of the show called Masquerade, in which the main singers appeared without blackface, and the black singers wore whiteface.[16] In 1969, due to continuing accusations of racism, Music Music Music, a spin-off series in which the minstrels appeared without their blackface make-up, replaced The Black and White Minstrel Show. However, after one series, The Black and White Minstrel Show returned.

Since its cancellation in 1978, The Black and White Minstrel Show has come to be regarded with disdain. BBC writer Kate Broome states, "That an innocently-intentioned show could, in just a generation, become such a screen pariah is one of the most extraordinary episodes in television history".[17]

Final years edit

The BBC1 television programme was cancelled in 1978 as part of a reduction in variety programming (by this point, the blackface element had been reduced),[18] while the stage show continued. A touring version toured continuously from 1960 until 1987, with a second company touring Australia and New Zealand from 1962 to 1965, 1969 to 1971, and 1978 to 1979. Having left the Victoria Palace Theatre, where the stage show played from 1962 to 1972, a second show toured almost every year to various big city and seaside resort theatres around the UK, including the Futurist in Scarborough, the Winter Gardens in Morecambe, the Festival Theatre in Paignton, the Congress Theatre in Eastbourne and the Pavilion Theatre in Bournemouth. This continued every year until 1989, when a final tour of three Butlins resorts (Minehead, Bognor Regis, and Barry Island) saw the last official Black and White Minstrel Show staged.

Legacy edit

In a 1971 episode of The Two Ronnies, a musical sketch, "The Short and Fat Minstrel Show", was performed as a parody of The Black and White Minstrel Show, featuring spoofs of various songs.[19] An episode of the BBC comedy series The Goodies ("Alternative Roots"), spoofed the positive reception of The Black and White Minstrel Show, suggesting that any programme could double its viewing figures by being performed in blackface, and mentioning that a series of The Black and White Minstrel Show had been tried without makeup.[20] The Are You Being Served? episode "Roots" featured a storyline in which Mr. Grace's lineage was traced in order to perform an appropriate song and dance for his 90th birthday. The result was a number that parodied The Black and White Minstrel Show by having the male performers in blackface, while the females (excluding Mrs. Slocombe) were not.

In 2023 the BBC broadcast a documentary presented by the actor David Harewood and the historian David Olusoga about the pernicious influence of blackface minstrelsy in pervading racial stereotypes and anti-black racism in Great Britain. The documentary was largely centred on, and heavily critical of, the BBC’s own The Black and White Minstrel Show.[21]

Discography edit

The Black and White Minstrel Show edit

Chart Year Peak
UK Albums Chart[22] 1961 1
Preceded by
South Pacific by Original Soundtrack
South Pacific by Original Soundtrack
South Pacific by Original Soundtrack
The Shadows by The Shadows
Out of the Shadows by The Shadows
UK Albums Chart number-one album
29 July 1961 – 26 August 1961
2 September 1961 – 9 September 1961
16 September 1961 – 23 September 1961
21 October 1961 – 28 October 1961
29 December 1962 – 12 January 1963
Succeeded by
South Pacific by Original Soundtrack
South Pacific by Original Soundtrack
The Shadows by The Shadows
The Shadows by The Shadows
West Side Story by Original Soundtrack

Another Black and White Minstrel Show edit

Chart Year Peak
UK Albums Chart[23] 1961 1
Preceded by UK Albums Chart number-one album
11 November 1961 – 6 January 1962
Succeeded by

On Stage with the George Mitchell Minstrels edit

Chart Year Peak
UK Albums Chart[24] 1962 1
Preceded by
Out of the Shadows by The Shadows
UK Albums Chart number-one album
1 December 1962 – 15 December 1962
Succeeded by
West Side Story by Original Soundtrack

Other albums edit

Title Year UK[25]
On Tour with the George Mitchell Minstrels 1963 6
Spotlight on the George Mitchell Minstrels 1964 6
Magic of the Minstrels 1965 9
Here Come the Minstrels 1966 11
Showtime Special 1967 26
The Irving Berlin Songbook 1968 33
The Magic of Christmas 1970 32
The Black and White Minstrels With the Joe Loss Orchestra – 30 Golden Greats 1977 10

References edit

  1. ^ Robinson, Andy (14 January 2018). "The story behind the controversy surrounding Broadstairs entertainment troupe Uncle Mack's Minstrels has been revealed in a local historian's new book". Kent. Retrieved 29 December 2020.
  2. ^ "Black And White Minstrels creator dies". The Guardian. 29 August 2002.
  3. ^ Television Heaven Archived 5 December 2008 at the Wayback Machine
  4. ^ "Robert Luff – Telegraph". The Daily Telegraph. London. 23 February 2009. Retrieved 1 March 2009.
  5. ^ Roberts, David (2006). British Hit Singles & Albums (19th ed.). London: Guinness World Records Limited. p. 170. ISBN 1-904994-10-5.
  6. ^ Lenny Henry profile BBC Comedy pages
  7. ^ Five Minutes With: Lenny Henry BBC News Website
  8. ^ Midgley, Carol (6 June 2015). "Lenny Henry on racism and regret". The Times. Retrieved 24 September 2018.
  9. ^ Thomas, David (7 December 2002). "These are the men who were". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 1 October 2018.
  10. ^ Hegarty, Neil (2016). Frost – That Was the Life That Was: The Authorised Biography. Ebury Publishing. p. 65. ISBN 978-0-7535-5672-6.
  11. ^ Strinati, Dominic; Wagg, Stephen (24 February 2004). Come on Down?: Popular Media Culture in Post-War Britain. Routledge. p. 267. ISBN 978-1-134-92368-7.
  12. ^ a b Hendy, David. "The Black and White Minstrel Show". BBC 100. Retrieved 4 January 2022.
  13. ^ Ward, Victoria (3 January 2022). "'Offensive' Black and White Minstrel Show features in BBC commemoration". The Telegraph. Retrieved 4 January 2022.
  14. ^ Kanter, Jake (4 January 2022). "BBC rancour over Black and White Minstrels". The Times. Retrieved 4 January 2022.
  15. ^ "Minstrels founder Mitchell dies". BBC. 29 August 2002. Retrieved 2 February 2008.
  16. ^ "Colored Singers in Whiteface For Brit. TV Minstrels". Variety. 15 May 1968. p. 1.
  17. ^ "BBC – BBC Four Time Shift – Black and White Minstrel Show Revisited". 14 March 2010. Archived from the original on 14 March 2010.
  18. ^ "Minstrels founder Mitchell dies". BBC News. 29 August 2002. Retrieved 25 May 2010.
  19. ^ (22 May 1971). "The Two Ronnies – Season 1, Episode 7: Series 1, Episode 7". Retrieved 8 April 2012.
  20. ^ "Alternative Roots". The Goodies. Series 7. Episode 1. 1 November 2008.
  21. ^ "David Harewood on Blackface".
  22. ^ "The Official Charts Company – George Mitchell Minstrels – The Black and White Minstrel Show". Official Charts Company. Retrieved 2 June 2011.
  23. ^ "The Official Charts Company – George Mitchell Minstrels – Another Black and White Minstrel Show". Official Charts Company. Retrieved 2 June 2011.
  24. ^ "The Official Charts Company – George Mitchell Minstrels – On Stage with the George Mitchell Minstrels". Official Charts Company. Retrieved 2 June 2011.
  25. ^ "The Official Charts Company – The Black and White Minstrel Show". The Official Charts Company. 5 May 2013.

External links edit