The Black and White Minstrel Show

The Black and White Minstrel Show is a popular British light entertainment show that ran for twenty years on BBC prime-time television. Beginning in 1958, it was a weekly variety show which 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 which 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
Black and White Minstrel Show.jpg
Created byGeorge Mitchell
StarringGeorge Chisholm
Stan Stennett
Leslie Crowther
Country of originUnited Kingdom
Original languageEnglish
Production
Production locationsLondon, England
Release
Original networkBBC
Picture format4:3
Black and white (1958-1967)
Colour (1967-1978)
Original release14 June 1958 (1958-06-14) –
21 July 1978 (1978-07-21)

HistoryEdit

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 numerous 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 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 well into the 1950s, with the blackface form allowed scope for the substitution of different performers without any change in billing.

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, featuring a sing-along format with both solo and minstrel pieces (often with extended segueing), some country and western 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.

Prior to the creation of the Television Minstrels 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 show every Saturday night alongside different celebrities each week, 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.

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 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. At this time, the creation gained considerable international regard and was sold to over thirty countries; in 1961 the show won a Golden Rose at Montreux for best light entertainment programme and the first three albums of songs (1960–1962) all did extremely well, 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. Since George Mitchell was completely tied up with the television version, he hired Harry Currie to be the chorus master to prepare the Victoria Palace minstrel singers.

While this was in preparation, Mitchell informed Currie that a second company would be prepared for the summer in Morecambe, and that the three lead minstrel singers in that company would follow for a tour of Australia and New Zealand beginning in 1962, and that the minstrel chorus and dancers would be auditioned and formed in Australia. Mitchell then asked Currie if he would be the chorus master for the Morecambe show, and would he also be one of the three lead soloists, then fly to Australia with the choreographer to build the company for the down under tour. Currie agreed, understanding that the tour was planned for 6 months.

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

EMI Records approached the three lead singers, Harry Currie, Jeff Hudson and Eric Whitley, and asked them to make an LP. Currie, who was asked to produce the LP, felt that since they were touring, the songs should all be from 12 cities in 12 countries. Since there were no songs for Australia, New Zealand and Currie's home country – Canada – he wrote three songs over a weekend to cover those countries, and named the LP "Three Voices Go Places", still advertised on the Internet in 2018.

While it started off being broadcast in black and white, the show was one of the first to be shown in colour on BBC2 in 1967. Several famous personalities guested on the show, whilst others started their careers there. Comedian Lenny Henry was one such star, being 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]

Racial issuesEdit

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 noted for being offensive and racist. After the murder in Alabama in 1963 of 35-year-old white postal worker William Lewis Moore, who was on a protest march against segregation in the American South, the satirical show That Was the Week That Was did a sketch in which Millicent Martin dressed as Uncle Sam and sang a parody of I Wanna Go Back to Mississippi ("Where the scent of blossom kissed the evening breeze / Where the Mississippi mud / Seems to mingle with the blood / Of the niggers that are hanging from the branches of the trees")[9] accompanied by minstrel singers in blackface ("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 Klu Klux Klan"), parodying the Black and White Minstrels trivialisation of the systemic racism in the Southern American states.[10][11]

In 1967 the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination presented a petition to the BBC calling for the show to be cancelled.[12] In 1968, the BBC experimented with a version of the show called Masquerade, where the main singers appeared without blackface and the black singers wore whiteface.[13] 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 seen widely as an embarrassment, despite its popularity at the time.[14][15]

Final yearsEdit

The BBC1 TV show was cancelled in 1978 as part of a reduction in variety programming (by this point the blackface element had been reduced),[16] 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 on stage.

LegacyEdit

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.[17] "Alternative Roots", an episode of the BBC comedy series The Goodies, spoofed the popularity 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 make up.[18] 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 end 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.

DiscographyEdit

The Black and White Minstrel ShowEdit

Chart Year Peak
position
UK Albums Chart[19] 1961 1
1962
1963
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 ShowEdit

Chart Year Peak
position
UK Albums Chart[20] 1961 1
1962
Preceded by
21 Today by Cliff Richard
UK Albums Chart number-one album
11 November 1961 – 6 January 1962
Succeeded by
Blue Hawaii by Elvis Presley

On Stage with the George Mitchell MinstrelsEdit

Chart Year Peak
position
UK Albums Chart[21] 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 albumsEdit

Title Year UK[22]
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

ReferencesEdit

  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". Kentlive.news. Kent. Archived from the original on 29 December 2020. 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 Hegarty (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. ^ "Minstrels founder Mitchell dies". BBC. 29 August 2002. Retrieved 2 February 2008.
  13. ^ "Colored Singers in Whiteface For Brit. TV Minstrels". Variety. 15 May 1968. p. 1.
  14. ^ thecustard.tv links and lists • The 100 Greatest TV Moments From Hell (via Internet Archive)
  15. ^ "BBC - BBC Four Time Shift - Black and White Minstrel Show Revisited". web.archive.org. 14 March 2010.
  16. ^ "Minstrels founder Mitchell dies". BBC News. 29 August 2002. Retrieved 25 May 2010.
  17. ^ TV.com (22 May 1971). "The Two Ronnies – Season 1, Episode 7: Series 1, Episode 7". TV.com. Retrieved 8 April 2012.
  18. ^ "Alternative Roots". The Goodies. Series 7. Episode 1. 1 November 2008.
  19. ^ "The Official Charts Company – George Mitchell Minstrels – The Black and White Minstrel Show". Official Charts Company. Retrieved 2 June 2011.
  20. ^ "The Official Charts Company – George Mitchell Minstrels – Another Black and White Minstrel Show". Official Charts Company. Retrieved 2 June 2011.
  21. ^ "The Official Charts Company – George Mitchell Minstrels – On Stage with the George Mitchell Minstrels". Official Charts Company. Retrieved 2 June 2011.
  22. ^ "The Official Charts Company – The Black and White Minstrel Show". The Official Charts Company. 5 May 2013.

External linksEdit