The comedian and actor fronted an informative and entertaining documentary about lesser-known black champions of arts and culture
A review by Anita Singh for London’s Telegraph.
This week, there are two BBC Two programmes that tell the story of immigrants in Britain from the 1950s onwards. The first is Back in Time for Birmingham, about the experience of British Asians, in which a family gamely submits to dressing in funny costumes, eating some terrible food of the time (Spam) and living in a house with orange decor.
The second is Lenny Henry’s Caribbean Britain, and it is a more inquiring, deeper dive into the period. Henry – once known for Tiswas, Comic Relief and his own comedy shows – has cut a serious figure in recent years. The programme began with him walking down his old street in Dudley, doing an affectionate impression of his mum’s instruction to her children to “h’integrate”. Black people of Caribbean heritage have achieved great things in the arts, he said.
“But as I’ve got older, I’ve tried to think: what does integration actually mean?” Henry asked. “Does it mean we, as Caribbean people, have to sacrifice our culture? How much of my culture has Britain absorbed?”
He didn’t answer the first question, at least in the first episode of this two- part documentary featuring a wealth of contributors, but Caribbean culture was illustrated well. First, there was calypso music – taken up by Lance Percival on That Was The Week That Was – and there was ska. White kids fell for ska and began copying the “rude boy” fashions, which led to some confusion, as Levi Roots wryly noted: “Turn around to the right and there were the other kind of skinheads – they weren’t the fashion skinheads, they were the fascist skinheads who wanted to rip your head off.”
The programme showed us the work of pioneers in the arts: textile artist Althea McNish, abstract painter Sir Frank Bowling, theatrical agent Edric Connor. It was enlightening to learn about them, because they are not household names. Unlike Floella Benjamin, whose presence can still light up the screen (seeing a clip of her on Playschool teaching children how to tell the time led me on a whole other train of thought about why no equivalent show exists now, but let’s save that one for another day).
This was all set against the racial politics of the time, which made for less pleasant viewing. Windrush arrivals being denied lodgings, violence on the streets of Notting Hill. In this context, the jubilation that greeted the West Indies’ victory at The Oval in 1976 made perfect sense.