The controversial Black and White Minstrel show features in a new archive collated to commemorate the BBC’s centenary, as the corporation examines how such an “offensive” programme lasted so long.
BBC History has unveiled a trio of online exhibitions looking at the most iconic objects, people and contributors as it seeks to tell the story of a “century of broadcasting”.
The 100 Objects collection features technology, props and artwork from the Queen Victoria bust from the EastEnders set to Mr Darcy’s shirt from Pride And Prejudice, while the 100 Faces collection includes photographs of a broad array of correspondents, actors and monarchs, from Floella Benjamin and Bruce Forsyth to Delia Smith and King Edward VIII.
The 100 Voices collection tells the stories of people who worked at the BBC, covering news and elections, the birth of TV, radio, pioneering women, and entertaining the nation.
The People, Nation, Empire category includes a section on The Black and White Minstrel Show, which ran from 1958 to 1978 and is described as “arguably the BBC’s most glaring failure to understand the damage it could do when it traded in out-dated stereotypes”.
David Hendy, Professor of Media and Cultural History at the University of Sussex, notes that the traditional defence that it was “of its time”, “does not quite wash”.
He says: “For the best part of 20 years it didn’t seem to occur to anyone in a position of authority at the BBC that the series really was offensive to more than just a few ‘killjoys’.”
Prof Hendy admits it is “hard not to be shocked” by a line in a letter sent by chief assistant Oliver Whitley to Barrie Thorne, the BBC’s chief accountant, saying: “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.’”
Other voices from the archives include that of Peter Dimmock, the producer responsible for the coverage of the Queen’s Coronation in 1953, as he describes the tricks he used to secure permission to film the event, and David Attenborough, who describes in 1991 how he thought The First Eden, a documentary broadcast four years earlier, would be “about it” for him as he was “getting on a bit” at 60.