For most of the first decade it was an entirely uncontroversial programme that epitomised wholesome family entertainment. The arch BBC critic Mary Whitehouse declared it to be a ‘delightful’ programme. This was not a view shared by all since it was enjoyed mostly by ‘mums and dads’, and teenagers of the time rejected it as hopelessly and irredeemably ‘square’, compared with pop music shows such as Top of the Pops and Ready Steady Go.
The show was based on a slick song and dance routine performed by blacked up men and young attractive white women. The music was mostly old time songs from the American Deep South, mixed with country and western tunes and some 1930s musical numbers. It was very professionally performed, requiring careful choreography to match the songs with the dance routine. The contrast between the blacked up males and the white women provided a strong visual image which appreciably enhanced the spectacle, as well as creating a distinctive brand for the show. The blacked up minstrel tradition extended back to Victorian times, and enjoyed a revival in the 1920s with the huge popularity of Al Jolson. So the whole concept made a lot of sense in appealing to public taste.
There was certainly no suggestion during the early to mid 1960s that the blacked up faces were in any way intended to be insulting to black people, and there is no evidence that black British residents of this period ever complained to the BBC about this, since the matter never appears to have been raised on Points of View which featured viewers comments. This was an outlook and concern that just never arose amongst the BBC programme makers and British public of the time, who regarded the show as nothing more than ‘good clean entertainment’, as one viewer described it. One thing is crystal clear, this programme attracted tens of millions of ordinary viewers during its first decade, and virtually no one then appeared to find anything offensive about it.
The first public sign of dissent came in May 1967 when the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination (CARD) called on the BBC to withdraw ‘this hideous impersonation which causes much distress to coloured people’. It was also claimed that the show ‘creates serious misunderstanding between the races and gives a wrong understanding to impressionable whites’, adding that ‘all it is intended to do is to caricature people and stereotype them’. Leaving aside the slur against white people, it should be stressed that this clearly hyperbolical complaint had nothing to do with racial discrimination. It was instead an attempt to impose on wider society a largely contrived victim agenda of a tiny vocal coalition of mostly white liberals and a few black activists, with the objective of curtailing the legitimate enjoyment and entertainment of a huge number of television viewers. CARD would collapse later in the year after infiltration by black power extremists and deteriorating relations between Asians and Caribbeans, an outcome at odds with the idealistic multiracial harmony envisaged by the white liberal founders.
A couple of months later the TV critic of the Spectator magazine Stuart Hood echoed these concerns when he opined that ‘the BBC should ask itself whether it ought not at last remove from its future schedules’ the Black & White Minstrels since, in the language of the time, ‘the days are long past when a coon show is tolerable on air’. This presumptuous statement is rather surprising since Hood was the BBC Head of Television in the early 1960s when it must be assumed that, like everyone else, he found nothing objectionable about the programme. A reader took a different view praising ‘the world acclaimed Black & White Minstrel Show as demonstrating ‘nothing but the highest reflection being cast upon West Indians’ by the wonderful voices of the minstrels and ‘anyone who thinks differently must have a warped mind’. He added that the show gave his 90 year old mother ‘the greatest pleasure which she never misses’ remarking that ‘there must be many more elderly folk to whom the loss of this show will be one further pleasure gone from their lives’.
One member of the BBC staff who found the programme objectionable was the Chief Accountant Barrie Thorne. In an internal memo he questioned the then BBC line that it was a ‘traditional show enjoyed by millions for what it offers in good-hearted family entertainment’. Thorne ludicrously dismissed this view on the grounds that ‘the same was said of throwing Christians to the lions’. He regarded the show as ‘Uncle Tom from start to finish’ that was offensive to many despite the size of the audience. The Director-General’s assistant responded to Thorne’s memo by stating that ‘it was absurd to imagine that people who are not already racially prejudiced could possibly in some way be contaminated by the Minstrels’. His frank advice to ‘coloured people’ on this issue was ‘we can see your point, but in your own best interests, for Heaven’s sake please shut up. You are wasting valuable ammunition on a comparatively insignificant target’. A robust common sense statement of the obvious that today would likely result in instant dismissal by BBC management, identity obsessed, PC speech enforcers.
During this period the BBC was moving in a liberal direction, away from what many regarded as its earlier stuffy and staid conservative image. But there was no question then of imposing politically correct speech codes, since these concepts were yet to developed or defined. The whole progressive ethos of the time was to challenge the heavy censorship regime on subjects such as sexual expression that had until relatively recently been prevalent. It was this development to which Mary Whitehouse’s campaign against ‘permissiveness’ was targeted. The response of liberals to her concerns was that if she did not like the programmes for which she found the subject matter objectionable or offensive then she should switch off, and not interfere with the enjoyment of those who wanted to watch these programmes. The whole progressive outlook then was strongly anti censorship, and in this climate the BBC would have been very reluctant to drop an immensely popular programme like the Minstrels to appease a tiny vocal minority, particularly when no offence was intended.
The BBC stuck by the show for another decade until its final appearance in 1978, by which time the calls by liberals to end the programme had become more vocal and persistent. The ratings had also begun to drop quite appreciably, and by the time of its demise it is unlikely that many viewers would have been under the age of 50. So the decision to pull the plug came as no surprise, and many wondered why it had not been put out of its misery rather earlier. However, ‘progressive’ liberals were not content to just take the programme off air, they wanted to demonise and denigrate its memory together with the kind of society which allowed it to be shown in the first place.
Foremost amongst those seeking to trash the memory of the programme is the BBC itself. The corporation now contends that the Minstrels were ‘arguably the BBC’s most glaring failure to understand the damage it could do when it traded in out of date stereotypes’ and asked why ‘this infamous programme could have lasted so long’. The BBC’s extended mea culpa seeks an explanation as to why ‘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’. As part of the BBC guilt trip their light entertainment chief Bill Cotton confessed that the ‘racist implications’ should now be ‘obvious to all’ declaring that ‘its the people who are black whose views surely need to be taken into account’, and then denouncing ‘the BBC’s belated, faltering progress in understanding the implications of a multicultural Britain’. This feast of emoting self flagellation ignores the fact that one of the main BBC objectives should be to provide quality entertainment to the public, rather than engage in virtue signalling to placate vocal minority agitators.
The posthumous fate of the Black & White Minstrels epitomises the will of the politically correct elite to rewrite history to promote and enforce their agenda. As George Orwell observed ‘he who controls the past controls the future’. But as its creator George Mitchell affirmed ‘the show represented all that was best in the world of light entertainment. It was magical and full of colour, entertainment at its best, family fun and friendly. Yet gradually its memory became contorted and warped’. He regretted ‘the repeated focus on the so called racist element of the show which gradually became adopted as the truth, simply because it was repeated so often, slowly turning the show and all it stood for into something hateful’. In fact all the critics of the show succeeded in doing was to infantilise black people, as being so hyper-sensitive that they were assumed to be unable to cope with anything perceived as a mildly unfavourable interpretation of their culture.
So we moved from a society in which virtually nobody found this programme offensive, to one where anyone trying to defend it risked being branded as a racist bigot. We all suffer from a loss of liberty through this kind of soft totalitarianism in which an elite minority can enforce their own self regarding virtue on the rest of society. It is worth comparing the wholesomeness of the Minstrels with how mainstream black ‘entertainers’ portray themselves today through the degeneracy of their repulsive foul mouth gangsta rap videos. But there is no rush by white ‘progressives’ to criticise these self promoted ‘stereotypes’, to do so would be far too ‘judgemental’.