CONTEMPORARY politics, eternal theology, personal well-being, or despair — all coalesce around the issue of “welcoming strangers” . . . or decisively rejecting them. The BBC is offering a range of programmes on this theme: perhaps the most substantial is A Very British History (BBC4, Mondays), a series of films exploring the experience of immigrants. They are not presented magisterially and anonymously from above, but through a personal view by a member of the group concerned.
On 11 February, Damian Le Bas told the story of Romany Gypsies; last week, the poet Sue Brown considered “the first black Brummies”. The Romany film chronicled the greater social shift: the growing industrialisation of agriculture, the end of much casual unskilled work, and the irresistible pressure for a settled, regimented community — all marked the death knell of the free-travelling life.
Mr Le Bas showed us the struggles of the 1960s: more evictions from traditional sites and the hardening of official attitudes. Now, most British Romany live in houses. Only the annual Appleby Horse Fair provides a taste of the old culture.
Ms Brown told a more familiar tale: the cold and unwelcoming reality of life in the Mother Country compared with the image nurtured in the Caribbean, and contemporary newsreel footage of Birmingham slums which was still utterly shocking. But most 1950s and ’60s immigrants stayed because there was no work at home, and gradually prospered and were generally accepted. We heard about religion: the unwelcoming attitude of most churches, rejecting a source of new life and vibrancy, and the responding setting up of black churches.
Ms Brown’s generation, Birmingham born, struggles more consciously than her parents’ with an identity both British and black, keen also to include Africa, seeing their roots far beyond the Caribbean. Unfortunately, she linked that to a sanitised, ganja-free account of Rastafarianism: I suspect that a faith rooted in more genuine history will be needed to sustain proper development here.
Setting the scene for the Oscars included BBC4’s Score: Cinema’s greatest soundtracks. This told us the story from the inside, narrated entirely by film composers. We saw the significance of the soundtrack in telling the story; how the art has developed over a century; and how it has borrowed from every genre of serious, pop, and folk music and, in turn, influenced them.
BBC1’s latest post-Sunday-evensong crime drama is Baptiste. Set in the sex-and-drugs underbelly of Amsterdam, the hunt for a missing woman uncovers a web of interlocking storylines so complex as to defy credence. The scenes of violence seem to me gratuitous, shocking, and manipulative. It is worth watching only for the magnetic performance of Tom Hollander, plumbing an appalling depth of evil menace.