NOT least among the virtues of David Harewood on Blackface (BBC2, Thursday of last week) was how, in making the documentary, the presenter himself took a significant journey of discovery. So, rather than tell us about something that he had known for ages, he invited us to come and discover with him new (and, sadly, disturbing) facts.
Mr Harewood — the first black actor to play Othello at the National Theatre — was brought up, as perhaps many Church Times readers were, to enjoy as innocent fun the BBC’s Black and White Minstrel Show on Saturday nights. To clarify for younger readers: this was superlative variety entertainment, watched at its peak by 20 million out of the UK’s total 55 million population, built around marvellous singers performing the repertoire of the American/West Indian plantations — except that they weren’t, themselves, black: they were white, blacked up, matching their voices to the supposed model.
Surely showbiz is all about impersonation? Surely the performer always takes on a role far distant from his or her own reality? Yes; but, the deeper Mr Harewood dug, the worse it became. The genre started with the invention — by an 1830s entertainer from the United States, Thomas Rice — of the character of Jim Crow; by 1836, it was taking the West End by storm.
Bands of Minstrels (the “N” word could not be avoided) were immediately wildly popular; but the fun lay in their simpleton grotesquery, and Mr Rice actually stated that, as an inferior species of humanity, they were an appropriate butt for laughter. So, not harmless fun, but deep poison, infecting nationwide perceptions of black people and culture as essentially stupid and primitive, their art — such as it was — far better executed by sophisticated white artists. This racist superiority is still with us; and the lie of “Negroes’” singing happily, despite their back-breaking bondage in white-run plantations, diminishes and sanitises the absolute evil of slavery and poverty.
Manipulating how you present yourself to the world energises the series The Unique Boutique (Channel 4, Monday of last week). A team of designers, tailors, and dressmakers employ their talents to effect the transformation of lives blighted by emotional or physical impairment, or disability, by tailor-making clothes to fit properly and enhance the true person behind the wheelchair.
It’s all too shouty, too Technicolor; but the aim is so admirable that I was on the verge of commissioning a cope to hide all my imperfections (moral rather than physical, in my case), when they revealed one of the finished garments: it was awful.
Extraordinary Portraits With Bill Bailey (BBC1, Mondays) is thematically not entirely unconnected: celebrating NHS75 by pairing remarkable health workers with leading artists, whose close attention reveals to us unperceived psychological insight.