October is Black History Month, in which we highlight and celebrate the achievements of Black people in the UK.
Office of Communications (Ofcom) think it’s a perfect opportunity to look at landmark moments of Black people and culture in British television.
It’s important to bear in mind that some depictions and portrayals of Black people and culture on television over the years have not been positive. Indeed, looking back, some of these can be viewed as problematic to some degree, especially by today’s standards. But alongside these, Ofcom has seen valuable examples of positive representation and contribution across a range of genres, which continue to inspire current and future generations of Black creatives and mainstream television.
Ofcom has chosen ten significant TV moments that help to highlight the contribution that Black people have made on our TV screens, as well as some key milestones in Black representation, from the 1950s to the present day.
- 1956 – A Man From The Sun, a drama about the experiences of West Indians who had newly settled in the UK, is broadcast by the BBC. While there had been earlier appearances by Black people on UK television, this programme is said to be the first depiction of the lives of Black people in the UK, the programme starred Cy Grant, considered to be the first Black person to be featured regularly on UK TV.
- 1968 – Jamaican-born journalist and activist, Barbara Blake Hannah, becomes the first Black person to appear on UK TV in a non-entertainment role, as a presenter on ITV’s news and current affairs programme Tonight with Eamonn Andrews. Her appearance preceded that of Sir Trevor McDonald, who in 1973 became the first Black newsreader to appear on UK television.
- 1976 – ITV launches The Fosters, the first British sitcom to feature an all-Black cast. Produced by London Weekend Television and focusing on a family living in south London, the show featured comedian and actor Lenny Henry in an early role, alongside Norman Beaton – who went on to feature in Channel 4’s Desmond’s. That show, launched in 1999 and set in a Peckham barber’s shop, also featured a predominantly Black cast and went on to become Channel 4’s longest-running sitcom in terms of episodes.
- 1978 – The BBC broadcasts soap opera Empire Road. It was the first British television series to be created, written, acted and directed predominantly by Black people. It depicted the lives of African-Caribbeans, and included a cast of East Indian and South Asian residents of a Birmingham street.
- 1981 – Police mini-series Wolcott is broadcast on ITV. The London-set programme was significant since it featured George Harris as the first Black actor to portray the lead role in a UK police drama.
- 1985 – BBC’s Eastenders introduced its first Black family, the Carpenters, to Albert Square. And in 1988 the other big British soap, Coronation Street, introduced Shirley Armitage, its first regular Black character, played by actress Lisa Lewis.
- 1996 – The BBC launches Black Britain, its first news and current affairs programme specifically for Black viewers. The programme’s introduction came after a BBC internal report warned it should do more to cater for Black audiences.
- 2003 – 3 Non Blondes is broadcast on BBC Three. A hidden-camera sketch show starring comedians Jocelyn Jee Essien, Tamika Empson and Ninia Benjamin, the show was the first of its kind to feature an all-Black female cast.
- 2020 – Dance troupe Diversity perform a routine during an episode of Britain’s Got Talent, inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of the death of George Floyd in the US. This performance prompted 24,500 complaints to Ofcom. Complaints found no investigation was warranted.
- 2021 – Channel 4’s Black to Front schedule is broadcast, which for 24 hours saw black talent take over the channel’s output in front of and behind the camera. Among a range of programmes, the schedule saw the one-off return of morning show The Big Breakfast, hosted this time around by Mo Gilligan and AJ Odudu – which was so popular it has since been brought back for further broadcasts by Channel 4. Black to Front also led to a number of other shows being commissioned by the broadcaster.
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