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Racist nostalgia television should be forgotten

IN THE PAST: Warren Mitchell as Alf Garnett in Til Death Us Do Part

THE BROADCASTING watchdog Ofcom’s decision to censor a television channel for showing a racist series from the 1970s is a reminder to all of us that things weren’t always sweet and dandy for us here inna Inglann. Far from it.

For more than half a century we were in a cauldron of institutional prejudice against us, for which we were expected to pay the price in more ways than one.
It is hard to believe that once upon a time we paid our television licence fee and what we got for it was a series of abuse from the goggle box.

TV in dem times was no place for us ‘darkies’, as the ‘comedy’ It Ain’t Half Hot Mum would have described us. I never found it funny, and I couldn’t understand how many of my English school mates thought it was the best sitcom since sliced bread.

Since those days I have learnt a thing or two about race relations – things we were never taught back in those days – and I have had to re-evaluate who my real friends were in school and who were the racists.

There were other series’ as well – Love Thy Neighbour, Mind Your Language and the Saturday night ‘laugh-in’ called The Comedians, which took the opportunity to racially abuse us on an industrial scale (and I haven’t even mentioned The Black and White Minstrel Show in which Lenny Henry featured).

It was even worse when it came to literature, with the renowned crime writer Agatha Christie choosing to call her best selling whodunnit Ten Little N*ggers. That title is too much for even the most nostalgic publisher to stomach so they’ve changed it to And Then There Were None.

One series was different – we used to call it Alf Garnett. Years later I got to learn that it was actually called Til Death Us Do Part, as in the marriage vows. Well, as its great writer Johnny Speight was at pains to explain for the rest of his life, it exposed racism rather than fostered it. It is a subtle difference, but a crucial one.

Sometimes to fight racism you have to expose the rac- ist in his own language. Alf Garnett would talk about us as “c**ns” (whatever that meant) and would be lambasted for it by every other character in his family.

Not only that, Speight would force his controversial character to be humbled by having to go, for example, to the dole office or the hospital to be seen to by an African or Asian person. Despite his festering hatred of everything that was made in the sun he would have to grudgingly embrace the superior authority of the changing multi-cultural Britain.

I remember fondly how my late step-mother would make an appointment to switch on the telly on a Saturday evening so that she could hurl abuse at Alf Garnett for being an unreconstructed EastEnder on the wrong side of history in ‘new’ England: “Oh shut up, you old fool” – she would shout at him through the prism of a television screen, even as she roared with dismissive laughter at his politically incorrect comments and jokes.

She saw through the racism of Alf Garnett (as many of us did) and into the mirror that he held up to the country to reflect on, which allowed that generation of post-war immigrants and their children to vent to the anger and frustrations of casual racism that they had to endure in the workplace.

So herein lies the conundrum. How can we allow Alf Garnett and not Family At War, the series that Ofcom reproached, because of one character who was repeatedly racist throughout?

The television company who dared to air the series again, on their nostalgia channel, say that to edit it or even have a health warning ahead of its screening would be to censor the real attitudes of people in those times and that it would rewrite history.

We have heard this argument over and over again down the years, when it comes to discussions about multi-culturalism or so-called political correctness. Those who want to racially abuse us want permission to racially abuse us, and that permission is granted by referencing backwards to the halcyon days when it was okay and accepted to racially abuse us.

Open up the floodgates of nostalgia telly, they demand, so that we can racially abuse black people without being accused of racially abusing black people, because it was a “sign of the times”.

Leave us, they demand, to enjoy, in the comfort of our own homes, our memories of those good old days when some random black dog in the war movie The Dam Busters could be called ‘n*gger’ by its war-hero owner without some namby-pamby liberal objection. You get the picture...

Having said that, we are complicit too, those of us who are of colour, for not standing up for our rights back in the day when we could have voted with our wallets by not watching television.

It is our wealth that is our security in these ‘money talks’ times. Cash is king.
Arguably, things fall apart without the black contribution to this country. And if we had realised that back in the 1960s and 1970s when these racist programmes were being made, our children would not be shaking their heads now at these nostalgia programmes, wondering where we were and what we were doing when the shows were being made.

They may as well accuse us of letting it happen. This younger generation is much better than my generation because they would never let media companies get away with that blatant racism.

But they are no better than us when it comes to defeating the latent racism that we describe as institutionalised. That is still alive and kicking, irrespective of the current television protocol.

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