The Little Britain affair is a reminder of the UK’s long and toxic love affair with blacking up

Blame lies not just with the comedians, but also with producers and commissioners. 

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Piled up in the archives of British broadcasters are boxes of tapes and canisters of film that contain television shows that will never be broadcast again. Most will probably only ever be viewed by academics and students. Newly added to that library of toxic TV are characters and sketches from comedy shows that, until only a few days ago, were being streamed on the major platforms. Among them is Little Britain, one of the most successful comedies of the Noughties, but now dropped from both Netflix and BBC iPlayer.

The decision was made, in light of the global Black Lives Matter protests, because among the show’s characters, created by Matt Lucas and David Walliams, were some that were performed blacked up. How was it that a little more than a decade ago British comedians created characters that are now regarded as intolerably offensive, and that have already been placed – alongside those created in the 1960s and 1970s, the era of Love Thy Neighbour and Alf Garnett – in the dustbin of TV history?

The buzzword within television commissioning in the years when Little Britain was invented was “edgy”. Shows had to push towards the edge of what was acceptable and into the shady danger zone between subversive and offensive. Comedy all too often became “edgy” by punching down. Middle-class comedians created working-class grotesques, exaggerated avatars of the scroungers and benefit cheats so vivid in the imaginations of the more red-faced of the red-top opinion writers. Crossing that line perhaps made it easier to cross another, and engage in racial impersonation.

Blame here lies not just with the comedians, who long before the current scandal had distanced themselves from the more disturbing of their creations, but also with producers and commissioners. It is worth wondering if this could have happened had there been more black people in senior positions in British television. In a culture that was largely monotone, had blacking up come to be regarded as a mere taboo; the true depths of its toxicity, and the long and ugly history behind it, not really understood?

Blackface is the most visible legacy of a largely invisible history. It is socially unacceptable, but for reasons most people only vaguely understand. Hardly a month goes by without a photograph emerging from the past of some politician or public figure in which they appear in blackface. This is a reflection of the fact that, from the 1830s right through to the latter half of the 20th century, blackface and the minstrel traditions were among the most widespread forms of popular entertainment. Their roots run deep.

Little Britain now finds itself among literally millions of cultural artefacts that have been rendered poisonous by their links to this history. In other archives, over in the US, lie hundreds of Hollywood films, much of the early work of the US’s first cartoon animators, and thousands of songs, all of them damned by association.

Blackface is not merely a reflection of American racism, but was itself one of the great engines of that racism. It was racism made literally into an art form. It lampooned black people, both their bodies and their minds, and was used actively to reinforce their oppression, creating racial stereotypes and tropes that are still with us today.

What has been utterly forgotten in Britain is that from the outset the blackface minstrel show was a transatlantic phenomenon. The first form of global Americana, it was as popular in Britain as in the US. And incredibly blackface minstrelsy lingered on in British popular culture longer than it did in the US, largely because of one television programme.

The Black and White Minstrel Show turned television into the host species that allowed blackface to make the leap from the fading age of the concert halls and to infect modern popular culture. When I tell African-American colleagues that I have childhood memories of catching glimpses of blackface minstrels on prime-time TV (they were mere glimpses because my mother policed our viewing to prevent her mixed-race children being exposed to such poison), they struggle to believe me. They google the show on their phones, and I watch as they become open-mouthed at the search results.

The show survived until 1978, largely because of its huge popularity. At its peak in the early 1960s it drew audiences of around 20 million. When, in 1967, the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination gathered a petition calling for it to be axed, the BBC’s management board concluded – somehow – that “the programme was not racially offensive” and took no action. When the corporation’s chief accountant Barrie Thorne warned colleagues that no American broadcaster would tolerate such a show, his complaints were rebuffed in a letter by chief assistant Oliver Whitley, who wrote: “The best advice that could be given to coloured people by their friends would be: ‘On this issue, we can see your point, but in your own best interests, for heaven’s sake, shut up.’”

Whitley’s letter, written 53 years ago, speaks of a mindset that has re-emerged around the Little Britain affair and the Black Lives Matter movement. It is an attitude that perhaps never went away: the view that black people in Britain should be passive citizens, sitting at the back, not making a fuss and hoping that eventually change will come and discrimination will decline.

Asking white comedians to learn about the poisonous history of blackface and not engage in racial impersonation – just like asking for statues that venerate slave traders to be removed from public display – is deemed to be crossing a line. When black people make such demands, then as now, it is claimed that the group responsible for any rise of racism are black people themselves. 

David Olusoga is a historian, writer and broadcaster, and a professor of public history at the University of Manchester.

This article appears in the 19 June 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The History Wars

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