As a child I was told that the correct term was "negro". Now it is "people of colour". It is hard to keep up

I am fascinated by Channel 4's The 1940s House. It is the background of my childhood and I am watching keenly for errors, as is the way with "those who were there". There are few mistakes so far. But nothing on television can recreate the way we all suffered from the cold. Chilblains were common from resting icy feet on the comfort of stone hot-water bottles. The women's legs became mottled purple from huddling too close to the only fire. I wouldn't wish such afflictions on the stalwart Hymer family.

I am impressed by their stamina, but amazed at how lacking in domestic skills they all are. Naturally, I know about and use pre-cooked meals myself, but not knowing how to make pastry or bake a cake seems to me like not knowing how to ride a bicycle. No wonder Nigella is having such success, if these skills are mysteries to many homes. And when are they going to get out the sewing machine and start making their own clothes?

Every generation sees the past in its own terms. And there is something attractively retro about the house's decor. The furniture is clearly authentic, but it is all washed in abundant and flattering light. I remember our having no more than one single 60-watt bulb hanging in the centre of each room within a marbled glass bowl. The effect was unremittingly dingy. Lighting chic had not been invented then and, besides, we were saving energy.

I look forward to nitpicking my way through further episodes. Will the women wear metal curlers in bed, I wonder? And, in their desperate hunger, will they resort to the black market?


Some attitudes they will obviously not emulate. In my childhood, there was a colour known as "nigger brown". And we were all familiar with the Little Black Sambo books of Helen Bannerman. Both have long been banished from the cultural landscape. But it has been a long journey.

I recall being told as a child that the correct term was "negro". By the Sixties, it was "black", in the Eighties, "Afro-American" and now, if I am up-to-date, "people of colour". It is hard to keep up sometimes and the penalties for not doing so can be ferocious. This is all exemplified in a fine play just arrived at the Royal Court Upstairs called Spinning into Butter by an American, Rebecca Gilman. Yes, an odd title, but one drawn from the Little Black Sambo books themselves.

Little Black Sambo is beset by tigers who steal his clothes, but then quarrel among themselves so violently that they spin themselves into butter, which Sambo then spoons up for himself, thereby reclaiming his clothes. The spinning tigers are, needless to say, the liberal consciences of the American academic world, whirling themselves into a frenzy over political correctness.

Their tortured antics, as they contrive to do the right thing, put one in mind of British institutions struggling to defuse allegations of institutional racism. The play's ironic answer seems to be: "When in doubt, set up a forum." The audience at the first preview enjoyed its bitter humour and its darker implications.

The play is already spoken of as another Oleanna, the David Mamet play about the male backlash against feminist correctness, which so divided opinion that some marriages were never the same again. This time, it is attitudes to racism getting the treatment. I think Greg Dyke and the Metropolitan Commissioner of Police should book seats. But, unfortunately, it was a sellout even before it opened.


Recently, I had lunch with Alan Parker and John Woodward at the congenial Union Club in Greek Street, Soho, haunt of film-makers. Alan was the chairman of the British Film Institute before I took over in 1999, and John Woodward was its chief executive. Now, together they head the British Film Council. British films have had a rough press recently, some of it well deserved. But stories of wasted Lottery millions leave out much.

Of the £92m made available to the three film franchises three years ago, only £42m has so far been drawn down. And the quoted returns only refer to British screenings and don't include foreign sales, video and television earnings. So the accounts are far from closed. "British film flops" in so many headlines is only part of the story.

Alan himself has a more immediate professional dilemma on his hands. His last film, Angela's Ashes, came out two years ago and he has now found a terrific script, about Texan politics, and is itching to start. He already has a fine cast and an outstanding star, all keen to begin.

But, starting on 30 June, there looms the all-out strike of the Screen Actors Guild. From that day on, no films will be made in Hollywood or anywhere else with any of its members . . . and that includes just about anyone you'd want in your film. The guild even has a number of top-rank British actors on its books. So currently, there is a frenzy of activity to beat the deadline.

Alan can't make it in time and must wait until the strike is over. It threatens to be angry and rough - and possibly long. The actors want a renegotiated deal on "residuals" - rates covering cable, TV and internet use of their work - in view of all the new technologies.

But film-making is Alan's life. The phrase "bear with a sore head" comes to mind. Worse threatens. The writers are going on strike, too. They want a bigger slice of the credits and the Writers Guild of America is talking tough. The message for us all is: the normal stream of blockbusters could dry up.

Now is the time, then, to broaden your taste and learn to love what is different.

This article first appeared in the 15 January 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Dotcoms will rise again