Seventy Years of Black British Film & Television Excellence

To commemorate the seventieth anniversary of the African and Caribbean presence in post-war Britain, STEPHEN BOURNE, author of the award-winning Black in the British Frame – The Black Experience in British Film & Television (2001), lists his personal “bests” from popular British film and television drama since 1948. 


In Pressure the Trinidadian director Horace Ove movingly portrayed the reality of being a black youth in Britain in the 1970s. Horace Ove told the journal Film (BFFS) in August 1978: “I didn’t make the film sitting in my room: I went out with Samuel Selvon and researched it. I was aware of the political situation. I know what’s going down. So, when it was made, and people started saying, ‘That’s not true,’ I knew that either they didn’t know what they were talking about, or they didn’t want to admit to things. Pressure has had a lot of pressure. It’s a touchy film, about something that’s happening here.”  

Honourable mentions: Ten Bob in Winter (Lloyd Reckord, 1963) Jemima and Johnny (Lionel Ngakane, 1966) Burning an Illusion (Menelik Shabazz, 1981) The Passion of Remembrance (Sankofa, 1986) Playing Away (Horace Ove, 1986) Dreaming Rivers (Martina Attille, 1988) Young Soul Rebels (Isaac Julien, 1991) Who Needs a Heart (John Akomfrah, 1991) We the Ragamuffin (Julian Henriques, 1992) Flight of the Swan (Ngozi Onwurah, 1992) Bullet Boy (Saul Dibb, 2004) Kidulthood trilogy: KidulthoodAdulthood & Brotherhood, Menhaj Huda & Noel Clarke, 2006-16) Gone Too Far! (Destiny Ekaragha, 2013) A United Kingdom (Amma Asante, 2016) 


NORMAN BEATON & NICHOLAS FARRELL (Playing Away, 1986) (Best Film Actor)

In Black and White in Colour – Black People in British Television Since 1936 (BFI, 1992), Norman Beaton says: “My own view is that what you’ve seen me in are the only roles that are available for black men in this country, and they don’t really reflect our views, our understanding of life, our intelligence, or where we are coming from. In that respect, I would say that Caryl Phillips’s scenario for Playing Away did get around that particular hurdle. It lived up to nearly all the expectations that black people ought to be living up to…what I find difficult to come to terms with is the absence of a heroic figure like Paul Robeson in all the work I’ve done…There is no writer writing on that scale, or in those grand, magnificent terms for film or television about a black figure who we all admire or aspire to be like.”  

Honourable mentions: Earl Cameron (Pool of London, 1951) Johnny Sekka (Flame in the Streets, 1961) Paul Danquah (A Taste of Honey, 1961) Paul J. Medford (Black Joy, 1977) Brinsley Forde (Babylon, 1980) Victor Romero Evans (Burning an Illusion, 1981) Jaye Davidson (The Crying Game, 1992) Chiwetel Ejiofor (Dirty Pretty Things, 2002 & Kinky Boots, 2005) Ashley Walters (Bullet Boy, 2004) Noel Clarke (Kidulthood trilogy, 2006-16) John Boyega (Attack the Block, 2011) David Oyelowo (A United Kingdom, 2016) 


CASSIE MCFARLANE & VICTOR ROMERO EVANS (Burning an Illusion, 1982) (Best Film Actress)

Outside the ‘mainstream’, in the critically acclaimed Burning an Illusion, writer/director Menelik Shabazz successfully articulated the black British experience through the events in a young woman’s life. In February 1983 the film’s leading actress Cassie McFarlane told Staunch magazine: “The responsibility that the black writer has to the black actor or actress is the same one that he or she has to the community (the black audience). He or she has to be able to reflect the truth. With the film Burning an Illusion we all developed together. We spent a lot of time just talking and reasoning about the roles. I feel that the black actor/actress and the black writer have to develop together.”  

Honourable mentions: Shope Shodeinde (The Sailor’s Return, 1978) Anni Domingo (The Passion of Remembrance, 1986) Cathy Tyson (Mona Lisa, 1986) Corinne Skinner-Carter (Dreaming Rivers, 1988) Marianne Jean-Baptiste (Secrets and Lies, 1996) Anjela Lauren Smith (Babymother, 1998) Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Belle, 2013)  


Storm Damage came from the childhood memories of its writer, Lennie James. A hard-hitting drama, it starred Adrian Lester as a young teacher who finds himself on the receiving end of a threat by an armed youth. The teacher then seeks to make sense of the youth’s damaged life. Lennie James told Untold magazine (March-April 2000): “If you write something like that, a lot of energy goes into making the ‘Yes or No’ people understand why things in the script are important, because it’s like a foreign language. They don’t get nuances, why ‘innit though’ on its own is different to when it comes at the end of a sentence. Or why, if someone kisses their teeth to their parents or their friends, it’s different. We always have to educate them. But it’s worth making that effort, because the film industry owes you nothing. The only thing you can hold onto and be sure of is yourself.”  

Honourable mentions: Black Christmas (BBC2, 1977, Michael Abbensetts, writer) Play for Today: A Hole in Babylon (BBC1, 1979, Jim Hawkins & Horace Ove, writers) Elphida (Channel 4, 1987, Tunde Ikoli, writer) Big George is Dead (Channel 4, 1987, Michael Abbensetts, writer) The Final Passage (Channel 4, 1996, Caryl Phillips, writer) The Murder of Stephen Lawrence (ITV, 1999, Paul Greengrass, writer) Elmina’s Kitchen (BBC Four, 2005, Kwame Kwei-Armah, writer) Shoot the Messenger (BBC2, 2006, Sharon Foster, writer) Small Island (BBC1 2009) Damilola, Our Loved Boy (BBC1 2016, Levi David Addai, writer) 


In Z Cars: A Place of Safety the West African actor Johnny Sekka gave an outstanding performance as the tormented Sadik Adigun who loses control, attacks a bailiff and barricades himself into a room with his family. Writer John Hopkins did not shy away from exposing the racist attitudes of the police in this emotionally charged episode of the popular but gritty drama series. Hopkins later described A Place of Safety as “the most completely realised episode of Z Cars that I wrote.” Sekka’s British career lasted until the end of the 1960s but, when offers of work dried up, he decided to move to America where he continued his career until his death in 2006 at the age of 72. In 1969 Johnny Sekka told The Times: “Sean Connery, Terry Stamp, Michael Caine, Tom Courtenay, John Hurt…I started out with these people. Today they are stars – and alright, why not? I’m not jealous. But why the hell not me? I have the same talent and ability. But here am I. There is anger in me. I started out with tremendous hopes.”  

Honourable mentions: Errol John (A Man from the Sun, BBC 1956) Lloyd Reckord (Armchair Theatre: Hot Summer Night, ATV 1959) Edric Connor (The Avengers: The Gilded Cage, ABC 1963) Earl Cameron (Drama ’64: A Fear of Strangers, ATV 1964) Alfred Fagon (Shakespeare Country, BBC2 1973) Norman Beaton (Black Christmas, BBC2 1977 & Empire Road, BBC2 1978-79) T-Bone Wilson (Play for Today: A Hole in Babylon, BBC1 1979) Larrington Walker (Play for Today: Waterloo Sunset, BBC1 1979) Thomas Baptiste (Play for Today: King, BBC1 1984) Rudolph Walker (Black Silk, BBC1 1985) Hugh Quarshie (The Murder of Stephen Lawrence, ITV 1999) Adrian Lester (Storm Damage, BBC2 2000 & Undercover, BBC1 2016) Eamonn Walker (Othello, LWT 2001) David Oyelowo (Shoot the Messenger, BBC2 2006 & Small Island, BBC1 2009), Idris Elba (Luther, BBC1 2010-2018) Babou Ceesay (Damilola, Our Loved Boy, BBC1 2016) 


CARMEN MUNROE (Black Christmas, 1977) (Best TV Actress)

In Michael Abbensetts’s brilliant comedy drama Black Christmas, Carmen Munroe gave a magnificent star turn as a feisty West Indian wife and mother who is determined that her family will enjoy Christmas. However, throughout the day, she finds her living-room turned into a battlefield as members of her family clash. When Carmen Munroe was interviewed by Brenda Emmanus on stage at the Museum of the Moving Image in 1996) she said: “If you’ve got something you feel you want to do, something you want to create, stay with it. You have to have a sense of self as opposed to being self-centred. You have to have goals. Sometimes you will be thrown off course. I’m an eternal optimist. I harness all that I’ve learned, and take it with me on the road, because things will change.”  

Honourable mentions: Cleo Sylvestre (Some Women, BBC1 1969) Angela Wynter (Elphida, Channel 4 1987) Dona Croll (Screen Two: Hallelujah Anyhow, BBC2 1991) Marianne Jean-Baptiste (The Murder of Stephen Lawrence, ITV 1999) Mona Hammond (Storm Damage, BBC2 2000) Ruth Negga (Shirley, BBC2 2001) Naomie Harris (White Teeth, Channel 4 2002 & Small Island, BBC1 2009) Cecilia Noble (Danny and the Human Zoo, BBC1 2015) Wunmi Mosaku (Damilola, Our Loved Boy, BBC1 2016) Sophie Okonedo (Undercover, BBC1 2016)