From "exotic" attractions to changing racial attitudes: the BBC's slow progress to mirror multicultural Britain
The BBC has featured entertainers of colour from its inception, but more as an attraction than a celebration of other cultures. In part four of our 13-part series on the history of the BBC, David Hendy explores how the corporation tried to include diverse voices, from the 1930s to the postwar years...
In the spring of 1941, the 36-year-old Jamaican writer Una Marson was offered a job as staff producer at the BBC. It seemed a watershed moment for Britain’s national broadcaster. A full seven years before the HMT Empire Windrush docked at Tilbury, bringing nearly 500 British citizens from the Caribbean to their “Mother Country”, the corporation was opening up one of its much-sought after editorial posts to a woman of colour.
Yet by the time Marson left her job – in deeply troubling circumstances – less than six years later, she had every reason to conclude that the BBC’s commitment to racial equality had much further to go.
The BBC had never been exclusively white – on the airwaves, at least. In the 1930s, the Guyanese bandleader Rudolph Dunbar had made numerous appearances on the wireless with what the Radio Times called his “Coloured Orchestra”. The singer Elisabeth Welch had her own series, Soft Lights and Sweet Music, while many other music programmes featured what were billed as “Negro spirituals”. As for television, the African-American double-act “Buck and Bubbles” (seen above) were among the stars of Alexandra Palace’s opening night in November 1936.
Explore the history of the BBCThis is part 4 in a 13-part series by David Hendy that charts how the BBC shaped the nation. Read more about the history of the BBC:
What’s striking in this list of names is that it consists entirely of entertainers – people presented largely as “exotic” attractions. And despite a formidable CV that included publishing poetry and running a literary magazine, Una Marson had also been treated as an exotic – even problematic – presence in the BBC workplace.
Before installing her in post, managers at the Overseas Service had thought it prudent to check with the Colonial Office in Whitehall that “there would be no objection on their part to our appointment of a coloured British subject”. Her arrival was described by broadcasters and civil servants alike as an “experiment”.
It was an experiment that discomfited some colleagues. Joan Gilbert, who helped run the Overseas Service’s wartime variety department, often grumbled about her new producer’s alleged “bad manners”. Gilbert complained: “Quite frankly, I wouldn’t let anybody speak to me in the way Una does, and certainly not a coloured woman.”
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It’s hard to reconcile this with the glowing report provided by the BBC’s staff training school. Marson, the report stated, possessed “imagination, appreciation of the audience, political judgment, and a sense of style and a feeling for language”. If there was a problem, it was not with Marson herself. “As the only ‘coloured’ producer in the BBC, she needs a good deal of backing to enable her to use her abilities to the best advantage, and to overcome the prejudices which undoubtedly exist among some of the staff,” the report continued.
To the BBC’s credit, Marson did have the backing of senior management. Both John Grenfell Williams, the director of the African Service, and JB Clark, the wartime controller of the Overseas Service, came to her defence when the West India Committee – a lobby group representing white-owned business interests – grumbled menacingly about her.
Nevertheless, the daily grind of racial prejudice took its toll. By 1945, she was experiencing a nervous breakdown; within months, she’d been diagnosed with schizophrenia and detained in hospital, where doctors claimed she had “delusions” of persecution. The BBC decided there was no option but to assist Marson back to Jamaica so that she could benefit from a “home environment”.
On 14 October 1946 she was driven to Swansea docks, where, in a state of distress, she was forced aboard a ship bound for Kingston. The years she’d spent at the BBC, she later wrote, had been “an exciting dream” that had “ended in a nightmare”.
By 1945, Una Marson was experiencing a nervous breakdown. The BBC decided there was no option but to assist Marson back to Jamaica... In a state of distress, she was forced aboard a ship bound for Kingston
Though her career had been cut short, Marson had every reason to be proud of what she’d done for the corporation. She’s remembered now for launching Caribbean Voices, a series that continued almost uninterrupted until 1958 and established itself as a vital source of patronage for countless Caribbean authors.
Before this, Marson had produced and presented another Overseas Service programme, Calling the West Indies. Broadcast four times a week, it featured heart warming messages to families back home from the thousands of men and women who had left the Caribbean to come and work for the Allied cause in Britain.
It wasn’t the kind of series to raise the ugly issue of racism, a phenomenon by no means absent in 1940s Britain. But in creating a personable two-way conversation between the imperial metropole and one of the colonies, Calling the West Indies was a striking example of the BBC adapting to the urgent demands of wartime diplomacy.
In focus: how Caribbean Voices put rising stars from the West Indies on the mapThe literary and cultural historian Clair Wills recently wrote that, for aspiring immigrant writers in 1950s Britain, “the central character in almost all accounts of day-to-day life was the BBC”.
If so, one reason for this unlikely relationship was Caribbean Voices, the radio series established in 1943 by Una Marson and edited for many years by her successor, the Irishman Henry Swanzy. The idea for Caribbean Voices had first come to Marson when fellow producer George Orwell invited her on to his own talks programme, Voice, and she found herself sharing the microphone with writers Mulk Raj Anand, William Empsom and TS Eliot.
Marson’s timely reinvention of Orwell’s series began as a small segment within Calling the West Indies. But it quickly blossomed into a thriving showcase of its own for Caribbean authors who were either unknown or only just beginning to establish an international reputation. Louise Bennett, Sam Selvon, VS Naipaul, George Lamming and Derek Walcott were just some of those who appeared regularly.
Marson was a Jamaican literary figure in her own right; Swanzy was an outsider. But the Irishman was adept at providing a supportive environment for West Indian writers who had come to Britain to make a living – not just getting them on air but helping them forge valuable social connections. Under him, the programme was at the centre of a thriving new literary scene linking London with the Caribbean.
As for its effect on broadcasting, a significant feature of Caribbean Voices was the emphasis that it placed not just on what writers said but on how they said it. The powerfully expressive style that a writer such as Louise Bennett used when reading her work was a marked departure from the polite restraint with which most scripts were delivered on the BBC’s airwaves. Though the series ended in 1958, the fresh, vernacular style that it pioneered would soon be heard more widely across British radio.
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Back in 1932, the Empire Service had provided a slice of “old Britain” to expat communities in the colonies and dominions. Now, though, a stream of foreign broadcasters – from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, India, the US and the African continent – were turning up in London with a different goal in mind: to help the BBC speak in a more collaborative voice with Britain’s overseas allies. The result was a subtle but important cultural shift.
George Ivan Smith, from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, spoke of finding an institution that he had once imagined as parochial and stiff to be far more “open” than he expected – keen, in fact, to learn from its new recruits. This was, he decided, a BBC becoming a global broadcaster in more than one respect: not just beaming its programmes around the world, but also increasingly cosmopolitan at home.
At first, very little of this new-found cosmopolitanism washed over into programmes destined for domestic audiences. By the close of the 1950s, some 300,000 people had made their way across the Atlantic from the Caribbean. But if the “immigrant experience” was covered on radio or television within Britain, the focus was mostly on instances of racial tension.
Investigative reports such as The Conflict of Cultures, broadcast in 1952, may have been well-intentioned in their attempts to expose white prejudice, but they reduced the richness of black British life to little more than a “problem” viewed from the outside.
Harman Grisewood, who’d begun his career as an announcer in Savoy Hill and ended it in the 1960s as the director-general’s chief aide, once said that the work of the BBC was only half-done if it merely reflected faithfully “what goes on and what motivates the present-day world”. Programmes, he said, also needed to show listeners and viewers other ways of being – to “discriminate in favour of what is vital”.
On the podcast | Colin Grant discusses tells the stories of postwar immigrants to Britain from the Caribbean:
When it came to discriminating in favour of a multicultural world, there were soon glimmers of hope. John Elliot’s screenplay A Man from the Sun, shown in 1956, represented a refreshing departure for the BBC by exploring racial prejudice entirely from an immigrant family’s perspective. Then in 1964, the veteran features producer Geoffrey Bridson collaborated with the Harlem poet Langston Hughes to create a sprawling 19-part series for the Third Programme celebrating African-American culture – motivated, he said, by the desire to challenge racial attitudes at home.
It was in 1964, too, that the BBC began making shows especially for immigrants from the Indian sub-continent. If the BBC was at last beginning to reflect a multicultural Britain, progress had been horribly slow and uneven: its international output had set a pace that services for domestic audiences had failed to match.
As for Una Marson, by 1964 her health had improved enough for her to visit London. Yet she never returned to the BBC’s airwaves, and died the following year. Her remarkable broadcasting abilities were underused until the end.
David Hendy is emeritus professor at the University of Sussex. His latest book is The BBC: A People’s History (Profile, 2022)
This article was first published in the April 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine