Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Colour blind to radical change

BBC - EastEnders - Pictures - Galleries

Somehow I missed the press coverage of the fact that on Tuesday night BBC1 played its first ever episode of the long running hit soap opera, East Enders, with an entirely black cast. 

23 years is a long time to wait for such an event, thus explaining the media news coverage.

Anyway, I watched the show, munched my dinner, and the only thought that crossed my mind was that it was another sparkling episode, with good acting, a strong narrative, and important moral issues raised. Of course, the nature of soaps means this doesn't happen all the time, but when it does, the BBC scriptwriters tend to get it just right.

The drama centred round collective history, the early race riots in Notting Hill in 1958, how that led to the creation of the now world-famous August Carnival, issues of active and passive resistance, and the need to know one's roots. Family secrets was another narrative motif that drove the storyline throughout the episode.

I found myself reflecting on the time, many years ago, when I worked as a radio reporter, and went to interview one of the early organisers of London's Notting Hill Carnival (whose name, shamefully, I cannot recall). I was honoured to be invited into the family home, accompany a range of cousins, arts, uncles, nephews and nieces, out onto the streets for the day. I got to ride on one of the famous floats, and left late in the evening with a strong sense of community spirit. 

One of the slogans of the early Carnival events was, 'A people's art is the genesis of their freedom'.  Tonight, I hope that a stand for freedom was made by the BBC, when it showed us that when it comes down to it, good acting and strong scripts are at the core of great drama. Skin colour is a powerful signifier and brings with it numerous connotations that can be deciphered, mediated and interpreted by audiences in a myriad of ways. Let us hope that in future it's the story that grabs the headlines, rather than the skin colour. It's high time channel producers ensured mainstream drama encompasses the diversity of Great Britain, so that commentaries such as this need not be repeated.


Sunny said...

the show seems to be a fine one.

Sacha van Straten said...

At its best it is, at its worst more like a children's pantomime.