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Contributor: George Amponsah
Black in the British Frame

When Black Perspective asked me to review a book entitled Black in the British Frame - a book which charts the history of Black people in British film and Television between 1896 - 1996 I jumped at the chance first because in reading the book I realised ashamedly how little I really knew as a black British filmmaker about a topic of direct relevance to myself; secondly because the job required me to attend the book?s launch where I?d have the chance to meet the author Stephen Bourne and hopefully do some serious ?hobnobbing?.

Black in the British Frame is a personal look by Stephen Bourne at the history of black people in popular British film and television. Through extensive original research and fascinating interviews the book throws light on experiences and representations that have been ignored in previous media books about people from the African Diaspora.

The book contains illuminating, chapters about silent films; Paul Robeson, obscure black film extras of the 1930s; Edric Connor; Winifred Atwell; Black women in early British television; Gordon Heath; Lionel Ngakane; Earl Cameron; Carmen Munroe; Lesbians and gays; soap opera; A Man from the Sun (1956); Errol John; and film and television drama since 1951. There are also listings of black writers in British TV, archive holdings, award winners and suggestions for further reading.

The Launch
At the book launch, which is held at the Museum of the Moving Image there are perhaps 30-40 people present, a pretty even mix of black and white people and it seems to me that very few present are under the age of thirty. A distinguished looking elderly black man smiles as I walk by and returning the smile I wonder if this might be the book?s author. Eventually I introduce myself to a friendly middle aged lady who in turn introduces me to Stephen Bourne; Stephen is a thirty-something, softly spoken, bookwormish and white. Having assumed the author to be black I?m immediately forced to confront my own preconceptions. I quickly explain that I?m writing a review of his book for Black Perspective magazine and then almost involuntarily I say that I for one am convinced of the credibility and integrity of his project since he has been at it for two decades. I quickly realise that in his position he really does not need to hear glib validation for a lifetime?s work by someone he doesn?t know from a bar of soap. I ?m not particularly surprised when he abruptly cuts off the conversation, excusing himself to talk to someone else.

Stephen Bourne?s work on Black people in the performing arts has been widely published. He has been programming Black film and television events for the National Film Theatre since 1983, and worked with the research team of Black and White in Colour, a history of black people in British television, for the BBC and the British Film Institute. His efforts which he calls ?a labour of love? have twice won the Race in the Media Award from the Commission for Racial Equality.

Twenty years in the completion Black in the British Frame does not attempt to tell the whole story. Comedy is not included since it was felt that previous books on the subject have tended to focus on Black people?s role in comedy at the expense of drama and light entertainment.

Bourne?s fascination with Black people in the performing arts, especially film and television, grew out of his upbringing in a multicultural environment on a council estate in Peckham in the 1960s and 1970s. His determination to reveal some of the truths about Black British history was intensified by the fact that there seemed to be so little information about the subject in marked contrast to the abundant material he was able to find about Black American entertainers.

Eminent speakers at the book launch include veteran black British actors Connie Smith and Earl Cameron (the distinguished-looking gentleman I mentioned earlier). Both have been acting in British film and television since the forties; they talk about their respective careers in the performing arts and discuss, with the hard won wisdom of their experiences, the way forward for today?s Black performers.

In publishing Black in the British Frame Stephen Bourne has achieved his lifetime?s ambition to show that Black people have been an integral part of British history for centuries. He comments: ?in Britain, the media prefers to keep a wall of silence around the history of our nation?s Black people ... For me one of the keys to a Black future in Britain is the rediscovery of the Black achievers and realities of the past.? these statements are increasingly relevant in a world where the moviescreen continues to be the supreme site of mass-communication. Come to think of it; one thing that slightly ruined my enjoyment of the book?s launch was the fact that more people of my generation and younger were not present. As we approach the year 2000 Black Britain can not afford to be left out of the frame. Essential reading.

Black in the British frame is published by Cassell and is on sale at ?15.99
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