Wednesday, 11 May 2011

‘The Blacked-up Men, with their strange agenda…’

It’s quite a while since I wrote about blackface, so let me sidle up to it in an oblique way. I came across this by chance on the web

               Lonely, unmarried, looking for love,
               Life was passing me by.
               So I sent off my photo, hobbies and age;
               Magazine marriage I'd try.
               They say for centuries lovely Japanese girls
               Have been trained in the art of pleasing men.
               Be lonely no more, open destiny's door.
               For one dollar they arrange a meeting.

Thus spake (sang) Viv Stanshall of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, way back in the swinging sixties, and we can see where he got it from. The song Look Out There’s A Monster Coming is satirical, surreal, and witty – as you would expect from a band containing Stanshall and Neil Innes, to name but two – but what are we to make of this video clip? It’s from the BBC children’s comedy show Do Not Adjust Your Set and it shows the Bonzos in blackface, all except for Neil Innes who looks plainly disgruntled and embarrassed by the idea. The Bonzos are clearly hamming this up, and their use of blackface is deliberately intended to be absurdist rather than offensive, but this kind of absurdism would not be possible today; humour is killed by having to explain a premise. Don’t forget that blackface was still seen at that time on BBC TV in the slick work of the George Mitchell Minstrels, so the Bonzo's ridicule here would be apparent. Incidentally the first two faces you'll see in the clip are Terry Jones, who went on to be one of the Monty Python team, and David Jason, who became famous as Granville in Open All Hours and as the grumpy detective in Frost.

Speaking of the Minstrels, here’s another clip from the 1960s showing them at full throttle, and featuring their principle male voices Dai Francis, who had been blacking up to sing since the age of ten and who provides the Al Jolson sound-alike, John Boulter the mellifluous tenor, and Tony Mercer the bass.

Between 1996 and 2001 there was a BBC radio and television show entitled Goodness Gracious Me, featuring Sanjeev Bhaskar, Kulvinder Ghir, Meera Syal, Nina Wadia in the radio version, joined by Dave Lamb and Fiona Allen in the TV version. Just quoting from their Wikipedia write up:

The title and theme tune are based on a hit comedy song of the same title sung by Peter Sellers and Sophia Loren, in which they reprise their characters from the 1960 film The Millionairess in which Sellers played an Indian doctor and Loren his Italian patient. The show's signature tune is a bhangra arrangement of the song. The show's original working title was "Peter Sellers is Dead", but was changed because the cast generally liked Peter Sellers. (The character Sellers plays, although in itself a fairly crude and broad parody of an Indian man, is actually portrayed as an intelligent, diligent, professional person). Many of the sketches explored the conflict and integration between traditional Indian culture and modern British life. Some reversed the roles to view the British from an Indian perspective while others poked fun at Indian stereotypes.”

One of their TV sketches was a musical number They Were The Blacked-up Men, ostensibly a parody of Men in Black but used as a semi-serious vehicle to question the whole question of cross-heritage acting. I recall that there were images on the screen of Sir Laurence Olivier as Othello, and of Sir Alec Guinness as Professor Godbole in Passage to India. In my opinion the latter casting came about because David Lean was unable to make a film without Guinness in it and for no other reason. Notable exceptions from GGM’s gallery of blacked-up men, however, were Ben Kingsley as Gandhi and Christopher Lee as Jinnah. I often wondered what GGM's agenda was there.

Okay, back to folk dancing… haven’t been there for a while… here’s GGM’s own Punjabi superhero Bhangra Man battling the dastardly Morris Dancers.


  1. No matter how much I read about it, I still do not understand blackface. I'm not sure I ever will.


  2. The 'blackface' here specifically refers to classical actors playing roles across racial heritage, white-to-black. It has always been legitimate but controversial. Laurence Olivier's 'Othello' was as brilliant a piece of acting as the King of Ham could put on; Guinness's Prof Godbole was a part that was made for him! The practice begs questions. A Chines friend of mine once complained bitterly about NTV's version of 'The Water Margin' - "How dare Japanese actors play Chinese roles!" My counter was that debarred British actors from starring in 'The Three Musketeers'. Where does one stop?

    If you check my earlier blogs you will find reference to two other blackface traditions. Firstly the American one, which largely came about because of the popularity of black entertainers outstripping the supply, and secondly the English folk tradition, in which it was a disguise rather than an attempt to imitate Africans.