A Sort Of Magic: The Black Presence On Pre-War British Television

By Stephen Bourne | 12 December 2006
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photo is an assemblage of pictures of very early bbc performers

Montage of early BBC performers. Courtesy of Alexandra Palace Television Society.

From its earliest days, there were a scattering of Black performers on the BBC. Historian Stephen Bourne looks at the mix of London talent, Americans and Afro-Caribbeans who appeared on the Beeb in the Thirties and Forties.

Seventy Years Ago

It seems hard to believe, but the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) recently celebrated the seventieth anniversary of their television service. The BBC launched the world’s first regular “high definition” television service on November 2, 1936 from Alexandra Palace. Affectionately nicknamed “Ally Pally”, it had been built in Muswell Hill, North London in 1873 as a public entertainment centre.

From 1936 to 1939, before the outbreak of the second world war interrupted the service, “Ally Pally” was the home of British television. In those early days there was only one channel and one camera. Only two hours of television was available each day: afternoons from 3-4 and evenings from 9-10. With the exception of occasional outside broadcasts, programmes were transmitted live, in black and white, from Alexandra Palace, but the BBC could only transmit programmes in the London area. Television was an expensive commodity which only the rich could afford.

photo shows two black men dancing

Buck and Bubbles. Courtesy of Stephen Bourne.

Buck and Bubbles at the BBC

It is not generally known that the Black presence on British television can be traced back to that historic opening day. On November 2, 1936 the opening ceremony began at 3pm. Speeches by the Postmaster General, the Chairman of the BBC, and Lord Snelsdon were followed a variety programme Featured in the line-up were a popular song and dance act, then appearing in London’s West End, called Buck and Bubbles. They performed a number called “Truck on Down” for their television debut.

The duo belonged to a fabulous generation of black American entertainers who worked in Britain in the 1930s. Over here they encountered less virulent racism (and more work) than they did at home. During the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s, there had been an explosion of African American artistic expression. Stage musicals and revues, as well as nightclubs like the Cotton Club, showcased black talent. In the 1930s these artists found work in Europe.

photo shows woman preparing to perform with man at piano

Nina Mae McKinney. Courtesy of Alexandra Palace Television Society.

The Pioneers

Before Buck and Bubbles made their historic appearance, black cabaret stars had taken part in experimental broadcasts in the early 1930s. It is likely that the first black person to appear before a television camera was the popular cabaret entertainer Nina Mae McKinney, and she made this appearance from the BBC’s John Logie Baird experimental television studio at 16 Portland Place, London, on February 17, 1933.

The legendary entertainer Josephine Baker made a similar appearance on October 4, 1933. Test transmissions began at Alexandra Palace on August 12, 1936 and on October 8 the racing tipster Prince Monolulu was featured in a pilot for a magazine programme called Picture Page.

Monolulu was a popular figure at British racecourses, crying out his famous catchphrase, “I gotta horse!”, and wearing an eye-catching feather headdress. Monolulu claimed to be an Abyssinian prince, but in reality he was a Guyanese showman of Scottish descent, and his real name was Peter Mackay.

photo shows

Burnt Sepia. Courtesy of Alexandra Palace Television Society.

It’s Cabaret Time!

In the pre-war years of BBC television there was an emphasis on light entertainment and in the late 1930s spectacular shows were all the rage in London’s nightclubs. The BBC selected artistes from the cabaret circuit, as well as West End revues, and transported them to Alexandra Palace.

Consequently a number of popular black Americans who were working in London at that time found themselves appearing in the exciting new medium. These included Eunice Wilson and Garland Wilson (Burnt Sepia, 1937), Alberta Hunter (1937), Nina Mae McKinney (Ebony, 1937 and Dark Laughter, 1937), Valaida Snow (1938), Fats Waller (1938), Art Tatum (1939), and The Mills Brothers (1939).

photo shows woman singing in front of a piano in a smoky room.

Adelaide Hall. Courtesy of Stephen Bourne.

The first outside broadcasts

By 1938 the BBC had started to move outside the confines of its studio at Ally Pally to transmit programmes from various locations around London. In 1938 they broadcast Making a Gramophone Record from the HMV recording studios in St. John’s Wood. In this early documentary, the singer Elisabeth Welch could be seen (and heard) recording a medley of George Gershwin songs.

The following year the BBC took up residence at Adelaide Hall’s famous London nightclub, the Old Florida Club in Bruton Street. Two cabaret shows were transmitted live from Adelaide’s popular nightspot: Harlem in Mayfair and Dark Sophistication. In both shows Adelaide was seen in performance with her accompanist, the Nigerian pianist Fela Sowande. In 1940 the Old Florida Club was destroyed in the German Blitz on London. Adelaide later recalled: “I had a premonition. I told everyone to leave the club, but my husband, Bert, refused. So I left London without him and on Saturday night a bomb hit our club. It took away everything – except Bert. He was sheltering in the cellar, and that’s what saved him.”

photo shows man in lounge suit

Robert Adam. Courtesy of Stephen Bourne.

The Emperor Jones

In 1938 Robert Adams became the first black actor to play a leading dramatic role in the new medium. Born in Guyana, Adams was a former wrestler who took up acting in the 1930s. He had already acted on the stage and in films with Paul Robeson before accepting the lead in a television adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones. The role of Brutus Jones, a Pullman porter who becomes the ruler of a Caribbean island, had already been played by Robeson on stage and screen. The BBC’s version was transmitted live from Alexandra Palace on May 11, 1938. After Paul Robeson returned to the United States at the outbreak of the second world war, Robert Adams became Britain’s leading black actor, and would continue acting on television in the 1940s and 1950s.

photo shows man in front of a film camera marked bbc

Paul Robeson at the BBC. Courtesy of Stephen Bourne.

Paul Robeson

In the 1930s the charismatic Paul Robeson was one of Britain’s best loved entertainment personalities. Robeson’s rich, glorious singing was much admired, and in 1937 BBC radio listeners voted him their most popular singer. Between 1935 and 1940 he starred in six British films. These included The Proud Valley in which he played an American coal miner who is adopted by a working-class mining community in poverty-stricken South Wales. By the time The Proud Valley was released in March 1940, the second world war had started, and Robeson had returned to America with his family.

However, shortly before he left, he visited Alexandra Palace on August 23, 1939 to take part in a recital for television viewers. A programme log at the BBC’s Written Archives reveals that he performed several songs, including “Water Boy” and his famous ‘theme’ song, “Old Man River.” His legacy has never been forgotten, and he was an important influence on the next generation of black activists who looked upon him as a father figure in the struggle for human rights.

photo shows film cameras and mass of wires with a group of people being filmed

Nina Mae McKinney. Courtesy of Alexandra Palace Television Society.

Television Demonstration Film

Sadly, no technology existed to preserve early programmes (videotape hadn’t been invented). However, in 1937, the BBC did produce Television Demonstration Film, a survey of television programmes made during the first six months of operation. Shot at the Stoll Film Studio in Cricklewood, the BBC contracted Nina Mae McKinney to recreate her appearance in the show Ebony. So at least one performance of a black star of early television has been preserved.

photo shows elisabeth welch

Elisabeth Welch. Courtesy of Stephen Bourne.

Television is Here Again

The pre-war BBC television service ended on September 1, 1939. On that day Germans invaded Poland and the government gave BBC executives exactly ten minutes notice to shut down. The screen simply went blank during a Mickey Mouse cartoon. There was no announcement. Concerns had been expressed that the signal from the mast at Alexandra Palace would attract enemy aircraft. On September 3 war was declared.

BBC television was officially relaunched at Ally Pally on June 7, 1946. To promote the new service, the BBC produced another demonstration film, Television is Here Again, featuring a host of stars including Elisabeth Welch. Meanwhile, between June and December 1946, a host of black stars appeared on our television screens. These included the folk singer Edric Connor, the African Caribbean dance company Ballet Negres, the West African Rhythm Brothers, jazz musicians Leslie ‘Jiver’ Hutchinson and Reginald Foresythe, singer Evelyn Dove, and pianist Winifred Atwell.

Unlike pre-war television, none of these artistes were American. With the exception of Foresythe and Dove, who were British-born, they were all African Caribbeans. It was a sign of things to come, with the development of the multi-cultural Britain of the post-war years.

photo shows two men dancing in hats and stage costume

Buck and Bubbles (close up). Courtesy of Stephen Bourne.

A Sort of Magic

On September 16, 1946 Robert Adams made his second major television appearance when he played the lead in another famous Eugene O’Neill play, All God’s Chilllun’ Got Wings. This was a complex drama about a mixed marriage, strong stuff for a BBC play in 1946. The cast also included a young Jamaican actress, Pauline Henriques, as Adams’s sister. Interviewed about this landmark production in 1989, Pauline recalled:

“I think the BBC pioneered something in giving us a play of that stature to act in. I thought television was wonderful because theatre came into the sitting room of viewers. We only had one television camera and it was static. It was fixed to the studio floor and didn’t move! There was also a huge sea of cables all over the studio floor, and I was terrified I would trip over them. We had to remember to keep in shot all the time, and yet a sort of magic came out of this chaos.”

Further reading:

Jim Pines (editor), Black and White in Colour: Black People in British Television Since 1936 (British Film Institute, 1992), includes interviews with Elisabeth Welch, Pauline Henriques, Pearl Connor, Cy Grant, and many other black pioneers of British television.

See also Stephen Bourne’s Black in the British Frame: The Black Experience in British Film and Television (Continuum, 2001); Sophisticated Lady: A Celebration of Adelaide Hall (ECOHP, 2001) and Elisabeth Welch: Soft Lights and Sweet Music (Scarecrow Press, 2005).

The BBC’s Written Archives in Caversham holds documents and programme logs relating to the Corporation’s entire history.

The BFI National Archive holds viewing copies of Television Demonstration Film (1937) and Television is Here Again (1946).

You can sign up for a bulletin from the Alexandra Palace Television Society here.

You can see portraits and hear the songs of Adelaide Hall and Elisabeth Welch at the National Portrait Gallery in June 2007 as part of the Devotional exhibition.

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