Above: Andrea Levy, artist, author, commentator Image: Laurie Fletcher
Since the second world war in Europe, American investment and funding, migrant and immigrant skills and expertise have been vital to the development of Britain’s infrastructure.
Yet the way certain knowledge, as Andrea Levy, artist, writer, playwright and commentator, points out in a recent programme about her life and work with Alan Yentob, Imagine, the value of that expertise and skill is never properly empathised with, communicated and represented.
Above: drawing by Andrea Levy of the writer’s workspace
Two of Andrea’s books: The Long Song and Small Island both available on iplayer, are compelling and wonderful stories documenting the harms of slavery and social injustice and how life enrichment happens between the accepted currency of slavery, oppression and racism. In everything and situation Andrea Levy touches you can see her gift, can see the moment she touches an understanding of a what a first principle might be in a history as contested as a slave narrative.
It’s something that motivates and touches all art: see the author standing slightly away from the action, when she realised at a writing class that she needed to give her mother’s experiences a voice. When she realises that you can see her everywhere, she is healthy and healed by her insight: cheering on all of her characters. Through the journey Levy becomes larger than her own life: the resonance and legacy is astonishing.
After Highbury grammar and Middlesex Poly where she studied art and textiles, Andrea attempted to establish a creative career at the BBC. Although there was some social mobility into the BBC at this time it was mainly reserved for clever, white, grammar (and high school) boys, (like Trevor Dan apprenticing at Radio Nottingham at the same time as Leroy Wallace, (founder of many things in Nottingham and remembered particularly for Ukaidi). Dan was off to Cambridge and a fast track into the BBC. Leroy, equally capable, was seen as a ‘community leader’ with his ‘Back A Yard’ programme on Sunday although highly respected and valued was never treated and propelled forward in the same way by the BBC).
Have a look at the time capsule of what was deemed humour at the time (recently re-released which is apparently to counter ‘political correctness’) The Secret Story of The BBC Christmas Tapes It was supposed to be humour but is really the kind of ‘humour’ that laughs at how the powerful take advantage of the less powerful.
When you think of a culture now where a woman can be murdered so casually, look at the way women were asked to ‘play sexy’ in the BBC tapes by men who should have known better, who should have seen themselves as equals, not their bossy lieutenants, who should have been dismantling the stereotyping and prejudice of the nazi regime and the british empire.
Instead they were playing cloistered games using ‘apparently’ willing women, (who were obviously ‘good sports’) with the BBCs tools and resources.
This was the environment in which if you don’t play you’re a ‘spoilsport’, but the problem is, you’re the prey and need to learn to laugh at your objectification, apparently.
The BBC environment where Andrea was attempting to establish a creative career (finishing work as a costume assistant on a drama about the fascist Unity Mitford, where she was told that actors didn’t want black people dressing them), was and still is part of an apparently casually white male culture, hostile to women and anyone who isn’t white.
The notion of accountability to the people in the UK who paid their wages through the licence and government funding and a developing inclusion and participation in democracy was never integrated into human resources, workplace and production values.
When you think about how slavery, the issues of the holocaust have never been repaired (in the programme, Levy looks at a body ledger from Jamaican planter owner, her great, great grandfather who was compensated by the british for a child he fathered with her great great grandmother who was the slave, Kitty and July her daughter in the novel).
The double naturedness of the BBC as a medium of intelligence, education and social control which was never made accountable to ideas of social equality and the welfare state after the second world war: even though TV in the 1960’s 70’s and 80’s was suddenly ubiquitous, from cradle to grave and in a culture that demanded social progress, movement and employment as a human given.
Mass entertainment at the BBC and at ITV in post war Britain, though, was white, pompous and bland: a ‘light entertainment’ ascendancy in post war Britain that allowed the still not faced issues of the second world war holocaust and racism in Britain to glibly timetable the Black and White Minstrel show as perfect entertainment for the uneducated working classes on Saturday night until 1978, a year after Alex Haley’s Roots (8th April 1977), aired in Britain on BBC 1.