Dreaming of a black Christmas Ellen Cranitch on the dawn of a new era for black writers on British television . Perhaps

BBC2's short dramas include black female domination and a man's suicide
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The Independent Culture
This Christmas, at that time of night when viewers habitually become sacrificial victims to the television set, BBC 2 plans to stimulate them into some degree of mental alertness. The channel is launching Siren Spirits, a series of four short dra mas featuring Roshan Seth and Meera Syal, which include an outrageous fantasy of black female domination (featuring an orgasm-inducing African goddess), the suicide of a washed-up businessman, and a dying man's journey through the unfinished business of his past. It's 10pm on Christmas night, and wherever else we are, we're nowhere near Bethlehem.

"Siren Spirits arose out of reading the work of black writers like Toni Morrison and Alice Walker," Ingrid Lewis, one of the series producers, says. "They use magical realism as a tool of empowerment, not as a means of escape. Too often black writers gettrapped in social realism because they're forced to write to other peoples' agendas. The brief for this specified scripts on the theme of the supernatural."

The films, all written and directed by black and Asian women, are set in present day London - yet their imaginative landscapes readily embrace the supernatural and the dead. In Tanika Gupta's Bideshi, Roshan Seth plays Ajoy, dying in hospital after a stroke. In the exhilarating finale, Ajoy's spirit floats freely through suburban streets; he greets the grandson he will never know, then skips off to the other world arm in arm with an enigmatic monk to the strains of "Nellie the Elephant".

Gupta, born in Chiswick to parents from near Calcutta, puts the appeal of magic realism down to earthly influences: "When I was small, my father told me tales from the Mahabharata, and stories about my relations in India. They all had equal status to me,I didn't worry which was fact, fiction, myth. Now these elements readily interweave my work."

Most of the artists straddle at least two cultures. As second and third-generation immigrants, they have a complex perspective on the culture of their ancestors. The director Pratibha Parmar was born in East Africa, has lived in London since the age of 11, and was brought up to think of India as home: "There's a multitude of contrasting resonances there that I can draw on." Her film, Memsahib Rita by Kumari Salgado, follows a sassy East End Asian girl. Pursued by BNP youths, she is watched over by a supernatural mother figure - half Hollywood femme fatale, half Asian movie star. Memsahib Rita juxtaposes Hollywood film noir and technicolour Hindi movies with documentary-style realism. It also offers a memorable performance by Meera Syal as a funky Asianaunt,drooling over Princess Diana on the cover of Hello! magazine while she stirs her dahl. Previously a documentary director, Parma was excited by the brief: "Magical realism ran its full course in the novel, but it hasn't really had a proper life in contemporary British film."

Frances-Anne Solomon, co-founder of Leda Serene, the independent company that has produced the series for the BBC and the BFI, says: "Black women think and dream in a certain way. If you have no voice, if you don't see images around you that reflect yourpast, one of the ways you survive is by making up stories; real feelings are projected into fantastic images."

Siren Spirits will be transmitted over the same period as Channel 4's Black Christmas. So is the situation improving for black writers and directors?

"Siren Spirits is important because of its prime-time scheduling," Pratibha Parma says, "and because of its mainstream spin-off, `Black Screen', a series of full-length films which the BBC is making next year."

But Frances-Anne Solomon believes there's still a long way to go. "In the States, TV is jam-packed with black product. Black artists have more confidence there. But the US film industry is more commercial and competitive and propagates many undesirable black images."

Joan Hooley, who contributes scripts to Desmond's, believes black writers in Britain will remain marginalised until they're encouraged to write about white people as well. This, according to Meera Syal, is the nub of the problem. "People think we want tohave our cake and eat it - tell our own stories and other peoples'. But we're not being greedy. We're not saying we want twice as much. Just that we're duly qualified to do both, that's all."