TELEVISION / Nothing to declare

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The Independent Culture
FOR LENNY Henry, in 1984 at least, a customs hall was an arena for human comedy. One of the monologues in The Lenny Henry Show (BBC 2), re-run as part of the Black and White in Colour series, dealt with the experience of a black man returning from a holiday tanned several shades darker. 'When you're black like that you're a warrior', said Lenny gleefully, suggesting that a fierce outburst of African-sounding gabble would have the customs officers recoiling in terrorised respect. The studio audience roared but, watching it now, it struck you that it would be hard to come up with a more painful misrepresentation of most black people's experience of entering the country.

Was this wishful thinking or just a weird misapplication of the stand-up comedians' conventional appeal to shared experience? Elsewhere in the show the fact that Henry was the first black comic to get his own television series in this country was studiously ignored - despite the gritty urban nature of the backdrop, a wall of flyposters and graffiti, there was little about the material that would have been new to most viewers, white or black. The comedy made a steady, surreptitious plea for inclusion, with jokes about the territorial ambitions of German sunbathers and the comical incoherence of Japanese tourists both playing to well-tested prejudices and implying that a sense of racial difference was confined to other nationalities. Elsewhere it was explicit: 'We're really wimpy, aren't we' said Lenny, talking about the English on holiday and taking for granted the audience's acceptance of the melting-pot pronoun. This insouciance might be read as hopeful, or brave, or even radical but the customs gag suggested an element of desperation there too.

For Fred D'Aguiar, in 1992, the processes of arrival are seen in a starker light, not as the raw material for a comedy of common experience, but as an ordeal which becomes more difficult in direct ratio to your skin colour. In 'Sweet Thames', his contribution to the Words On Film series (BBC 2) he travelled down river looking for echoes of black experience, from the residues of the slave-trade to the disembarkation of the first immigrants, 'skanking up the incline of this gangplank'. He found a stream of metaphors, from the Thames Barrier (which brought to mind anti-immigrationist rhetoric about 'stemming the tide' and threatening 'floods') to the Tate and Lyle refinery, with its processes of 'decolourisation' and purification. These led into a more specific case, that of a Mauritian couple's subjection to the indifferent bureacracy of immigration.

The film was strikingly directed by Mark Harrison, who blended poignant archive film of the first immigrants with beautiful images of the river now; these gave D'Aguiar's words a vivid life but also helped to conceal the fact that it wasn't always very clear just what he was trying to say with them. It may be this collaboration of poet and film-maker is a bad way of making poetry and a good way of making films. What's certainly clear is that on one viewing you couldn't say whether D'Aguiar had wrought his lines into a seamanlike knot or just an intriguing tangle.