Television: The Notting Hill half-century

On Carnival weekend, Paul Barker considers the impact of the BBC's Windrush season
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This weekend's Notting Hill Carnival is a celebration, but what kind? You could argue that it is a wake. As the concluding programme in BBC2's admirable Windrush documentary series pointed out, more white people now come to the carnival than black. And as it did not point out, the West Indian community in Britain is in decline. It is slowly but, it seems, surely disappearing.

Trevor Phillips's BBC2 four-parter, and a cluster of associated programmes, marked the 50th anniversary of the arrival of the Empire Windrush in 1948, bringing the first post-war West Indian immigrants to Britain. They came, particularly, to London. Of those who told the last census they were "Black Caribbean", 58 per cent lived in Greater London.

With his novelist brother Mike, Trevor Phillips has compiled a tie-in book (Windrush, HarperCollins pounds 16.99), informatively packed with transcripts of interviews. But it is subtitled "The irresistible rise of multiracial Britain." More accurate to speak of the irresistible rise of multiracial London. A quarter of the population of the capital now comes from various ethnic minorities. Britain, as a whole, remains stubbornly 95 per cent white.

The opening music for each of the four Windrush programmes was Parry's patriotic setting of "Jerusalem", and the Second World War was shown here as one of the two important spurs for West Indian immigration. The RAF, the most meritocratic armed service, recruited volunteers from the islands. The former Flight-Lieutenant Dudley Thompson told the interviewers: "We did our bit. We fought like men." Ex-service people who went back to Jamaica took with them stories of England. It seemed like the Promised Land. The Empire Windrush, diverted to Kingston from its usual Mexico run, easily filled its 417 places for the journey to Tilbury, at a special discount rate.

The other spur, in an island stricken by hurricanes, was a new American immigration law. It put fierce limits on arrivals from the West Indies. Till then (as with the parents of both General Colin Powell and the Black Power activist, Malcolm X), the United States had been the obvious escape route.

But now it was England. Taking the train in to London, Vince Reid, the youngest passenger on the boat at 13, was astonished to see white men driving trains and, even more amazingly, portering passengers' luggage. The early segments of the series were the most powerful, because they showed, through recollections and archive footage, a world now unknown: a closed, inward-looking London, inhabited by people who felt they had won the war but lost the peace. Dirt and squalor was everywhere and, for many newcomers, a dirty and squalid welcome. Every picture told a story. Even the way the West Indians wore their snappy trilbies and their bright ties was (in the 1940s) unbelievably un-English.

Johnny Edgecombe was the most aimiable of villains - at least, by the time he appeared for the BBC2 interview. In the early 1960s, he precipitated the Profumo crisis (and brought the Macmillan government to its knees), when he fired a gun at Christine Keeler, the lover that he, the War Minister and a Soviet diplomat shared. Edgecombe was sentenced to seven years' jail. But he says, with cheerful unrepentance : "We brought music, we brought colour, we brought dope, we brought life."

Sexual competition helped ignite the riots of 1958 in Notting Hill. In vivid footage, you saw streets where, 40 years on, the cream of New Labour serve River Cafe Cookbook recipes to their friends, but which were then filled with black-white running battles, against a backdrop of crumbling stucco and sooty net curtains. As Notting Hill was gentrified, property became dearer. Many black families moved out. The carnival neighbourhood is still very cosmopolitan, but not all that black.

Maxine Watson's separate documentary, Love in Black and White, was marred sometimes by the kind of mawkishness I associate with Desmond Wilcox. But it was a moving account of the difficulties the first women suffered when they married across the colour line. (The men were better at repressing any recognition of the hostility.) Questions from other women : "Is he black all over?" Snideness behind your back: "She's black during the day, and white at night." One of the worst burdens was loneliness. Families withdrew into themselves. It was a story of braveness and pain. In some places, all this continues. One little girl in far Stornoway is the daughter of a white Scottish single mother and a black father she never sees. She told an overinquisitive interviewer, politely but firmly, that the names she was sometimes called were too bad to repeat.

A disproportionate number of children in care have a "mixed-race" background. (In literature, the first was probably Heathcliff, gathered up from the back streets of Liverpool into the care of Mr Earnshaw.) They have often been rejected by one side of the family, or both. Thankfully, this is not how it mostly is. Ignoring taunts, and the prophesies of Enoch Powell, people have acted as individuals. Today, 40 per cent of young West Indian men have white partners. (Among young women, it is 20 per cent.) This is one big reason why the community, closely defined, is shrinking. Another reason is the re-opening of the United States border. Few West Indians now come to a Britain, where they have been overtaken, in both numbers and general prosperity, by later Indian migrants. (Rather than race, this raises questions of class, not mentioned in any of these programmes.)

As it came nearer the present, Trevor Phillips's series often filled the screen with riots, political protest and much anger. But Diane Abbott, one of the first black MPs, candidly noted that this often brought little benefit to the people at the sharp end. It may even have deepened outsiders' prejudice that they were troublemakers. The high rate of "marrying out" may be partly a way of distancing oneself from this stereotype. The children of these marriages can have identity burdens of their own. But the grandchildren - one of whom cheerfully described herself as "quarter-caste" - are about as English as they come.

In documentary-making, God is in the detail. A delightful series of short films called A Little Piece of Home chronicled the things that tied families back to the West Indies. For consolation, the family Bible. (Trevor Phillips seemed to me to underplay the power of religion, rather than politics, in West Indian life.) For cooking, the "Dutch pot" - a kind of wok with a lid. For hair-straightening, the handed-down "hot comb".

Hair is a powerful cultural, and sexual, symbol. Conversations kept coming back to it in these films. West Indians are becoming more English. Some of the English are becoming more West Indian. The half-century since that fateful landing has, in the long run, reflected credit on both sides. If the Carnival is a wake, it is one where everyone can have a good time.

Paul Barker is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Community Studies.