The original BBC show ran every year between 1960 and 1978. A prime-time spectacular based on an obscure tradition of American vaudeville, it featured blacked-up white men with white-ringed eyes, and a white smear across the mouth, like the result of a child's collision with a pot of ice-cream. Rather disturbingly, the make-up precluded any facial expression but a look of perpetual astonishment - especially inappropriate alongside the bland musical fare. As the British television-watching public's attitude to race grew more enlightened, the show became increasingly controversial, and it was finally removed from the schedules on the grounds that 'it might be offensive to ethnic minorities.'
'I've spent hours in TV stations defending the show,' says the director John Redgrave, who was responsible for the Scarborough and Torquay seasons, and who also staged a testing-the-waters Minstrels tour in 1992. During this tour the first half of the show was performed without make-up. Redgrave would then go on stage and ask whether anyone objected to the make-up being put on. 'We didn't get one objection,' he says, which is perhaps not surprising given that the audience had paid to see a minstrel show. Redgrave also points out that there was 'a coloured gentleman' on the 1992 tour. He didn't black up, which left him significantly paler than the other singers. One has the sense that John Redgrave doesn't mind the controversy: 'I'm not sure whether the publicity has done us harm or good.'
This year's show, which was criticised by the chairman of Equity, features such
minstrel classics as 'Camptown Races' and 'John Brown's Body', alongside selections from West End shows and a trot through the music of Barry Manilow. For the finale, 'Mr Minstrel himself' - namely Les Want, a veteran of the television show who first blacked up in 1944 -sang Al Jolson hits.
Want insists that a minstrel show is a tribute to black culture, rather than a satire of it. He points out that the first minstrels - make-up and all - were actually black performers doing comedy musical shows in America's Deep South during the 18th century. They were not allowed to perform before white audiences, and so white performers borrowed - or, if you like, stole - their songs and make-up. During the 19th century, though, black performers began to join the white minstrel troupes. 'So,' says Les Want triumphantly, 'the minstrels were the first people to integrate.'
He would also like it known that the original television show was called 'Black And White' because it was a black-and-white television adaptation of a radio programme; that there is no hand waggling in the current show ('It's not modern'); and that when a black woman came to a show this year, he blew her a kiss. 'She stood up and applauded,' he says, 'and there were tears in her eyes.'
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