Don't that old minstrel magic make you see red?: The BBC axed its blacked-up song and dance show in 1978. But it is threatening to make a comeback on stage. Giles Smith reports

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Blacked-up minstrels went out when the BBC axed The Black and White Minstrel Show in 1978. Nobody can really believe they are trying to re-emerge. But the evidence is the publicity hand-outs. They feature a silhouetted minstrel on his knees in the spotlight with gloved hands outstretched, Al Jolson-style.

The hand-outs are for John Redgrave's new production, now in rehearsal at a community hall in Clevedon, near Bristol. On the floor, the cast is practising a five-minute tribute to Barry Manilow. And in the back room, Redgrave is at a table taking calls, mostly from the press. What they want to know is, when those dancers skipping around to the strains of 'Copacabana' finally take the stage in Bristol next Tuesday night, will they really be wearing black make-up?

There it is, in black and white, on the leaflets piled on Redgrave's desk: 'Yes, they're back] Those fabulous stars from TV's Black and White Minstrel Show in . . . That Old Minstrel Magic.'

Few would dispute that the minstrel tradition is old. It began in the 1820s as a white caricature of black American singing traditions. But many would argue that there is nothing magic about it. 'Minstrel shows are anachronistic,' says a spokeswoman from the Commission for Racial Equality, 'and many people now find them distasteful.'

It is no consolation to the commission that Redgrave's cast features two black performers, including Veronica Bruno, 22, who says: 'I think everything has been blown out of proportion. The show's not offensive at all.' To which the spokeswoman's reply is: 'No matter how many black people say 'I do not find this offensive', it does not make it less so to those who do object.'

Redgrave, the show's producer, says it was always his intention that the singers should black up. Last summer at Eastbourne he produced a small-scale minstrel show for the holiday-makers, which did brisk business, caused no controversy and convinced him that the market was still out there for a project on a larger scale.

'It was box office that asked for it. So many people said: 'Why can't you bring it back? We miss it.' The man in the street hasn't got any complaint with what we're doing. But nobody wants to offend, and if that's what is happening then we won't use the make-up. That is the case in Bristol. If any theatre has pressure put on them by the race relations board, we won't black up. I believe there's some weird law somewhere that says they can argue that it is racist. We're bowing to that sort of pressure.

'But no one has come down to see the show. It's like the jury pronouncing you guilty before they've heard your case. It's the knocking-the-Golly-off-the-jam- jar business again. How far do you go? Do you then say you can't perform The Mikado because it's guying the Oriental races to paint your eyebrows and colour your skin at all?'

The idea for The Black and White Minstrel Show was lifted from a Fifties radio programme, The Kentucky Minstrels, in which the BBC male voice choir sang Afro-American tunes between guest spots by black entertainers. The show caused no controversy - but then, if the choir was blacking up, no one could see it.

The television version was launched in 1958. Male members of the cast wore black make-up, with eyes and mouths ringed in white. The women (known as 'the Toppers') did not have to black up, but they did have to wear mountains of Crimplene. In a 45-minute show, the cast would find room to sing snippets from up to 50 popular songs. At its peak, this simple format attracted 20 million viewers. The audience had fallen to five million by the time the BBC backed out (although, as one of the cast members points out, that is still more than Eldorado).

It went down well in Europe, too. In 1961 the programme won in all the categories in which it was entered at the Montreux Golden Rose awards, holding off challenges from a US show starring Fred Astaire and Sammy Davis Jnr, and an entry from the Soviet Union featuring the entire Kirov Ballet.

The Black and White Minstrel Show was also the first television programme to transfer successfully to the stage. In 1960 it undertook an experimental season at Scarborough, followed by a short tour, and in 1962 it booked in for an extended session at the Victoria Palace, London. 'This thing could run for years,' said a critic.

It cannot be maintained that the show ever passed off without comment, that it somehow got away scot-free in less enlightened times. Even the short colour annual the BBC published in the early Sixties to celebrate the success of the series felt obliged to mention a core of resistance. In his introduction, Kenneth Adam, the BBC's director of television, wrote that minstrelsy in make-up was 'a perfectly honourable and uncondescending convention. Its revival . . . was no kind of insult to the negro, though some misguided critics tried to make a political issue out of it.'

Aside from the questionable racial messages, what makes the programme unthinkable in today's schedules is that it was a show without stars. Nobody spoke. Only a hardened TV trivia expert will be able to name the singers who formed 'the Three Musketeers', a Minstrel splinter group with their own regular slot in the show. (John Boulter, Tony Mercer and Dai Francis.)

Les Want was a member of the television cast in the Sixties. He says the show's name referred to black and white television sets, rather than skin colour. When Dai Francis left, Want ascended to the show's prime role - he started doing the Al Jolson impression. This is his principal function in the new stage show, too. The notion is that he will sing his numbers while, for dramatic effect, gradually blacking up - although there is now a very real possibility that he will have no make-up to put on. The political objections disappoint him; they ruin his big moment.

To all dissenters, Want is handing out photocopies of a page from the Penguin Encyclopaedia of Popular Music, displaying the entry under 'Minstrelsy'. Want knows many details from it by heart. 'There were black minstrels. The first was called Master Juba. It was a traditional theatre thing, rather than a political thing. I have always felt, when I've sung 'Old Man River' and 'The Battle Hymn of the Republic', that I was singing their cause.'

But the page reveals other facts which he does not quote so readily. 'Minstrelsy became more overtly racist after the Civil War: the image of the 'darky' as a comic buffoon insulated whites from having to deal with the reality of free black Americans . . . Conditions were terrible for black performers . . .'

Oddly, the show has concentrated on being politically correct in another area. The choreographer, Tracy Colier, says she has ensured that the female dancers are active and feisty, rather than passive and simpering, as they tended to be on television. 'We do one 'tits and feathers' number, but the emphasis is away from the television tableau style. I was looking for strong dancers when I auditioned the women. And I'm trying desperately to keep the humour in, because no one ever took the Minstrel Show that seriously.'

Sure enough, during the 'Copacabana' sequence, Colier has a small scenario away from the main action in which one of the women sees off an over-attentive male suitor with a swift kick. No one ever got kneed in the groin on The Black and White Minstrel Show.

But audiences will have to reconcile that essentially modern moment with more traditional features - for instance, the point where the cast comes together and sings: 'Yellow bird, up high in banana tree.'

'People miss the colour and the spectacle and the costumes that go with this,' says Redgrave, without irony. 'You just don't get it these days.'

(Photographs omitted)

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