On the Professions/Occupations shelves in the Society’s Library is Black in the British Frame: Black People in British Film and Television 1896-1996 (Cassell, 1998), a book by Stephen Bourne, a writer, film and social historian specialising in black heritage and gay culture. He is perhaps best known among family historians for his work, Black Poppies – Britain’s Black Community and the Great War (The History Press, 2014). His latest work, Deep Are the Roots: Trailblazers Who Changed Black British Theatre will be published by The History Press in October 2021.
Black in the British Frame was written in the late nineties to fill a gap in theatre and performance history. While there were many biographies and histories of Black American performers, there has been little on Black British artistes. Among the many Black British performers, Bourne highlights the work of post-war actors such as Earl Cameron, Thomas Baptiste, Cy Grant, and Errol John.
Earl Cameron CBE (1917-2020), whom Bourne describes as, ”A Class Act throughout the 1950s and 1960s” (page 104), was the first Black actor to take up a starring role in a British film - the Pool of London (Basil Dearden, 1951). He was one of the first black actors of any nationality to take up a starring role in a British film since Paul Robeson, Nina Mae McKinney, and Elisabeth Welch in the 1930s.
Cameron had arrived in Britain from Bermuda in 1939 (page 104). After an early career in theatre, Cameron was cast as a leading role, a merchant sailor named Johnny Lambert, in the Pool of London. The plot focuses on the story of two seamen, just off a ship, who are involved in transmitting a package with the proceeds of a robbery. Alongside this, the film explores racial prejudice against the narrative of the romance between Lambert and a young white woman in post-war London. Lower down the bill were well-known names like James Robertson Justice and Leslie Phillips.
In the crime drama Sapphire (1959), another Rank production, Cameron played the brother of a pale-skinned pregnant girl found shot dead on Hampstead Heath. In the film, the investigating police detectives assume her to be white, until her brother appears and confirms otherwise. Cameron’s character, Dr Robbins, was firmly middle-class, and Sapphire was notable for challenging the racial prejudice with its depiction of middle-class Black communities. The film won the Bafta for best film and had a soundtrack by Johnny Dankworth.
Cameron continued to be celebrated for his pioneering work right up to the end of his life at the age of 102. In 2016, he attended a screening of Sapphire (with Q&A) in Highgate Library, London N19 - located close to Hampstead Heath where much of the film was located.
In his work, Bourne also highlights the gaps in British film and television history regarding Black social history. In 1956, the experiences of people from the Caribbean in post-war Britain was depicted on television in A Man From The Sun. However, Bourne notes, it was only forty years later in 1996, when Channel 4 commissioned a two-part dramatisation of Caryl Phillips’ 1985 novel, The Final Passage, that such depictions were seen again (page 111).
Bourne, Stephen. Black in the British Frame: black people in British film & television 1896-1996 (Cassell, 1998); SoG Library Item ID 132689; Call Number PR/ACT.
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