TV’s Black British Pioneers

{From the BBC 4 programme 13 April 2010}

© 2010 Denise Anthea


When our parents and grandparents came over to the Mother Country back in the early to mid 1950’s from the West Indies, despite the careers and jobs they had back home, once here the only option was to work in menial roles.  The qualifications they had worked so hard for had no meaning once they were in England as they were to find out.  For some of them, this wouldn’t do.  They wanted the chance to express themselves creatively and so looked for roles in theatre and TV.

Here is an overview of the artistes that were mentioned in this all too brief but enlightening documentary.

Pearl & Edric Connor

Pearl Cynthia Nunez, theatrical and literary agent, actress and publisher: was born in Diego Martin, Trinidad 13 May 1924; she married Edric Connor in 1948 (died 1968; one son, one daughter), 1971 Joseph Mogotsi; died Johannesburg 11 February 2005.

Pearl Connor was instrumental in setting up the Negro Theatre Workshop in Britain in the early 1960’s and began law studies at London University.  She gave these up in order to assist in the management of her husband’s career. From 1956 until 1976, she ran the Edric Connor Agency, which later became known as the Afro Asian Caribbean Agency. “I had to become knowledgeable about a wide range of cultural experiences, not just Caribbean,” she said.

In London, in 1948, Pearl Nunez married the popular Trinidadian folk singer and actor Edric Connor. He was looked upon as a father figure in Britain’s post-war black community, and when performing artists came to Britain from Africa, Malaysia, India and the Caribbean, they would go straight to the London home of the Connor family.

They gave people like Floella Benjamin, Joan Armatrading and Patti Boulaye their first chances.

Pearl received the National Black Women’s Achievement Award in Britain in 1992.

George Harris – Actor

Born in Grenada George Harris came over to England when still a teenager.  He is an actor of film, stage, television and musical theatre.  He played Britain’s first-ever black TV detective in the ITV Mini series Wolcott in 1981 and was hailed as Britain’s answer to Sidney Poitier.  His name in the series was Winston Churchill Wolcott.  This was the first time black British people had been portrayed as middle-class.  Something rarely seen on TV and has yet to be seen in British cinema.

His other roles include Kingsley Shacklebolt in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Captain Simon Katanga in Raiders of the Lost Ark and real-life Somali warlord Osman Ali Atto in the 2001 film Black Hawk Down.

He has been acknowledged by the BBC Black Legends to be one of the inspirations for many present day performers.

Joan Hooley – Actress

Born in Jamaica in the late 1930’s Joan Hooley came from a middle class background.  She decided early on that she wanted to do something more than just work in hospitals and became an actress.  Her earliest credited role was in Emergency Ward 10 (1964) where she played Dr Louise Mahler.  Her character became involved with a white doctor and they had the first interracial on-screen kiss.  As a consequence of the upset it caused at the time, producers did not know where her character went from there and she was axed from the series.

Her last main role was as Josie McFarlane in Eastenders (1998 – 2000).  Disheartened with the weak storyline Joan Hooley would write scripts for her character which she took to the producers only to have them rejected.  In the end she left the show, fed up with the way her character was portrayed.  She is also and writer and wrote for the series Desmonds.

Earl Cameron – Actor

Born in Bermuda in 1917 at the beginning of World War II in 1939, Cameron moved to England where he worked at kitchen jobs and on merchant navy ships.  After falling ill with Pneumonia, he wanted to return to Bermuda but unable to do so arrived in England where he saw London West-End musical Chu Chin Chow, in which six black men played slaves. He asked if he could join them and went on to perform in theatre.

A highly respected actor of stage, film, radio, and television, Earl Cameron was the only well-known black British actor for most of the 1950s and 1960s during which time he was often heard and seen on the British Broadcasting Company’s (BBC’s) radio and television stations. He is best-known for his roles in Danger Man, Dr. Who, and The Prisoner, British television series that all became cult classics.  He also played a Bermudan police officer who assists James Bond in the 1965 film Thunderball.

Throughout his career Cameron insisted on portraying intelligent and dignified characters. If he was offered a script that he felt was insulting to blacks, he either refused the role or asked for script changes. Cameron, a member of the Bahá’í faith since 1963, has been a consistent advocate for better stories and roles for black actors.

Cy Grant – Singer, actor and broadcaster.

Cy Grant was born in Beterverwagting, a village in British Guiana (now Guyana), after the end of the First World War.  His mother was a talented pianist and he grew up surrounded by music, playing the guitar and singing folk songs.  He excelled at school and was keen to study law, but his parents lacked the funds.

Grant, was the first black person to appear regularly on British television; during the war he was also one of the few West Indian volunteers to be commissioned in the RAF and spent two years as a German prisoner-of-war.

Although he qualified as a barrister in 1950, he struggled to get work.  In his own words, “this was Britain in peacetime and I was no longer useful”.  He became a recognisable voice on radio, singing folk songs, and recorded several albums.  He also hosted his own TV series, For Members Only, and successfully auditioned for Laurence Olivier and had stage appearances for Olivier’s Festival of Britain Company in London and New York.  In 1973 he founded Drum Arts Centre, in London, with the Zimbabwean actor, John Mapondera and others.  Cy Grant died on 13 February 2010 aged 90.

Mona Hammond OBE – Actress

Mona Hammond was born Mavis Chin to a Chinese father and Jamaican mother in Jamaica in 1931.  She came to Britain in 1959 on a scholarship to work with an architects firm but was soon involved in black theatre productions with contemporaries such as Lloyd and Barry Reckord and Charles Hyatt, under the name Mona Chin.  In 1959 she won a scholarship to RADA.  Initially known as a stage actress – she played Lady Macbeth in an all-black version of the Shakespeare play at London’s Roundhouse in 1970 – she went to co-find the Talawa Theatre Group with fellow actresses Yvonne Brewster and Carmen Munroe.  The group performs black versions of plays written for whites as well as staging original Afro-Caribbean productions.  In 2005 she was awarded an O.B.E. for services to drama.  Having played in the TV soap ‘Eastenders’ for some years she has a recurring occasional role as a white vicar’s outspoken ex-mother-in-law in radio soap ‘The Archers.’

Rudolph Walker OBE – Actor

Rudolph Walker broke many barriers as a performer, working extensively in theatre and becoming the first black person to star in a major television series. Walker, who arrived in Britain in 1960, established himself as a performer by working in repertory theatres across the country in the 1960s including the Mermaid Theatre, Nottingham Playhouse and the Malvern Theatre.

He got his big break in 1972 when he was cast as the main character in the television series, Love Thy Neighbour.  Although the show was considered controversial for its use of racist language, it was a popular series that was unprecedented on television at the time. As Rudolph Walker said of the show, his character “gave as good as he got” which was a first for programmes at that time featuring black people.

Walker continued to work in theatre, performing at the Tricycle, the Lyric Hammersmith, the Royal Court and the Young Vic.  He also appears regularly on the BBC television soap opera, Eastenders.  He was awarded the OBE in February 2006.

For more information about TV’s Black British Pioneers, check out this book: Black and White in Colour: Black People in British Television Since 1936 by Jim Pines.


*All rights reserved.  No part of this story may be reproduced in any form or by any means without prior written permission of the writer Denise Anthea.*


Give thanks to Denise Anthea for producing this informative article.

NORMSKI’S ARTICLE returns in the next issue.

Til next month – Everyting Bless

One Response to “FEATURED ARTICLE”

  1. Sophia Simmonds Says:

    This is a really good article, well done for bigging up the pioneers.
    Nothing has changed really though, has it? Although there are more black people on television, they are always portrayed coming from disfunctional families, for example: strong mother, but the father is a drug dealer, gangster or an alcoholic; or there is a regular black character in a series, but no one sees their family, it’s like they exist but they don’t have any back story or history to them. Where are the positive black roles in British Television? It’s like black people in Britain are invisible or don’t have a soul. Loving the newsletter, keep up the strong positive vibes – God knows in this time we black people need it.

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