I did three talks at a peak listening time: 9:15 p.m. on Sundays, after the 9 o'clock news. The talks were based on West Indian history and its effect upon the culture. … Studio 3A Broadcasting House rang with the birth pangs of a new nation. The 9:15 p.m. programmes were important and the whole nation respected them. Here was West Indian history and culture presented so that the scholastic deficiencies of the listeners went unnoticed. Trinidad was almost unknown. Jamaica and Barbados were known simply for Henry Morgan and rum. At that time it was almost theatrical suicide to say an artiste hailed from the West Indies. I was determined to let people know I came from Trinidad.
This book is about a generation. My subjects are artists, a small and scattered collective, but they viewed themselves, and were viewed, as representatives of that generation. These men and women were unique; they came of age as British subjects in the Caribbean colonies, but as adults were domestic citizens of Britain. In both their careers and their creative work, they built bridges, between the so-called “metropole” and colony, certainly, but they also connect two eras that historians like to imagine as discrete: an era of empire, with its associations of British world power and enforced racial order, and a post-imperial era of decline, insularity, and identity crisis symbolized by the political emergence of a “Black Britain” at odds with mainstream (white) society.
That story has a neglected but vital prehistory: in the first two decades after the Second World War's end, an earlier coterie of artists fused a catholic array of concerns in their work, and found an echo in the British cultural establishment. In doing so, they were less symbols of a racial divide or national angst than a driving force behind a postwar cultural revolution.
In 1986, Carolyn Steedman drew a “landscape” for her self-sufficient— and Tory—working-class mother, who was invisible in social histories of postwar Britain and the working class and thus implicitly viewed as an anachronism. In a similar spirit, this story draws a landscape for many of those first-generation Caribbean migrants who optimistically carved out a space of belonging in British culture in the years before the full effects of anti-immigration legislation made themselves felt.
This chapter stands a little apart from those that follow. It provides the historical context for the case studies that comprise the bulk of the study and a narrative of Caribbean migration and settlement in England from the late 1940s to the early 1960s. It provides a sense of how this experience influenced the profiles, professional strategies, and cultural politics of the artists and institutions I examine in subsequent chapters. The description below is not intended to be comprehensive; certainly, it cannot address the myriad individual experiences that make up the collective memory of today's Caribbean-descended Londoners. But it points to some of the attitudes, motivations, and challenges that many émigrés and London settlers shared. It also explores the beliefs and prejudices that informed the official and unofficial reactions of native English people to the arrival of West Indians in this period.
Many of the West Indians who migrated to London between 1945 and the early 1960s came with a feeling of imperial affinity to Great Britain and optimism about their prospects. They were perhaps the last generation of settlers that could be so described—they were certainly the last to migrate before the independence of Jamaica and Trinidad, not to mention numerous African colonies as well. However, their official and popular reception was decidedly ambivalent. Initially, the loudest official claims invested in the phenomenon of Caribbean migration the vibrancy of the new British Empire and Commonwealth, as well as the triumph of British liberalism, especially regarding race. But by the late 1950s, newsreels, parliamentary debate, and many members of the public regarded the arrival of West Indians with foreboding, if not outright opposition. Thus was West Indian optimism gradually—and reluctantly—replaced with disillusionment and alienation. The fortunes of the artists whom I examine in later chapters reflect this shift in attitude, to which the present chapter provides the social and political background.
Conditions of Emigration
Contemporary commentators, and historians, tend to cite the arrival of the Empire Windrush in June 1948, carrying 430 Caribbean migrants, as the definitive “moment” of the birth of a multiracial Britain.
In 1955, Pearl Prescod, an obscure hairdresser and amateur singer, caught the ear of a few influential people in Trinidad. They immediately wrote to the Secretary of the West India Committee in London, hoping to secure her employment so she could pursue a classical music education in England. Not only did the secretary get her a job as a switchboard operator in his own office, but he also arranged for her to audition at the BBC— all on the strength of a personal recommendation. Prescod was from Tobago, considered a rural backwater by many West Indians (and especially Trinidadians), but she procured a string of BBC contracts over the years and went on to a stage career. The BBC's reach, it seemed, extended to every nook and cranny of the empire.
As the most extensive and influential purveyor of British culture, the British Broadcasting Corporation attracted a steady stream of artists and entertainers arriving from the West Indies after 1945. In fact, the BBC was often their first stop in London for several reasons, not least of which was its international renown, based on its commitment to educating, informing, and uplifting listeners, and later viewers, throughout the Queen's realm. In the context of the Second World War, it forged a common culture to bind the empire together in the face of foreign aggression. As one Jamaican settler remembered:
even up to people like my grandmother who would listen to the radio at six o'clock every evening in the West Indies, World Service, and whatever was said there had to be gospel, you know. You couldn't argue that with everybody, couldn't say, “Well, that was wrong.” It was said by the BBC and it was from England, therefore it was right and you had to agree to it and support it.
Despite these connections, however, relations between West Indian artists and the Corporation were not always smooth. Artists found themselves circumscribed by producers who had a narrow conception of their role on domestic BBC broadcasts. As a result, their efforts to break out of the BBC's mold consisted of alternative and increasingly politicized articulations of what it meant to be both West Indian and British.
The foregoing history, though selective, gives a sense of the priorities of, and challenges facing, the first postwar generation of Caribbean artists in London. They all worked diligently to negotiate a meaningful place for themselves within the British cultural sphere—one that was commercially viable and that justified and naturalized the West Indian and colonial presence in Britain. The collective result was the formulation of a distinctive cultural politics shaped by, among other things, colonial independence, West Indian federation, mainstream success and struggle in London, white racism, and the cultural similarities between Great Britain and her imperial margins. By injecting this cultural politics into British television, radio, music, art, and drama (as well as literature), West Indian settler-artists redefined so-called “white” British culture after 1945, both progressive and mainstream.
Their historical obscurity, then, is partly a comment on the preoccupations— and blind spots—of both general accounts of postwar British culture and more specialized analyses of black British art. In the former, black artists appear in the nation's culture as destabilizing agents signifying the break-up of cultural consensus. The latter, until recently, have tended to begin their histories after the early postwar era. Further, these theory-rich and deeply political studies employ fundamentally conflictual frameworks that are perhaps not well-suited to the professional and artistic choices made by the subjects of this book.
This is because the careers of Ronald Moody, the Reckords, the Connors, Earl Cameron—and many other musicians, artists, writers, and actors who migrated from the Caribbean to London at this time—demonstrate the continued domestic currency of the British Empire well into the 1960s. Moreover, they demonstrate that imperial ties could be an integrative force; that, even after decolonization, the memory of the imperial past, combined with present-day collaboration and education, could render British culture both united and multicultural at the same time. They did not invent these ties or connections, but their work made them visible to British audiences.
In order to gain a professional foothold in London, these individuals exploited the intersections between their own skills and the preferences of native British audiences and institutions.
Writing a story of postwar British culture that takes better account of the contributions of West Indian and other New Commonwealth settlers involves throwing light upon people, productions, and communities that have been invisible historically: the theater groups and underground plays, for example, that were independent from the mainstream. Some artists were successful enough to operate to some extent within the mainstream, however, with theaters and producers that targeted a broader audience, especially in the 1950s and early 1960s. The next two chapters, then, are about West Indian writers and actors who constituted the roots of the West Indian artistic community in postwar Britain. But they are also about the British producers they worked with and the productions that they collaborated to create. History has tended to define the British cultural canon in one way, while positioning black British culture as a counterpoint or (at worst) an alien interloper. The stories that follow showcase a more organic meshing of so-called “white” and West Indian cultural priorities in postwar London.
The day after the ITV drama Hot Summer Night first aired on British television, in 1960, Jamaican Lloyd Reckord thought his acting career was made. His name was in the newspapers, all because of one provocative scene in the previous evening's dramatic teleplay—Britain's first onscreen interracial kiss, with actress Andrée Melly:
The first time a black man is on the white stage and he kisses a white girl and there were big pictures and there were bloody newspapers all over the place and I thought, God, I'm made! You know, the next thing is Hollywood, that sort of bull. Several leading roles on television happened after this, but, they were more or less the same part. You know, where I was always in love with this white girl, I was either beaten up or kicked or embraced by the father or the mother. But it didn't matter, it was the same part.
Upon breaking into the world of mainstream British drama, Reckord discovered the boundaries of that world for West Indian (and other black) actors, not to mention writers and directors.
In 1982, when Ronald Clive Moody was seventy-two and in the last years of his life, he received a letter from a young student working on a personal study project for her A-levels. Her chosen subject was black artists in Britain, and she wrote to ask Moody for information about his life and work. In his response he immediately stated, “First I would like to be the artist first and then, what colour you prefer, if I am any use to you in your A level.” Too few critics of Moody's work have heeded his request.
This chapter examines Moody's art and career from his own perspective, as reflected in his art, radio scripts, lectures, drawings, literature, interviews, and personal correspondence. This perspective, like that of all artists, was “informed by education, class, regional custom and the pressure of friends” as well as “unstated physical, economic, political and moral constraints.” It therefore changed over time.
One must also consider the perspectives of those who have assessed and presented Moody's work to the public: galleries and curators, art critics and the media, as well as academic scholars. No less than Moody, these institutions and individuals were (and continue to be) informed by custom, economy, politics, and are therefore changeable too.
The story below, then, runs along two tracks that run parallel, intersect, and diverge as they chart Moody's career and legacy. Such intersections and divergences are historically vital to any assessment of the sculptor's significance to British culture as both a colonial and a British artist. I argue here that while art critics, institutions, and historians have, on account of his race and colonial status, positioned Moody variously as a representative of “primitive,” Caribbean, and Negro (later Black or Black British) art, these labels do not reflect the totality of Moody's history and artistic evolution. In fact, a closer evaluation of his experiences in Jamaica, England, and France, his grappling with the politics of race and colonialism, even his aesthetic inspirations, highlights the extent to which he was a product of, and contributor to, British and European artistic traditions since the 1930s.
Within the history of black Britain, the 1948 Pathé newsreel of calypsonian Lord Kitchener about to disembark in Tilbury from the Windrush is emblematic of the excitement and optimism of the postwar generation of West Indian migrants to Britain. He shyly serenades the reporter with a calypso he composed during the voyage, “London is the Place for Me.” The clip is now famous. And while Kitchener's appearance now stands as a symbol of New Commonwealth migration, it also announced calypso's relevance in the culture of postwar London. Like the West Indian settlers who settled into the moods and patterns of London life, the calypso creatively adapted itself to new surroundings without sacrificing its essence or social function.
This chapter evaluates those calypsos that were originally recorded and performed in Britain by Lord Beginner, Lord Kitchener, Lord Invader, and others. It argues that these artists used their craft to articulate a generous late-imperial vision of national belonging in the 1950s. This vision encompassed their new English audience as well as recent settlers from the West Indies who represented both the New Commonwealth and a newly self-conscious multiracial Britain. Their calypsos, written and performed in an urban English context, were light-hearted and upbeat, but collectively they presented an imperially conscious perspective on British society and identity. Their lyrics referred sympathetically to the cultural and historical ties between Britain and the West Indies—public virtues like loyalty to the Crown, fair play, and adherence to British social rules and codes; the empire as a natural component of greater Britain; and the idiosyncratic experience of living in London, which native Britons and West Indian settlers had in common. These components made up a flexible but sturdy conception of what it meant to be British in the 1950s, a conception that, significantly, depended neither on race, ethnicity, nor birth in the British Isles. From the musical repertoire emerges a vision of Britain that is multicultural, cosmopolitan, and honestly in touch with its own history. Most strikingly, these calypsos posit, sometimes even assume, the existence of a British community that is optimistic and proactive about facing contemporary social changes—including, but not limited to, the influx of Britons from the Commonwealth.
This chapter's subject is Jamaican playwright Barry Reckord. Despite their current obscurity in the historical canon, Reckord's plays deserve visibility within the history of postwar British theater for at least two reasons. First, they mark one early postwar instance of a fruitful, creative relationship between a West Indian artist settled in London and an influential British cultural institution. Reckord's plays are best evaluated not simply as “West Indian” drama, but as a part of the Royal Court's tradition of socially aware alternative theater. Reckord's desire to create drama that tackled the thorny issues of colonialism, race identity, and repression dovetailed with the Royal Court's own mandate to produce fresh, topical, and challenging British plays. This shared mandate allowed Reckord to create a complex picture of West Indian migration and race prejudice that took into account the effects of British imperialism, social conditions, and especially class identity. It also allowed him to position the issue of migration and racism not as a special, foreign “problem,” but as just one element in a matrix of domestic British ills.
Secondly, Reckord's work engaged with, and contested, two of the era's defining dramatic themes and narratives: the dominant “race relations” narrative of racial transgression and domestic neurosis, discussed in the previous chapter on postwar film; and what was perhaps the Royal Court's most cherished subject and aesthetic, working-class social realism or the “kitchen sink” drama. Both of these themes were, in large part, the creations of white, British-born writers and producers. Reckord used his own distinctive perspective not to reject them as a framework for his plays, but to reshape them. In the process, he expanded the scope, texture, and subtlety of the Royal Court's oeuvre. Reckord's plays in this sense encourage a re-evaluation of the postwar British theater story. It was, to be sure, a story about representing new class identities and engaging frankly with the dilemmas of postwar society, but Reckord's plays show that London's West Indian settlers and, indeed, the West Indies themselves, were active shapers of that story as well. In other words, Reckord understood that questions of class were also questions of race.
It is fitting that one of the first, and most comprehensive, overviews of the cultural history of Montmartre should be the special number of Le Crapouillot which appeared in 1959. Not only did it bring together some of the veterans of Montmartre culture from the Belle Epoque and the interwar years – not least its editor and founder, Jean Galtier-Boissière, who had been a frequent visitor to the bals at the Moulin de la Galette before the First World War – but it embodied that spirit of Montmartre non-conformism, which was one of its defining characteristics. At the same time, its appearance in 1959, in the transition between the Fourth and Fifth Republic. constitutes what may be considered a final chronological frontier in the district's history as a cultural centre, which had been in apparently irreversible decline since the Liberation.
This erosion was due to a number of factors: shifting patterns of cultural activity which benefited other areas, just as Montmartre in the 1880s had profited from transfers from the Latin Quarter; legislative changes, most notably the Loi Marthe Richard of 1947 closing the brothels – Louis Chevalier notes wryly that the 106 on the Boulevard de la Chapelle was turned into a Salvation Army hostel; transformations in the city's economic, demographic and urban profile, culminating in the creeping gentrification of all the arrondissements in the 1980s and following increased availability of home loans; and, finally, technical innovations which, like television, altered public taste in entertainment, and affected the closeness and sociability of intellectual and cultural groupings while tending to fragment them physically. While the Latin Quarter and the Left Bank may have shown more durability as centres of intellectual activity, due to the presence of the university and the publishing industry, they were no more immune to technological and sociological advances than Montmartre. Herbert R. Lottman concludes his study of the Rive Gauche by attributing the decline of the district as a cohesive intellectual centre in the 1960s to elements, like the proliferation of the telephone, banal in themselves, which rendered face-to-face encounters redundant, a process clearly continued by the rise of information technology.
The response of the inhabitants of the Butte to the dual threat posed by modernisation and tourism was typically ambiguous, involving an apparently robust assertion of isolation combined with an astute commercial sense. In a tradition going back to Salis and his election campaigns, it took the form of spoof political entities: the ‘Commune Libre de Montmartre’ and the ‘République de Montmartre’, which both combined a serious purpose with fumisme. At the same time, it betrayed an acute wariness of the post-war world, which translated into both a retreat into nostalgia and a continued technical innovation most clearly represented by a flowering of caricature and illustration.
The Commune Libre and the République
The Commune Libre de Montmartre was founded on 11 April 1920 by Jules Depaquit, Maurice Hallé and Roger Toziny. Its first elections, held the same year, involved three competing lists: the Liste antigrattecieliste (‘anti-skyscrapers’), led by Depaquit himself; the Liste sauvagiste, whose manifesto included a proposal for ‘the transformation of the Sacré-Coeur into a municipal swimming pool’; and, significantly, a Liste dadaïste. Depaquit won and was elected maire, Hallé and Toziny serving as his two adjoints. To be sure, as Georges Charensol reminds us, these activities were by no means commercially disinterested: describing the municipality's conception, he comments: ‘Some amiable drunkards and clever café proprietors had the idea of making Montmartre into a Commune Libre’, and the Commune Libre certainly bore witness to a continuation of traditional Montmartre cabaret activity. Paul Yaki is right to characterise it as a ‘joke municipality’ and, indeed, much of its activity took the form of elaborate practical jokes and bogus organisations, like the Alpinistes de la Butte, which go back to a tradition of Montmartre humour of the Belle Epoque. In fact, the Commune's founders come precisely from the tradition of the Montmartre cabarets. Toziny, who came to Montmartre in 1903 as a singer and songwriter, founded the journal La Vache enragée in 1917 with Maurice Hallé, Bernard Lecache and Jack Mercereau, and opened the cabaret of the same name in 1920. Moreover, he was clearly heavily influenced by Willette, often performing dressed as Pierrot and writing Pierrot poems, such as ‘Pierrot pleure’ (1918).
If the cabaret culture of the 1880s, following the line of the old Mur des Fermiers Généraux along the border between the ninth and eighteenth arrondisssements, pointed towards the development of Belle Epoque Montmartre as the pre-eminent locus of the capital's popular entertainment industry, with its dancing, music halls, circus, ballet and, later, cinema, it was also the origin of an equally significant innovation in legitimate theatre, which would shape French theatrical practice throughout the twentieth century. Already, as Lucien Farnoux-Reynaud reminds us, the same forces which encouraged dance halls and taverns to proliferate along the lines of the chemins de ronde also led to the establishment at the beginning of the nineteenth century of the théâtres de la barrière which avoided the Napoleonic regime's restrictions in force within the city and which, by the birth of the Third Republic, had established an embryonic theatrical culture in Montmartre. In addition to this, the cabarets, as we have seen, pioneered a new form of entertainment which combined the popular with the intellectual and privileged the performance of the spoken word through dramatic monologues, often cultivating a refined and sophisticated sense of the absurd. At the same time, Henri Rivière's shadow plays for Le Chat Noir combined with a contemporary vogue for puppet theatre to create what was simultaneously a new, protocinematographic, and a primitive, age-old theatrical experience, which would have connections with non-European drama and some of the Cubists’ interests in masks. In addition, the natural symbiosis between cabaret performance and other forms of expression – in particular the publications and comic journals which accompanied them and which gave work to illustrators, artists and writers – was naturally extendable in the field of legitimate theatre through set design, scenery decoration, posters and the production of printed programmes which would be illustrated by some of the major artists of the period. In short, the development of theatre in Montmartre, like that of cabaret and popular entertainment, followed Salis's injunction to be ‘modern’.
Essentially, the history of Montmartre theatre in the Belle Epoque is confined, like that of the cabarets and music halls, to the ninth arrondissement and the southern fringes of the eighteenth, and centres on the role of three innovative theatre directors – André Antoine, Aurélien Lugné-Poe and Charles Dullin.
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