Saturday, February 9, 2019

The Black and White Minstrels (1958-1978)

The Black And White Minstrel Show nostalgically harked back to the popular music hall minstrel show and was an endless flow of traditional American 'Deep South' and Country songs, usually performed with the men in blackface, and with ladies in lavish costumes. In between sets there were comedians to amuse the audience. The combination between white dancers with black-faced singers was thought by George Inns, the program’s producer, to make visually striking television. (The original Minstrels wore red make-up which made them look black on camera.) In the 19th century minstrel shows were the leading vehicle for popular music in the U.S. The banjo music influenced the development of ragtime, and the clog dancing evolved into tap dance.

Two popular forms of entertainment merged: the popular acts of white actors giving comedic costumed impersonations of black people between acts of plays or during circuses; and black musicians who sang, with banjo accompaniment, in city streets. The minstrel show was born. The "father of American minstrelsy" was Thomas Dartmouth "Daddy" Rice (1808–60), who between 1828 and 1831 developed a song-and-dance routine in which he impersonated an old, crippled black slave, dubbed Jim Crow. This routine achieved immediate popularity, and Rice performed it with great success in the U.S. and Great Britain, where he introduced it in 1836. Soon there were bands of entertainers who eagerly took on the minstrel guise including a group called the Christy Minstrels, headed by the actor Edwin P. Christy (1815–62).

The Christy Minstrels set the pattern for Minstrel stage shows. The entertainers were seated in a semicircle on the stage, with a tambourine player (Mr. Tambo) at one end and a performer on the bone castanets (Mr. Bones) at the other; the singing of songs with harmonized choruses; the exchange of jokes between the end men and the performer in the centre seat (Mr. Interlocutor). To conclude the bill there was always a special variety act. After the Civil War black entertainers (usually in blackface makeup) became more prominent. The most famous of the black minstrel’s composers was James Bland (1854–1911). The "Nigger Minstrel" entertainment tradition was kept alive in the music-halls and vaudeville but its popularity declined after the First World War as audiences craved more up-beat entertainment.

The Black and White Mistrals ran from June 1958 until July 1978 on BBC1 and featured the Mitchell Minstrels with solo performers Tony Mercer, Dai Francis, and John Boulter. Leslie Crowther, George Chisholm, and Stan Stennett provided the humour and glamour and choreography was graciously given by The Television Toppers (formation dancers). The variety show slotted into a regular 45 minute show on Saturday evenings. The variety series could almost always guarantee an audience of at least 16 million, but frequently managed to top 18 million viewers. At a time when the variety show was a popular television genre for the whole family, The Black And White Minstrel Show established itself as one of the world's greatest musical programmes on television. At the time there was no thought given to the impropriety of portraying coloured people.

George Mitchell, (1917- 2002)

He was Scots and came from Stirling and was a lifelong Glasgow Ranger’s supporter George was a pianist before the War and afterwards formed the George Mitchell Choir for BBC radio. After several name changes the ensemble became the George Mitchell Minstrels in 1957.

George Chisholm, (1915-1997)

A trombonist from Glasgow, he was comic genius and used his music to raise a laugh. In his spare time George was a first class jazz trombonist who was well respected as a musician and recorded with the legendary Fats Waller in London in 1938. George had worked with the Goons and enjoyed comedy routines so when he was invited to join the B&W cast in 1961 he jumped at the opportunity.

Margo Henderson (1929 - 2009) and Leslie Crowther (1933-1996)

Margo Henderson was a Scottish comedian and impressionist Leslie Crowther (1933-1996) Leslie Crowther was from England but had been a Bevin boy and was sent to Rothesay in the Firth of Clyde during the war. There the young Crowther stayed with his aunt and socked up the West Coast humour of the Scots which made his a very competent performer.

The Singers

Tony Mercer (bass- baritone)

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Dai Francis (1930 – 2003) (bass-baritone)

He is best remembered for his renditions of Al Jolson. Francis appeared in every Minstrel Show throughout its 21-year television run, and in almost 6,500 performances over 10 years at the Victoria Palace Theatre, for which seven million tickets were sold.

John Boulter (tenor)

Eric Whitley
Eric replaced John Boulter on the 1964 tours of Australia and New Zealand.

The Comedians

The comedians acted as "fillers" between the slick song and dance routines. The list was impressive with Leslie Crowther, George Chisolm, Stan Sennett (Harry Silver Cross Roads), Margo Henderson, Don Maclean (Crackerjack and toured Australia in 1971), Keith Harris (Orville and Cuddles), and Sir Lenny Henry. Sir Lenny later expressed regret in appearing in the show.

Stage Show

Robert Luff's production opened at the Victoria Palace Theatre in 1969 and established itself in The Guinness Book Of Records as the stage show seen by the largest number of people. After leaving the Victoria Palace in 1972, the show toured almost every year to various big city and seaside resort theatres around the UK,. This continued each summer until 1987, when a final tour of three Butlins resorts (Maidenhead, Bognor Regis and Barry Island) saw the last official Black and White Minstrel Show on stage. Touring companies did continue the traditions until 1992 and now there are retro Minstrel style shows packing them in.

B&W Australian Tour
There were two major tours in 1964 and 1969. The BBC show was very popular with Australian audiences.

Culture Sensitivities

Many felt that a large part of "minstrel humour" was based on caricaturing black people and depicting African Americans as both stupid and credulous. This image was felt to be insensitive and inappropriate in an increasingly multi-racial and multi-cultural Britain. Ultimately, its removal from the air coincided with the demise of the popularity of the variety genre on British television. The show was attacked as racist, a "cultural obscenity", by some, from the early 1960s. However the programme was not generally perceived as racist at the time by people outside the United States, and it was sold to many parts of the world, including Australia and many African countries. Under increasing pressure the show tried a 'whiteface' variant in the late 1960s entitled Masquerade and swapping the black faces with masks, with a resulting loss in viewing figures.

(Video Courtesy: wordsmith52 Youtube Channel)

Worth a listen:
Swannee River
Sitting on top of the world

Scot Joplin
The Sting

Al Jolson

The New Christy Minstrels
Four Wheels on my Wagon

Fats Waller
Your feets too big

1 comment:

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