The Black and White Minstrel Show

The Black and White Minstrel Show

1957 - United Kingdom

A firm Saturday night favourite for many years The Black and White Minstrel Show, a mixture of American deep South music previously popularised by internationally famous vaudeville stars such as the great Al Jolson, and quick fire humour from a host of stand-up comedians first appeared on British television in a one-off special entitled 'The 1957 Television Minstrels.' It was twenty-one years before the BBC decided that white men wearing black greasepaint on their faces with broad white smiles was politically improper and therefore cancelled the series once and for all.

The man behind The Black and White Minstrel Show was George Mitchell, born in Falkirk, Scotland in 1917, the grandson of a well-known choral director. At the outbreak of war he was working as an accountant. While in the services, he formed his first group "The Swing Choir" from A.T.S. and military personnel. This group was soon engaged by the BBC for 'Variety Bandbox.' Other broadcasts followed, but demobilization broke up the group and George returned to accountancy.

In 1948 he was asked to arrange spirituals for the BBC show 'Cabin in the Cotton' -other engagements poured in and George decided to form a large professional choir, 'The Glee Club.' Sections of this choir were heard as many as five times a week in such famous BBC shows as 'Hi Gang', 'Waterlogged Spa', 'Stand Easy' and 'I.T.M.A.' In 1950 he formed the George Mitchell Minstrels and seven years later the producer George Inns devised the format for 'The Black and White Minstrel Show.'

George Inns was born in Hammersmith, London, and from an early age took a keen interest in the theatre. Although his ambition was to become a comedian, George joined the BBC in 1925 as a messenger boy and later became a member of their Dramatic Society. After transferring to the Effects Department at Savoy Hill, he joined Hermoine Gingold in a mother and son act which played in London on the radio. In 1932 he went into television. 

After the war he briefly returned to the radio where he produced shows for Ted Ray, Jimmy Jewel and Ben Warris. He transferred back to television in 1952 and had always wanted to do a 'Minstrel Show' since he worked as assistant to John Sharman and Harry Pepper of the then famous Kentucky Minstrels. His opportunity came in 1957 when he produced the first 'Black and White Minstrel Show' at the Earl's Court Radio Show. The show went from success to success, culminating in The Golden Rose Award for the best television show at the International Festival in Montreux in 1961.

At the height of its success the Black and White Minstrel Show was watched by a (then) record 18 million viewers a week and established itself as one of the world's best known musical/variety shows on television. Among the comics who appeared regularly were Leslie Crowther, Stan Stennett and George Chisholm, but it was three of the singers, Sheffield born Tony Mercer, Gillingham born John Boulter and Swansea born Dai Francis who were the undoubted stars of the show.

Aside from the lead singers the rest of the troupe were made up of the George Mitchell Minstrels and a group of female singers and dancers known as The Television Toppers and Mitchell Maids.

In 1960 the first of many albums of music from the show was released and quickly went on to break sales records. A London stage show at the Victoria Palace ran for ten years and played nearly 6,500 performances. 

In May 1967 the BBC were handed a petition by the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination, signed by black and white people alike, requesting that the show be taken of the air. The BBC, despite both the controversy and publicity surrounding this campaign stood steadfast and continued for another 11 years when the final Black and White Minstrel Show was broadcast in July 1978 

Published on November 30th, 2018. Written by Laurence Marcus (21 April 2003) for Television Heaven.

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