Back in the era of three-channel telly two actors seemed ubiquitous—Warren Mitchell and Saeed Jaffrey.
Mitchell took on the role of aging East End racist Alf Garnett in 1965 in the comedy Till Death Us Do Part.
He quickly became synonymous with the character and to the end of his career few could see him as anyone else.
For more than a decade, some 20 million people would watch him every week. Many would rehearse his most memorable bigoted tirades until the next episode.
Alf’s character helped ram home the idea that racism was the preserve of the labouring classes, despite the writers’ intentions being far more complex.
Jaffrey was universal for very different reasons. He was one of a very small number of Asian actors trusted to be seen on British TV and film.
With his refined etiquette, good looks and faultless upper class British accent, Jaffrey was cast almost everywhere a brown-skinned actor was required.
There he is in Gandhi. Not the lead mind—that part was reserved for a white guy. And there he is in Jewel in the Crown, the Far Pavilions and A Passage to India.
You can’t help but think he was having a laugh when he decided to play all 86 characters in BBC Radio’s adaption of Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy.
One reason for Jaffrey appearing everywhere was that there were few, if any, Asian screen characters in the mainstream. Casting agents simply didn’t have them on their books.
That in turn had an effect on how Asians in British society were seen—or unseen. That person you worked with? Invisible. Your Asian school mate? Absent.
And, for a whole generation of us growing up Asian in Britain, it meant there were few role models that we could identify with.
How things have changed. So widespread is the view that the 1970s in particular were a terrible time for race relations and television, TV bosses are now paying screen reparations.
They seem determined to pack as many of us into their programmes as possible.
Nowadays, you can barely turn on your set without seeing Asian sitcom characters and even whole sitcoms devoted to Asian families.
Though how many of us see anything of our lives in those characters is debatable.
There is also an attempt to retrospectively introduce people of colour into all sorts of narratives where they don’t fit.
Even the recent BBC series, Lenny Henry’s excellent Danny and the Human Zoo, tends to depict race relations in a very binary way.
Racists are easily identifiable—skin-headed thugs or bigoted concert hall managers.
But Danny’s friends are above race. There are no grey areas. No one says to Danny, “I don’t like blacks, but you’re alright.”
That’s the sort of comment that anyone my generation would know and hate.
Perhaps in TV we will only be free of the race relations of the past when a new multiracial generation of writers and actors emerges.
They will have never heard of Alf Garnett when they get their chance to shape the future.