The Evolution of Black British TV: Past, Present and Future

About 5 years ago, if someone were to ask me ‘what are the first few things that come to mind when you think of Black British TV?’ I probably would’ve said something like narratives perpetuating ‘crime, drugs and gangs’ without hesitation. However, fast-forward to today and I think my answer would be quite different.

When I refer to Black British TV I’m talking about shows/series’ that feature a predominantly Black British cast and growing up as a Black Brit, specifically in the early-mid noughties, I think it’s fair to say that we weren’t typically represented often (or well) on TV. Yes, we may have had the odd black person strategically placed here and there within an (almost) all white cast, but they were usually playing a crime suspect, the naughty school kid or the victim of hate crime in a ‘true story’ for a singular episode before being sent on their merry way.

Now, I am in no way discounting the fact that we had amazing shows like Desmonds and The Fosters where an up-and-coming Lenny Henry made his mark, but those were well before my TV viewing days and when I say Black British TV I’m speaking about a slightly older demographic than what UGetMe and Kerching! would appeal to.

To be honest, a lot of my ‘black people on TV’ memories came from binge-watching the likes of That’s So Raven, Kenan & Kel, Sister Sister, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, My Wife & Kids and One on One every evening after school. God, I miss Trouble. All of these shows were African American and although I could relate in the sense that I could see people that looked like me on TV, the reality was that they were not like me. They were African American and I was Black British.

Here in the UK, pre-2010, the only Black British TV series’ I remember actively tuning into were The Lenny Henry Show in 2003-2005, Little Miss Jocelyn in 2006-2008 and Dubplate Drama in 2005-2009 which could be described as the UK’s first interactive drama, allowing viewers to vote for the ending – loved that. I was okay with the limited number of Black British shows on TV at the time because it was what I was used to and quite frankly, I didn’t know any different.

However, in October 2011, in came Top Boy, the 4-part drama that had myself and every other Black Brit I knew glued to their screens each Monday night, waiting to find out what happened to Dushane and Sully. The show was brilliantly cast, beautifully shot and authentically written so when it ended, I was inevitably left craving more. It was then I realised that this wasn’t something I was used to seeing on TV despite it feeling so interestingly familiar. I was not used to seeing so many Black British people on my screen at once in such a well-executed way – it was refreshing to say the least. Of course, this show wasn’t a representation of all Black Brits but it was definitely a great start and was relatable for so many people whose stories are also worth being told.

Over the next few years and moving into the present day, although we had a few one-off specials and TV dramas like My Murder and Damilola, Our Loved Boy (both based on true stories), the majority of Black British series’ were watched online with the likes of Brothers With No Game, Housemates, Venus vs. Mars, Spin, Ackee and Saltfish and Hood Documentary on my subscription list. I loved all of these, however, the fact that I could only watch them online meant that I still craved regular representation on my TV screen.

More recently in October 2015, came the introduction of Michaela Cole’s revolutionary Chewing Gum on E4 (inspired by her play Chewing Gum Dreams), which I believe completely changed the direction of Black British TV in such a beautifully normal way. It didn’t need to use comedy based on the typical stereotypes we see played out, it didn’t centre the story on her blackness or her struggle, it didn’t have a seedy crime-related storyline underpinning it, it just was. She just was. And she was ridiculously funny doing it.

In reality, we are still lacking Black British TV shows, and have a long way to go before we have them as a staple on primetime television; and have an even longer way to go before we have a broad range of genres featuring predominantly Black British casts. I look forward to the day where we have a wider selection of shows like the US have with Insecure, Power, Atlanta, Empire, Black-ish and Being Mary Jane, with less of a focus on comedy and more of a focus on general storytelling.

In terms of where I think it will go next, I believe the online Black British series library will increase tenfold with all storylines and narratives being told in their own ways, leaving the most successful/unique ones to be picked up by TV stations and given the chance to pilot.

So today my answer to ‘what are the first few things that come to mind when you think of Black British TV?’ is ‘comedy, familiarity and possibilities’. What are yours?