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The 10-part documentary will be presented by Sir Lenny Henry. Image courtesy of BBC.

Spotlight on Black British Theatre

An academic from the University of Exeter has conceived a 10-part documentary on the history of black British theatre and screen, soon to be presented by Sir Lenny Henry on BBC Radio 4. Dr Michael Pearce developed Raising the Bar, working as lead consultant alongside the BBC. Dr Pearce also provides expert commentary throughout the series, which is produced by Simon Elmes.

Dr Pearce, who specialises in black British theatre history, was inspired while interviewing playwrights, directors and actors for the National Theatre’s Black Plays Archive project. He said: “It became clear to me that this history would benefit from being told, not as a written record but through the voices of its practitioners. I approached the BBC who were equally passionate about my idea.”

Raising the Bar provides insight into specific moments and particular peoples’ experiences and contributions to this rich and diverse history through interviews and historical commentary. It is a history that begins with Ira Aldridge who became the first black actor to play the part of Othello in Britain in 1833. The series tracks the achievements of the small and politically active community of black intellectuals living in London during the inter-war years, notably the poet and writer Una Marson. Marson was the BBC’s first black woman employee and she initiated Caribbean Voices, a radio programme which influenced some of the region’s most important novelists, poets and playwrights. The experiences of the post-war or ‘Windrush’ generation are told through Errol John’s award-winning play Moon on a Rainbow Shawl and the changing temperature of British tolerance is measured through representations in popular television programmes like the Black and White Minstrel Show, Love Thy Neighbour and Desmond’s. The struggle against hostility and the fight for inclusion during the 1970s and 80s prepares the ground for the success of later generations: in 2005 Kwame-Kwei-Armah’s play Elmina’s Kitchen was the first by a black British-born writer to be staged in London’s West End and in 2013 the Turner Prize winning Steve McQueen became the first black filmmaker to win an Academy Award for Best Picture in 2013.

“I am thrilled that the programme will reach a wide audience who may not know about these remarkable achievements which have formed the basis of my research and which chart the evolution not only of the British stage and screen but of what being British means today.”

Sir Lenny Henry said the series will highlight the "history and struggle of black British creativity" over the last century.

"This Radio 4 series covers a huge span of black British theatre, TV and film - from Ira Aldridge to Steve McQueen and Nina Baden-Semper to Bola Agbaje - it's a great sweep of history that excites and stimulates the imagination.

"It is easy to forget that there were precedents to our current age of BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) breakthroughs and by talking to the likes of Roy Williams and Mustapha Matura, we acknowledge that the young reach their current heights by standing on the shoulders of those that went before."

Interviewees include actor and playwright Kwame Kwei-Armah, director Yvonne Brewster, playwright Mustapha Matura, actor Carmen Munroe, director Steve McQueen, director Paulette Randall and playwright Roy Williams.

‘Raising the Bar’ will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4, starting on 9 November and is part of the BBC's On Stage season, celebrating theatre in the UK.

To find our more, visit the BBC website:

Date: 5 November 2015

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