A matter of surviving;Reviews;Television

5th June 1998 at 01:00
WINDRUSH. BBC2, Saturdays. 8.00-9.00pm. From May 30.

Robin Buss on the flagship programme which commemorates the 50th anniversary of the start of Commonwealth immigration.

The former troopship Empire Windrush docked at Tilbury on June 21, 1948. On board were almost 500 immigrants from the Caribbean - their arrival is taken as the starting-point of Commonwealth immigration. The BBC is commemorating the anniversary with a series of documentaries, as well as a Web site, publications and a range of local and community events under the aegis of BBC Education. But the season's flagship is Windrush, a four-part documentary tracing the history of the Caribbean community in Britain over the past 50 years.

The story starts before the event with a tribute to the many West Indian volunteers who served with the allied forces during the Second World War. These men came to a place they considered their motherland, and were generally welcomed. Their experience was very different from that of the post-war immigrants.

The first part of Windrush offers a grim picture of 1950s Britain - bleak, grey, cold-hearted and narrow-minded, simmering with petty rancours and open prejudices. One gets no pleasure from hearing trade union officials telling the news cameras of the day about the alleged personal habits of West Indians, or the immigrants recalling their loneliness and despair, in a country where landlords, employers and even teachers and churchmen would tell them openly that they were not wanted. Enoch Powell emerges without credit, Oswald Mosley with none of the charm attributed to him in the recent Channel 4 docu-drama.

If the season is billed as a celebration of the West Indians' contribution to British culture, these four films amount rather to a tribute to their ability to survive. They chart a shameful course from the Notting Hill riots of 1958, past the 1970s "sus" laws, to the New Cross fire of 1981, the Brixton riots of the 1980s and the 1990s murder of Stephen Lawrence.

Much of this, from the tele-vision newsreels of the 1950s down to this documentary, has been recorded by the BBC, with a tacit intention to mould public attitudes and overcome preju-dice. We know that a black man looking for lodgings in the 1950s could be turned away from house after house because a television crew was on hand to confront British viewers with the evidence. And though what we see is ignorance and conflict, the story behind it is really one of progress and achievement.

This is particularly evident in the testimonies of immigrants from that first wave, some of whom appear in the BBC documentaries and in Channel 4's series of brief films The Windrush Years (started June 1). "For us, it was a matter of surviving," says Arthur Curling, a former serviceman who arrived on the Windrush in 1948.

Only in the final part of the BBC documentary is there some celebration of the West Indian contribution to British music and sport. The educational system is hardly mentioned, except in the context of low expectations and the alienation of black youngsters.

Teachers will find these films, and the season as a whole, valuable, not least because, in devising it, the BBC has had to address some essentially peda-gogical problems. How do you inform a television audience about half a century of a whole community? The big documentary is one answer, the indivi-dual testimonies another. But the season also includes role-play, performances by black actors and writers (Gala Night, Still Here, Late Review), celebrations on The Learning Zone, video diaries recording aspects of life in the countries from which the immigrants came, and A Little Piece of Home - short films concentrating on objects West Indians brought to this country. Many children in classrooms around Britain have parents or grandparents with similar contributions to make. Here are some examples to encourage them.

A full listing of events taking place in schools, libraries, galleries and community centres, as well as a guide to Caribbean studies and other information, can be found on the Windrush Web site: www.bbc.co.ukeducation

* A book by Mike and Trevor Phillips, 'Windrush: the irresistible rise of multi-racial Britain', was published in May by HarperCollins

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