Tag Archives: BBC

Start with What You Know and Take it From There: The role of the archive

I recently ate up Patrice Lawrence’s Indigo Donut (Hodder 2017).  I loved it; it was hard to put down, and I could easily write a blog about the novel by itself (maybe I will sometime!).  But I want to highlight just one piece of the novel (or donut?) for now, and it isn’t probably the section that avid readers of this blog might expect.  It’s the section where Bailey, the main boy character, goes to the archives at his local library.


Lawrence’s second book, a tale of finding out about yourself and those you love . . . partly by visiting the archive.

This section (pages 271-274) interests me for a couple of reasons.  First, because Bailey knows that you can get information from an archive, which makes him an unusual 16-year-old (I wish I had more college students who knew what an archive was, let alone how to use it).  But second, and more importantly, because Lawrence’s depiction of a first archive experience is a very accurate one.  Bailey comes in knowing what he’s looking for, but not how to find it.  The “information lady” tells him “to start with what you know, and take it from there” (272); but although he follows her advice, it takes him down rabbit holes and he must bring himself constantly back into focus.  When he finally runs out of time—without finding the information he needs—the librarian/archivist offers him a clue for a next step, pointing out that “It’s surprising what you find in the small print” (274).

A still from the video that has stirred the controversy.

The BBC cartoon that included a Black Roman caused controversy–but visit Hadrian’s Wall, and many other sites in Britain, and you’ll learn about several Black Romans in Britain.


On the surface, the description of this scene does not have anything to do with race and diversity in British children’s/YA literature.  And while I am sure that Patrice Lawrence had Bailey go to the archive deliberately, I’m not sure whether she thought about it as a political statement within her novel.  However, having spent a lot of time in archives over the past few years, I’m going to take this scene that way: as a political statement about race and diversity.  Archives in Britain, as well as major research libraries such as the British Library, have traditionally been places where white Britons felt welcome, but BAME people less so.  This (perceived?) lack of welcome may come from the archive’s connection with the idea of Heritage Britain; recent controversies such as the trolling of Mary Beard over her defense of a BBC cartoon depicting Black Romans in early Britain (https://www.the-tls.co.uk/roman-britain-black-white/) suggest that many people still see British history as an all-white subject. Museums, libraries and archives all play a role in defining what (and who) counts as British, and their definitions have consequences for their patrons.  If people don’t see history as belonging to them, they often will not be interested in learning about it. However, research (Hirschi and Screven 1989; Lynch and Alberti 2010; Golding 2016) has indicated that involving traditionally marginalized communities in history-related projects can help open up heritage to new users and change the dialogue around national identity. By having Bailey, a mixed-race British teenager, go to the archive expecting answers about the past, Patrice Lawrence indicates something important: that Bailey has a right to be there, belongs there, and that he can and should access historical information when he needs it.


Archives should be a place where everyone feels welcome to learn about history, as they are at Seven Stories, the National Centre for the Children’s Book in Newcastle.

The other “political” message I found in Lawrence’s depiction is the librarian’s final comment to Bailey, that what you find in the small print can surprise you.  I can relate this directly to my own efforts to find Black British people in various archives while writing my book on British children’s publishing.  Archives that seemed at first glance to be entirely about white Britons often revealed a more diverse picture with a closer look or more research.  Take the case of Leila Berg, a white British author and publisher from the 1950s-1990s whose archive can be found at Seven Stories, the National Centre for the Children’s Book.  I had never heard of her before I went to Seven Stories, and even when the archivists and librarians at Seven Stories pointed me in her direction, I wasn’t sure if she would be all that relevant to my research on Black British authors and publishers.  It didn’t take long for me to realize that Berg, who experienced the anti-Semitism of her “friends” during World War II, committed herself to standing against both class and racial prejudice in all of her work.  But her archive tells more than just her own history, and it is this that takes me back to Lawrence’s librarian’s comment.  Berg kept records of various meetings, conferences, and events that she attended throughout her life, and looking through these with careful eyes can reveal otherwise-untold histories of Black Britain.


Gilroy’s Nippers, like her work with teachers, suggest that white Britons need to learn to see Black people as British.

The first time I examined her archive, I didn’t really know what I was looking at, but going back this summer, I found something I hadn’t noticed before.  One document, handwritten by Berg, talks of visiting “Beryl’s classroom” (the document is dated Nov 3 73; Seven Stories archives LB/05/03/20).  This didn’t signify anything particular to me at the time, but when I saw it this past summer, I cursed myself for missing it before.  Given the date, and the fact that Berg was talking about a headteacher, “Beryl” could only have been Beryl Gilroy, the first Black headteacher in Britain (and Black Atlantic author Paul Gilroy’s mother as well, though he was still at school when his mother met Berg).  Berg records what Gilroy told her about a “failure conference” she held at her school for the mostly white teachers she worked with: that it is the (white) teachers who must change their attitudes about their (BAME) students, not the other way around.  Gilroy, who would write several titles for Berg’s reading series, Nippers, made the case that BAME students are British, and their cultures, traditions, languages and families were part of Britain too.  More than 40 years after Berg recorded this, the case is still being argued by some.  Maybe people who don’t see BAME people as a part of British history could use a trip to their local archives.  Or they might just want to curl up with Indigo Donut.

Passive Voice, Active Prejudice: Mary Seacole in Children’s Literature and Media


Harewood’s ITV programme celebrates the new statue of Mary Seacole in London–but not everyone is pleased.

This week, Britain’s ITV showed a programme on Mary Seacole entitled “In the Shadow of Mary Seacole.” In some ways, the programme could have been titled, “Mary Seacole in the Shadow of British Racism.” Many people who initially celebrated the fact that ITV was telling the story of the woman labeled “The Greatest Black Briton” in 2004 were dismayed to find that the programme was put on the schedule at 10:40 pm. Others complained that the programme focused on the opinions of white historians. Indeed, it seemed that most, though not all, of Seacole’s defenders in the programme were non-historians: actors, comedians, nurses. Unfortunately, none of this is new when it comes to Mary Seacole—and children’s books about the Jamaican Crimean War nurse are no exception.


You have two minutes for questions on . . . Mary Seacole: the biography with Mastermind presenter Magnus Magnusson listed as author.


I’ve written in various places about Mary Seacole before (see my article in Bookbird, for example, “My (Black) Britain”) so rather than rehash what I’ve previously written, I want to focus on a particular children’s biography that caught my eye. Its title is fairly unremarkable, Famous People: Mary Seacole 1805-1881, but what led me to order it last year was one of the listed authors. Christine Moorcroft—who I presume is the main author of the book—shares author credit with Magnus Magnusson. British readers of this blog will know Magnusson’s name as the original presenter of the long-running quiz show Mastermind; I was curious about his involvement in a book about Mary Seacole (as an Icelandic citizen all his life, I doubted Mary Seacole was his “specialist subject”). When the book came, I understood. Prominently on the front of the book, in between the authors’ names, is a multicoloured number “4”. The book was written as part of a Channel Four Schools project that combined short videos (still available here: https://shop.channel4learning.com/?page=shop&cid=8&pid=1603 although this is not an endorsement since I haven’t seen them yet—just in case you are interested) with books and related classroom materials. Other people profiled in the series include Cleopatra, Boudica and Gandhi, so the series clearly had a commitment to a broad range of historical figures from within and without Britain.


But although the series is committed to “historical evidence” “to show that the story is true” (both these quotations come from the promotional blurb on the website listed above), the book version of the biography is hampered by its use as an educational tool and its desire not to alienate a white British audience into some rather strange versions of historical accuracy. Factually, it often allows untruths for the sake of its audience; Mary Seacole’s mother “married a Scottish officer” (6), something for which there is no evidence and which overall historical patterns would suggest was unlikely. In children’s books, however, parents are still supposed to be legally married, and the complicated relations between Black and white people in the Caribbean were perhaps a bridge too far for this book. Later, when Seacole goes to London, “She was called names by other children because she was black. Nonetheless, she went back to London many times” (8). Racism can’t be that bad if she keeps going back—can it?


Children in London might call racist names, but the text exonerates specific British adults from any racism against Seacole. It mostly does this through the use of passive voice. Seacole goes to London to join Florence Nightingale’s nurses and is rejected—but not by anyone in particular, and not necessarily because she was Black: “Mary was told that no more nurses were needed” (11). When she eventually gets to the Crimea, and to Nightingale’s unit, “Mary went to see her and was given a bed for the night” (13). Nothing is said in the rest of the text that even hints of racism, and the book ends quite happily: “Mary was famous when she arrived in London. People had read about her in the newspapers. She was the guest of honour at a dinner with the army. The soldiers cheered her” (19). The book never calls out British officials or Florence Nightingale for racist attitudes, and lessens the impact of Seacole’s heroism by avoiding the real struggles she went through to be accepted.


Right to be skeptical? A still from the deleted CBBC episode of Horrible Histories.


Moorcroft and Magnusson’s reluctance to talk about British racism is a justifiable attitude—if you look at what happened when other accounts of Seacole’s life tried to depict this racism. Terry Deary’s Horrible Histories book series generally avoids discussions of racism (there’s no Horrible Histories: Rude Racists, for example), but when the television sketch show based on his books did a segment on Nightingale and Seacole where both women were jostling each other over who would get the attention of a PR agent, the show received official complaints for appearing to criticize Florence Nightingale’s attitude toward Seacole. The complaint was upheld, and the segment is no longer available to watch (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2775315/BBC-criticised-implying-Florence-Nightingale-racist-children-s-Horrible-Histories.html). One of the people who complained was Professor Lynn McDonald, a member of the Florence Nightingale Society. McDonald, and the Florence Nightingale Society, regularly write letters and newspaper articles criticizing various forms of media for their portrayal of Seacole.


Which brings me back to presenter David Harewood and ITV’s programme, “In the Shadow of Mary Seacole”. One of the people interviewed by Harewood was Mark Bostridge, who wrote a biography of Nightingale—and who is also a member of the Florence Nightingale Society. He calls the “myth” of Mary Seacole “faking history at its worst” (“In the Shadow” 1.24). This claim is left alone, being countered with a response about the caring concern of Seacole. I’m not arguing that Seacole was not caring, but by not putting Bostridge’s claims next to one of the other people in the programme who talk about the kind of medicine that Seacole practiced, the show appears to accept that Seacole was, as Harewood says directly after Bostridge’s comments, “medically unqualified” (1.36). Imagine if Nightingale was portrayed as learning her nursing skills from a group of religious zealots in only four months (she did her training with Lutheran “deaconesses” and only spent a short time with them): would we still look at her as the heroine she has become? How we describe people matters, and it matters especially in books and media for children. We should never teach children to passively accept a power hierarchy—like Mary Seacole, we should constantly challenge it.

Kids on Film: What Children Want—and Aren’t Getting—from Film

In 2009, the BBC partnered with several British Universities and the Arts and Humanities Research Council to answer the question, “What do Children Want from the BBC?” One of their main focuses was on the programme Newsround, which presents news stories for children both on television and on the CBBC website. To the surprise of the researchers, the children they questioned were not particularly focused on class or gender, but on cultural diversity. Following several quotations from children who wanted more representation of their local areas, the report concludes (somewhat peevishly), “The cultural diversity of the UK poses news service providers with a number of challenges. While we recognise the difficulties associated with representing such cultural diversity, it is a fair point that children in the different nations should have the right to see more of themselves and their communities represented on Newsround” (34).

It is interesting that the report framed “cultural diversity” as a matter of nations (that is, England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales). Although it looked specifically at class and gender in sections of the report, it did not mention race at all. Yet many “local communities” within Britain are still based around racial, ethnic, or religious affiliations—and even if this is not true, it seems odd that the BBC would ask about gender and class but not about another identity marker whose representation in the media is frequently debated and made subject of improving initiatives. Girls and working-class children are allowed to have concerns about their representation on the BBC (although according to the report, they apparently didn’t) but not Black British or Muslim children.

Since the report appeared, of course, the BBC has concerned itself with racial, as well as other kinds of cultural, diversity, as has the pre-eminent British organization on film, the BFI. In 2014, both organizations pledged to increase diversity in film and television, with particular emphasis on children’s and youth programming (see Children’s Media Foundation’s Angela Ferreira’s report on this here: http://www.thechildrensmediafoundation.org/archives/3146/diversity-film). But as 2016 begins, what has really changed in terms of media representation and children? Not much, because—just as the BBC report suggests–we don’t want children to think about racial divisions, afraid (perhaps) that talking about it will cause racial divides to increase.


Still from the 1966 Jemima and Johnny.

For evidence of this, film is a good place to start. British film has several fine films that are about or include discussions of race and racism for teens and young adults, from Horace Ové’s 1975 film Pressure to the 2002 international hit Bend it Like Beckham (since turned into a west-end musical) to Destiny Ekaragha’s 2013 Gone too Far!. But British children’s film is a different story. I can think of only one film, focused on children (though in itself not necessarily a children’s film—it is aimed at adults at least as much as children) that is also focused on race and racism: Lionel Ngakane’s 1966 Jemima and Johnny, about the son of a white right-wing nationalist and the daughter of West Indian immigrants becoming friends in 1960s London. Ngakane was an ANC exile from South Africa, distressed at the racism he saw in his new home, and this beautiful, almost wordless film was his plea for Britons to stand up against racism. Although the BFI places it on its “Top 10 Black British Films” list, it has sadly not put the film onto DVD; you have to go to one of their mediathèques to view it, which means that a film that could be used to start discussions in British classrooms about racism will go unseen by most students.

Publicity photo from the BBC production of David Walliams’ Billionaire Boy 2015–Joe Spud’s best friend Bob is absent from most of the media photos.

Most British-produced film for children, however, is still presented on television rather than in the cinemas. Frequently these films are adaptations of children’s books, such as the Christmas 2015 production of David Walliams’ Billionaire Boy (2010). The book version of this story has illustrations done by Tony Ross. The main character Joe Spud’s best friend Bob is described as being fat, like Joe, with a mop of curly hair. Tony Ross presents a blond, white Bob. The BBC production made Bob a Black British child. A good move, both for fans of diverse television and for the BBC, as it was an easy change to make; but the presence of Black British characters is not the same as representation. The BBC, and the other British television channels as well, have been good about presenting Black British and other BAME characters on shows for children (not great, but good) for a long time—shows like Play School and Play Bus had Black British presenters as early as the 1980s, and children’s programmes such as Tracy Beaker present a diverse cast. But the BAME characters are generally sidekicks, not main characters, and the focus is on them as part of a unified British cast; rarely is their cultural, racial, religious or ethnic background a significant part of the story.


You can buy Blackman’s novel, but you can’t buy the DVD of the BBC show made from it.

And if most British television programmes for children are adaptations of books, then why are there not more adaptations of Black British or BAME authors’ books? David Walliams and Juliet Donaldson had new adaptations of their books on television this Christmas, in addition to the old standby authors such as Roald Dahl and Raymond Briggs in reruns. But Malorie Blackman, British children’s laureate between 2013 and 2015, has only had one of her books adapted for television, Pig-Heart Boy (1997; Whizziwig has also been on television, but it started there and became a book afterwards). Despite winning multiple awards, the video is one of the few produced by the BBC not to be released commercially in recent years. Her most famous series, Noughts and Crosses, has been a radio play and a theatre production, but this revolution has not been televised. Neither has her less controversial Betsey Biggalow series for young readers. And Blackman is only one of many authors whose works might be televised or filmed. I write mostly about Black British authors because that is my area of research, but I can’t imagine what it must be like to be a devout Muslim child, or the child of Polish immigrants, or a British Chinese child growing up in mainstream Britain and never see someone like me on after school television or at the cinema. If British media means to show an inclusive, diverse Britain, they can’t wait until kids have reached their teenage years to begin to represent them.