My husband has a faint memory of being taken to see The Black and White Minstrel Show at Margate’s Winter Gardens°. It would have been 1970, or thereabouts. I can remember the same show on BBC1 during my childhood. It aired until 1978.
It’s hard to imagine now, isn’t it? The very concept is so weird and out-of-kilter. The only instances of blackface on UK television in recent years are complex, subversive portrayals that are clearly intended to provoke discomfort, in programmes such as Little Britain and The League of Gentlemen.
Thankfully, blacking up has disappeared from our 21st century television schedules.
Or has it?
The very wonderful Mat Fraser – performer, writer and thalidomider – has widened the term “blacking up” to include instances when able-bodied actors play disabled roles. Daniel Day Lewis in My Left Foot is perhaps the most oft-cited example. Andy Serkis in Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll, the Ian Dury biopic, would be another.
A raft of recent television programmes appears to bite down on this potentially sore tooth in a whole new way. Sherlock, The Bridge, The Code, Chasing Shadows, even The Big Bang Theory. These are all high quality, highly successful programmes that work only because one of their central characters resides somewhere on the autistic spectrum. To the best of my knowledge, neither Benedict Cumberbatch, nor Sofia Helin nor Ashley Zukerman nor Reece Shearsmith nor Jim Parsons is in any way neurodiverse.
Are there any autistic-spectrum actors? Wikipedia immediately tells me about Dan Aykroyd, Daryl Hannah and Paddy Considine so clearly, they’re out there.
Let’s go one step further.
House – who didn’t love House? Who, particularly, didn’t love Hugh Laurie as Gregory House? Laurie is an English actor with two good legs who had a phenomenal success playing an American who uses a walking stick.* I’m aware that when he tried out for the role, those auditioning him had no idea he was English. His accent was that good. Nonetheless, he’s an English actor, playing an American. Don’t try and tell me there were no American actors available.
Does that also count as “blacking up”? The concept seems the same, to me. Should American roles go only to American actors? Geordie roles only to Geordie actors? Strict application of this rule would deprive us of the mesmerising Cilian Murphy in Peaky Blinders. On the other hand, it would also have saved us from Dick van Dyke’s cock-er-nee accent.
Is there a line to be drawn? I don’t know. Is blackface beyond the pale but it’s OK to fake a foot drop? I don’t know. These are tangled issues of availability vs opportunity, of cultural comfort and convenience, of the best person for the job.
But I suspect this discussion would peter out naturally, should we ever actually achieve a level playing field.
*which, incidentally, he always used in the wrong hand. I assume this was a deliberate decision by either the actor or director as it looks so much more dramatic. But it’s no good for your bad leg.
°I stand corrected. Apparently, it was Paignton, not Margate.