Obi Egbuna and the BBC: the story continued

10th July 2020

John Wyver writes: My previous post ‘Earl Cameron and a lost play’ traced my research explorations prompted by a repeat transmission in 1971 as a Play for Today of a 1968 BBC (now lost) production of Wind Versus Polygamy by Obi Egbuna. I sketched the context for what was one of the first dramas by a Black writer to be produced by the BBC for both radio and television, and I included brief mentions of Obi Egbuna’s life in Britain at the end of the 1960s. What I want to do in this second post is outline a little more of the that remarkable story and its political context, as well as highight two notable occasions when the playwright’s story became entwined with the workings of the BBC. Incidentally, I remain uncertain of the occasion of the BBC photograph above of Obi Egbuna with Peggy Ashcroft, but Nick Stanton’s Comment below (for which many thanks) gets us a lot closer to it than we have been previously.

On 11 September 1967 the Guardian journalist Brian Lapping (now a distinguished independent television producer) reported that the Universal Coloured People’s Association (UCPA) had the previous evening launched a pamphlet Black Power in Britain that ‘which seeks to awake the coloured people of Britain to the lessons of Stokely Carmichael‘. Carmichael (who later adopted the name Kwame Ture) was a Trinidadian civil rights activist who, along with Malcolm X, had emerged in the United States as one of the most effective advocates for Black Power, a movement distinct from the civil rights mainstream. He had travelled to Britain earlier in the year and appears outlining his philosophy in a striking sequence in Peter Brook’s feature film Tell Me Lies (1968). Inspired by Carmichael and by a visit to the States in July 1966, Egbuna was a central figure in establishing the UCPA, which seven weeks after its founding under his Presidency claimed some 800 members.

In Black Power in Britain Egbuna and colleagues wrote:

We do not advocate violence. But we believe that the only way to neutralise violence is to oppose it with violence. We are no advocators of violence. But if a white man lays his hand on ONE of us, we will regard it as an open declaration of war on ALL of us.

In a series of fascinating online posts for the Special Branch Files Project (‘a live-archive of declassified files focussing on the surveillance of political activists and campaigners’), Rosie Wild together with her colleague Eveline Lubbers have explored aspects of the Black Power movement in Britain and state’s response to it. (The posts draw on Rosie Wild’s 2008 PhD dissertation, Black was the Colour of Our Fight: Black Power in Britain 1955-1976, which is freely available via the link.) In ‘Black Power – 1. Overview’, she writes:

Black Power in Britain started in 1967, reached its apogee in 1971 and was in terminal decline by the mid 1970s. It was an expression of frustration, anger and – most importantly – resistance to the individual, institutional and state racism experienced by the postwar generation of black immigrants to Britain. Clearly inspired by the Black Power movement taking place at the same time in the United States, it borrowed heavily from its style and rhetoric. UK Black Power was not a carbon copy of its US counterpart, though; British groups talked a good fight and practiced self-defence, but they did not carry guns or engage in organised violence.

Controversy on Man Alive

In February 1968 the BBC series Man Alive dedicated a programme to Black Power in Britain. This comprised film clips of Black Power leaders, including Roy Sawh speaking in Hyde Park, followed by a studio discussion chaired by Desmond Wilcox. In The Vision of a Nation: Making Multiculturalism on British Television, 1960-80 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), Gavin Schaffer gives a vivid account of the encounter and Egbuna’s involvement. Wilcox credited Sawh with taking ‘the most thoughtful and intelligent approach to Black Power in this country’, but as Schaffer relates:

Th[e] combination of sensationalism and sympathy turned distinctly in favour of the former as the studio discussion got underway. Here, Black Power leaders like Obi Egbuna, Sawh and Frankie X debated with moderate race relations experts like Mark Bonham Carter, and the discussion soon became explosive.

While Sawh and Frankie X took a moderate line, explaining why they felt that Bonham Carter could not represent them, Obi Egbuna was in no mood for polite discussion. He said that he was feeling ‘positively puke’ about the programme taking place. Describing moderate community-relations officer Asquith Gibbs, he said: ‘To me he’s like a Shombie, he’s a black white man and if I’d got a gun today . . . I shoot him first before the white man.’

Finally, he staged a dramatic walkout, claiming that his fellow guests were ‘Uncle Toms and reactionary white sambos’. On his way out, he threatened ‘don’t bother me again if you know what’s good for you’. In the wake of this extraordinary performance, more moderate discussion continued. However, Egbuna had stolen the show and all the reactions to the programme orientated around his behaviour.

The BBC was concerned that prosecution under the 1965 Race Relations Act might follow the programme but that the Corporation was reassured by the Government’s notice in a letter to both the BBC and ITV only days later that broadcasters were regarded as exempt from key aspects of the legislation. Schaffer notes that this decision was

… born both from an awareness of the willingness of broadcasters to restrain themselves and self-censor, and from a long-standing government disinclination to intervene directly in broadcasting. However, the fact that it was the issue of Black Power which triggered the exemption letter is revealing in itself, perhaps reflecting a third governmental motive, a refusal to accede to demands of persistent conservative lobbying to use section 6 [of the Act] to prevent the coverage of black radicals on television.

As the Man Alive discussion highllighted, the UCPA, in which Roy Sawh was a key figure alongside Egbuna, was riven by ideological disputes and in April Egbuna left to set up what Rosie Wild and Eveline Lubbers characterise as ‘the more disciplined and hierarchical Black Panther Movement.’ Before this, however, in August the previous year, Special Branch officers listened to UCPA leaders making speeches at Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park and transcribed notes that were used evidence in one of the UK’s first prosecutions, including against Roy Sawh, for inciting racial hatred. Egbuna was not directly involved in this case but in 1968 he and two colleagues were arrested after what Wild and Lubbers note was ‘a draft of a rather florid leaflet written by Egbuna was handed to the police’.

The Guardian on 26 July 1968 reported that

Three coloured men were charged last night with issuing a writing threatening to kill police officers in Hyde Park… Mrs Egbuna said last night that two plainclothes police officers searched their home last night after showing her a warrant. ‘They concentrated on Obi’s political material,’ she said.

Egbuna and his two colleagues, Peter Martin and Gideon Ketuemi Turagalevu Dolo, were refused bail and were charged with ‘uttering a document’ that the prosecution alleged gave instructions that, to release coloured people arrested at a Hyde Park meeting, the police should be ‘beaten until they were dead’. With the aim of printing a magazine, the three accused had approached Simeon Davis, who the Guardian described as ‘a coloured student who ran a publishing business’, and on reading Egbuna’s article Davis had reported them to the police. The prosecuting counsel noted that Obi Egbuna had acknowledged authorship, and had said:

Charged just for writing. You white fascists have a peculiar sense of humour. I am a playwright and I will see that you are mentioed in my next play.

A cause for concern

Egbuna’s arrest came just a fortnight after BBC2 had transmitted the Theatre 625 production of Wind Versus Polygamy, the recording of which had clearly gone ahead despite the playwright’s well-publicised involvement with the UCPA and the Black Power movement. It also coincided with the planned BBC broadcast of a programme in the BBC 1 strand Cause for Concern, ‘a series which takes up the cause of people fighting for a fair deal’.

A Sunday Times article by Patricia de Joux (28 July 1968) details ‘a three day struggle between Scotland Yard and BBC executives preceded the 11th-hour decision not to show Friday night’s film’ which, as can be seen above, had been trailed in Radio Times. As de Joux reported:

The film outlined four cases in which accused coloured men had been successful in their defence. Two won damages against the police, another’s case was dismissed, and the fourth had a conditional discharge quashed on appeal.

The film was apparently approved editorially up the BBC’s management chain and was declared ‘legally watertight’ by Corporation lawyer Tony Bostock. Nonetheless Scotland Yard was invited to participate in a concluding discussion, although their decision was reserved until after the film had been reviewed. Which it was, by four representatives, after which one of them is said to have remarked, ‘You might as well have saved time by putting up a caption saying all police are bastards.’ Nonetheless it was agreed that they would take part. The following morning, however, the Police Commissioner Sir John Waldron decided that the programme must be stopped.

By 2pm that day, which was the afternoon before transmission, the Yard had told the BBC that not only was the film ‘unfair, unobjective (sic) and grossly distorted’, defamatory and libellous, but that they were also considering action against the BBC under the 1965 Race Relations Act for incitement to racial hatred. On Friday morning a larger police deleration viewed the film, along with two QCs and four BBC bigwigs including director of television Kenneth Adam and controller of BBC1 Paul Fox.

The BBC defended the film until the QCs pointed to the arrest of Obi Egbuna the evening before. Even though Egbuna did not appear in the film, it was the opinion of m’learned friends that if the programme were shown a writ could be issued against the BBC for contempt. Two hours later it was announced that it had been withdrawn. Does anyone know if this episode of Cause for Concern was screened at a later date?

At the Old Bailey and after

In October the National Council for Civil Liberties wrote to the Attorney General, Sir Elwyn Jones, urging that a trial date be fixed for Egbuna, who was being held in Brixton Prison. In fact he and the other defendants did not appear at the Old Bailey until the end of November when, after a two-week trial Egbuna and Martin were found guilty while Gideon Dolo was discharged. Presiding over the trial Sir Carl Aavold gave Egbuna a 12-month sentence suspended for three years, and admonished the guilty pair, saying that, ‘It is quite clear that both of you allowed your emotions to cloud your judgement and good sense.’

While he was in Brixton, Egbuni wrote a new play, apparently on lavatory paper, and in February 1970 the Unity Theatre opened The Agony. The Observer’s diarist Pendennis noted somewhat wryly:

Vanessa Redgrave, a friend of Obi’s, offered to play the female part, a white psychoanalyst, for nothing, but couldn’t make it in the end… [Egbuna] is an electrifying speaker, using words like jazz players use drums. All his writings concern oppression. He’s not quite so active with the Panthers these days, because of his writing, but he’s still fiercely sympathetic.

According to Michael Pearce in Black British Drama: A Transnational Story, ‘no script for The Agony has been located.’ Egbuna’s other writing also included the book of essays, Destroy This Temple, published in 1971 under the subtitle ‘A Voice of Black Power in Britain’. Seemingly no mention is made of any of this in the BBC publicity materials for the repeat of Wind Versus Polygamy in The Wednesday Play strand on 27 May 1970 or the following year, on 1 April, as a Play for Today, and of course it’s fascinating to speculate whether the writer’s political views and trial contributed to the thinking about the Corporation’s drama department arranging the two repeats.

In the guide to Obi Egbuna’s archived papers in The New York Public Library Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, BBC drama producer James MacTaggart, who was certainly an influential figure in the Corporation in the late 1960s and early 1970s, is quoted as describing Egbuna as ‘Africa’s Gogol’, but I have not otherwise been able to trace the reference. At the end of 1971, following a violent attack by seven men that he believed to be white extremists, Egbuna left Britain and returned to Nigeria. He became the director of the state television service and continued to write, including The Diary of a Homeless Prodigal (1978). He died in the United States in 2014.

For more on the context for Obi Egbuna’s story and Black Power in Britain around 1970:

• Sky’s somewhat soapy six-part drama Guerilla (2017) is focussed on the activities of Scotland Yard’s secret Black Power Desk in the 1970s; see Hugh Muir’s Guardian review. Steve McQueen’s forthcoming anthology series Small Axe, for BBC and Amazon, set in London’s West Indian community between the late 1960s and early 1980s, is also said to include aspects of this story; a 2019 Vogue preview is here.

‘Unearthing the forgotten fistory of the British Black Panthers’ is a richly informative 2017 post for A Nation of Billions by Mazza, and includes discussion of the 2013 Photofusion project, ‘The Black British Panthers’.

• Finally, if you’re interested in learning more about Obi Egbuna, this is a rather compelling 2014 interview conducted by SaharaTV with his son, Obi Egbuna Jr.

Comments

  1. Nick Stanton says:

    The NYPL Egbuna archive includes a CD of “The Emperor of the Sea by Obi Egbuna, as read by Dame Peggy Ashcroft, BBC Radio, 1972”. I can’t find it on Genome; perhaps it was a World Service production? There’s a précis of The Emperor of the Sea here. It was published c1974 and is available on AbeBooks.

  2. John Wyver says:

    That’s an excellent spot – thanks so much. I think this must have been for the BBC African Service, which we know broadcast Egbuna’s work. For more on this, see Shirley Cordeaux, ‘The BBC African Service’s Involvement in African Theatre’, Research in African Literatures, Vol. 1, No. 2 (Autumn, 1970), pp. 147-155, available to be read online for free via JSTOR.

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