Monday, 27 January 2014

George Mitchell and the Black & White Minstrel Show

George Mitchell, (1917- 2002)

George Mitchell was born in Falkirk in 1917. The family moved south to London when George was a child and he learned to play piano influenced by his grandfather who was a musician. He trained as an accountant after leaving school and joined the Pay Corps at the break of war. Whilst serving he started a small Army choir called The Swing Group and although not a singer he enjoyed composing and arranging the music. Conducting came naturally. The Swing Group proved popular and appeared on wartime radio but after demobilization the group disbanded and George returned to accountancy. The BBC asked George to arrange some Negro spirituals for a new radio show called Cabin in the Cotton in 1947. As a result he formed The Glee Club and they were soon radio regulars. The group toured and appeared on television. In 1957 BBC producer, George Inns, admired the group's slick, dynamic style and it was he who, in 1957, devised the format for The Black and White Minstrel Show and asked George to join a stage tour. After several name changes the ensemble became the George Mitchell Minstrels in 1957. The Black and White Mistrals ran from June 1958 until July 1978 on BBC1 and featured the Mitchell Minstrels with soloists: Tony Mercer (bass- baritone) (1922 -1973), Dai Francis (bass-baritone) (1930 – 2003), and John Boulter (tenor). Leslie Crowther (1933-1996) , George Chisholm (1915-1997) , Margo Henderson (1928 – 2009) and Stan Stennett (1925 –2013) provided the humour and glamour and choreography was graciously given by The Television Toppers (formation dancers). The variety show slotted into a regular 45 minute show on Saturday evenings. One show guaranteed an audience of at least 16 million, and at its peak frequently managed to top 18 million viewers. The variety show was at the time a popular television genre for the whole family, The Black And White Minstrel Show established itself as one of the world's greatest musical programs on television. At the time there was no thought given to the impropriety of portraying coloured people.

The Comedians
Three if the main comedians were Scottish ,well Leslie Crowther was Scottish by adoption. They acted as "fillers" between slick song and dance routines. The complete list was impressive with Leslie Crowther, George Chisolm , Stan Sennett, Margo Henderson, Don Maclean ( toured Australia in 1971), Keith Harris (Orville and Cuddles), and Lenny Henry.

Leslie Crowther (1933-1996)
Although Leslie Crowther was not Scottish he had been a Bevin boy and was sent to Rothesay in the Firth of Clyde during the war. There the young Crowther stayed with his aunt and soaked up the West Coast humour.

George Chisholm, (1915-1997)
A trombonist from Glasgow he came from a musical family. His father was a drummer and his mother a pianist. His brother Ron became a pianist while another brother, Bert, was a trumpeter. Chisholm's first professional work was as a pianist in a Glasgow cinema and he made his first broadcast in 1932. He began working on trombone in 1934 and he doubled on both instruments for the next few years. He moved to London in 1935 to play in Teddy Joyce's band and then settled on trombone in a variety of "society" bands in the West End. He became a first class jazz trombonist and was well respected as a musician recording with the legendary Fats Waller in London in 1938. In 1940 George enlisted with the Royal Air Force and joined the RAF Dance Orchestra (known popularly as the Squadronaires). George had worked with the Goons and enjoyed comedy routines so when he was invited to join the B&W cast in 1961 he jumped at the opportunity.

Margo Henderson (1928 – 2009)
She was born in Clydebank and grew up as a young entertainer in the 1940s, singing and dancing for friends and neighbours while German bombs blasted their homes in Clydebank. She became a professional entertainer aged 19 and worked as an offbeat impressionist comedian.

Stage Show
Robert Luff's production opened at the Victoria Palace Theatre in 1969 and established itself in The Guinness Book Of Records as the stage show seen by the largest number of people. After leaving the Victoria Palace in 1972, the show toured almost every year to various big city and seaside resort theatres around the UK,. This continued each summer until 1987, when a final tour of three Butlins resorts (Maidenhead, Bognor Regis and Barry Island) saw the last official Black and White Minstrel Show on stage. Touring companies did continue the traditions until 1992 and now there are retro Minstrel style shows packing them in.

B&W Australian Tour
There were two major tours in 1964 and 1969. The BBC show was very popular with Australian audiences.

Culture Sensitivities
Many became sensitized that a large part of "minstrel humour" was based on caricaturing black people and depicting them as being both stupid and credulous. This image was felt to be insensitive and inappropriate in an increasingly multi-racial and multi-cultural Britain. Ultimately, its removal from the air coincided with the demise of the popularity of the variety genre on British television. The show was attacked as racist, a "cultural obscenity", by some, from the early 1960s. However the program was not generally perceived as racist at the time by people outside the United States, and it was sold to many parts of the world, including Australia and many African countries. Under increasing pressure the show tried a 'whiteface' variant in the late 1960s entitled Masquerade and swapping the black faces with masks, with a resulting loss in viewing figures.

History of Minstrel Shows
The Black And White Minstrel Show nostalgically harked back to the popular music hall minstrel show and was an endless flow of traditional American 'Deep South' and Country songs, usually performed with the men in blackface, and with ladies in lavish costumes. In between sets there were comedians to amuse the audience. The combination between white dancers with black-faced singers was thought by George Inns, the program’s producer, to make visually striking television. (The original Minstrels wore red make-up which made them look black on camera.) In the 19th century minstrel shows were the leading vehicle for popular music in the U.S. The banjo music influenced the development of ragtime, and the clog dancing evolved into tap dance. Two popular forms of entertainment merged: the popular acts of white actors giving comedic costumed impersonations of black people between acts of plays or during circuses; and black musicians who sang, with banjo accompaniment, in city streets. The minstrel show was born.

The "father of American minstrelsy" was Thomas Dartmouth "Daddy" Rice (1808–60), who between 1828 and 1831 developed a song-and-dance routine in which he impersonated an old, crippled black slave, dubbed Jim Crow. This routine achieved immediate popularity, and Rice performed it with great success in the U.S. and Great Britain, where he introduced it in 1836.

Soon there were bands of entertainers who eagerly took on the minstrel guise including a group called the Christy Minstrels, headed by the actor Edwin P. Christy (1815–62). The Christy Minstrel set the pattern for Minstrel stage shows. The entertainers were seated in a semicircle on the stage, with a tambourine player (Mr. Tambo) at one end and a performer on the bone castanets (Mr. Bones) at the other; the singing of songs with harmonized choruses; the exchange of jokes between the end men and the performer in the centre seat (Mr. Interlocutor). To conclude the bill there was always a special variety act. After the Civil War black entertainers (usually in blackface makeup) became more prominent. The most famous of the black minstrels composers was James Bland (1854–1911). The "Nigger Minstrel" entertainment tradition was kept alive in the music-halls and vaudeville but its popularity declined after the First World War as audiences craved more up-beat entertainment.

Worth a listen:
Swannee River
Sitting on top of the world

Scot Joplin
The Sting

Al Jolson

The New Christy Minstrels
Four Wheels on my Wagon

Fats Waller
Your feets too big

George Chisholm Sextet
Makin' whoopee (1956)

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