“The only black and the only woman reporter…” Hackney Gazette in the 1970s

The following piece appears in the book It Ain’t Half Racist Mum: Fighting racism in the media edited by Phil Cohen & Carl Gardner and published by Comedia/CARM 1982.

It’s a remarkable account of a young black female reporter of working at the paper at the time, and what she had to overcome.

Juliet Alexander

Since this was published, Juliet has worked in a wide range of senior roles including Education Careers Manager at Hackney Learning Trust and with a huge number of local community and voluntary organisations. Her Linkedin profile will tell you more. She tweets at @julietshares

Two tokens in one: the only black and the only woman reporter…
Juliet Alexander interviewed

Juliet Alexander was a reporter on the Hackney Gazette in East London for five years. At her initial interview the editor said that taking her on meant that he was killing two minorities in one. He was joking. She is interviewed by Geoffrey Sheridan[1].

I started at 18, when most people in the office were young, left of centre, and anti-racist. Being black didn’t affect what I did at the beginning — that was in 1975. Being a junior reporter meant that I had to do all the crap that was going. Even after I had been on the paper for a few years, if a kid drowned or something like that, I was the one who went to see the family to get a picture of the kid. That was mainly because I was female. Yet in an area that is a quarter black there was no way I could cover all the black stories. And there was no reason why I should go out on those stories, with a few exceptions.

An obvious case was Maurice Hope, the light middleweight world champion, from Antigua. A reporter went out to interview him, and he couldn’t understand a word that Maurice said. His mother had an even heavier accent. So I was taken along. Maurice was anti-white before he won the world championship and the white press had ignored him. He said in the interview that the Hackney Gazette was the only paper that had given him any publicity, apart from the West Indian World.

Some blacks would only deal with me, such as Eddie Grant, who set up the first black recording studio[2], and Pastor Morris, who does the Finsbury Park Carnival. I covered news from the estates and word went round like wild fire that Juliet did housing stories, so there were lots of blacks there, but whites, too. They found it hard to separate the fact that I was a reporter from the fact that I was black, which is as it should be, I think.

Before I went on to the Gazette there had been trouble at Dalston police station. A black youth had his head flushed down the loo. It was felt it might do the police some good if they got to know a black person in a different way. I probably did very good PR work on behalf of black people. The only blacks the police met were those they arrested. Meeting a black person on professional terms was as much an experience for them as it was for me.

Sexism and racism

In fact their attitude was of a bunch of men to a woman, rather than to a black. They were incredibly sexist in some cases, and began with the attitude: ‘This silly little girl can’t do her job, so we’ll go out of our way to help her.’ Realising that not all blacks wear woolly caps, there was a slight shift in their thinking. With another reporter they’d say: ‘Two niggers were picked up for mugging an old lady.’ With me it was: ‘Two muggers were picked up…’ But sometimes they’d say ‘mugger’ meaning ‘nigger’. It was ingrained.

Racism came from outside the office, not inside. This man called Sid rang up one day complaining about blacks vandalising his estate. ‘He didn’t mind blacks,’ he said, but it was obvious he did. That’s what a lot of people who rang up said. ‘I’m not racist, but…’ I told Sid his experience was really awful — I was doing my middle-class Tory lady bit. I invited him over to the paper and met him at reception. He recognised my voice, dropped his head in his hands, and called himself ‘Sid the Shit’. We had a long talk. There was one of those phone calls every day.

The paper’s policy led to abusive phone calls. We followed the NUJ policy of not putting in someone’s colour unless it was material to the story, such as a black musician where his colour is part of the description of what he does. We would never put emotive terms into the headline or the introduction of an article. The North London branch of the NUJ was very militant and backed the union’s guidelines. The editor agreed with that. But if it was common knowledge that someone was black — if the evening papers had said so — we’d get abusive phone calls wanting to know why we didn’t call ‘a spade a spade’.

Striking against racism

We had a walk-out over racism. During the Greater London Council elections in 1977 a reporter noticed that an advert for a National Front meeting was due to go into the paper. The management said they couldn’t remove it. It was an immediate decision to go out on strike. I was doing the front-page lead article that day. I put it in my bag and walked out. We were out for three days, and picked up a hell of a lot of signatures supporting our action. We normally completely ignored NF meetings. The only time we mentioned them was in unfavourable terms — who they’d beaten up that week. In elections we gave details of all the candidates except the NF’s. We simply said they were standing two candidates, or however many it was.

Before I went to the Gazette it had given coverage to Derek Day[3] — a leading NF member — and to tenants in Hoxton, which was a fascist base. Things changed a bit. When Day’s address was published in the paper, because his son was involved in a court case, he came down to the office, distressed the receptionist, and demanded to see the editor. I volunteered to go down. He was ranting and raving. He came up to me, nose to nose. ‘I’m Derek Day,’ he yelled. `I’m racist and proud of it.’ He described the Gazette in unglowing terms, tore the paper in shreds, and threw it over me. I thanked him for his comment and excused myself.

As far as the NF was concerned, we were a ‘Nigger-loving Commie rag’, which is what they sprayed on the building. When flags were put up for the Jubilee, someone came into the office to lower them. ‘We had no right to fly the British flag,’ we were told.

(Juliet Alexander left the Hackney Gazette to work on the BBC Radio London programme Black Londoners. She now works in TV in the Midlands.)


Some new notes

1. Geoffrey Sheridan who interviewed Juliet also has Hackney Radical History connections. He was son of a tailor, and Communist party member and grew up in Stamford Hill. He was a member of the International Marxist Group and wrote for a number of radical and socialist publications, From 1987 until his death in the year 2000, he worked in business planning for Hackney council. Guardian obituary here.

2. The legendary Coach House Recording Studios, founded in 1972 and based at 81 Osbaldeston Road, London N16.

3. Derrick Day was a notorious racist thug and National Front member. He was in charge of security at the NF’s headquarters Excalibur House in Shoreditch in the late 1970s. Veteran anti-fascist Martin Lux described him thus:

“Times were much harder then and a lot of the NF were very hard, violent people. You just have to look at the head of the Hoxton NF back then, Derrick Day, a fuckin gorilla with a face covered with razor cuts.”

It should go without saying that it would be remarkably brave for a young black woman working as a junior reporter, to volunteer to meet a ranting and raving fascist bully. Derrick Day died in 1995 during a protest against live animal exports in Brightlingsea, where he then lived. It’s unclear whether he had recanted his support for violent white supremacy later in life.

Lenin in Hackney – revisited

Nine years ago I wrote about the visit of prominent communists to Hackney in 1907:

Since then, additional information has come my way about:

  • The press hysteria concerning some of the female delegates attending the congress
  • The location of the place in Dalston where hundreds of the revolutionaries stayed throughout the event
  • The identity of the painter who portrayed this momentous occasion

I’ve also added details of some source material at the end and reuploaded the short film discussing it all…

This has been added to the original post to keep everything in one place, so click on the link above…

Who killed Michael Ferreira? Part Two

Cover art subsequently credited to Dan Jones

Content warning: archaic racist and sexist language.

The racist killing of Michael Ferreira in December 1978 and subsequent protests inspired some local secondary school children to write a play. This was then published anonymously as a pamphlet.

Teacher, writer and activist Chris Searle later explained that the play had been written collectively by his pupils at Langdon Park School in Tower Hamlets:

“We acted out the play in the classroom, and as the campaign grew in East London, to publicise and protest against the circumstances of Michael Ferreira’s death, we decided to use the play in whatever way we could to make a contribution.

I had already met Michael’s mother and told her about the project, and she too thought it would be a useful idea to publish the short play as a pamphlet for young people. I interviewed her and learned some information about her son… and this became the basis for a short introduction.

The play… became a useful vehicle for informing people, in a narrative and dramatic form, about what happened to Michael and his friends.”

Chris searle

Searle had previously caused a furore in 1971 when he published a collection of poems by pupils at John Cass Foundation and Red Coat School in Stepney. The poems were deemed inappropriate and Searle was sacked. Kids at the school then went on strike, which along with some pressure from the National Union of Teachers, led to his reinstatment.

So that probably explains the anonymity of this play’s publication, which appears to have been well justified. When “Who Killed Michael Ferreira?” was included in an anthology in the 1980s, Searle was denounced in Parliament and the play was mischaracterised as being about “a gang of black youths”.

The full text of the booklet follows below. The biography of Michael and a related newsclipping from the last page are placed at the beginning here instead. A scan of the booklet is available at archive.org.

As Chris Searle says, the play was written by “a multi-racial group of 14 year olds” in 1979 and the words used by the protagonists reflect this: “their dialogue is steeped in sexist banter, there is no attempt to idealize them as characters or sanitize their speech.”

Much of the information above is taken from Chris Searle – None But Our Words: Critical Literacy in Classroom and Community (Open University Press, 1998). This also includes many interesting insights into how the pupils worked together to create the play (and a fascinating chapter on the Stepney incident too, amongst others).

With thanks once again to Alan Denney.

Notes:

There are a couple of references in the text that warrant further explanation in 2022:

Chapel Street Market, Islington – This was one of the National Front’s main pitches for selling their literature – as well as intimidating the local community – at the weekend (another pitch being Brick Lane). There is more informaton about this (and the effective physical resistance to it) in Anti-Fascist Actions’s The Battle For Chapel Market, republished at Libcom.

SUS’ – legisation that allowed the cops to stop, search and potentially arrest people on suspicion of them being in breach of section 4 of the Vagrancy Act 1824. It was widely used against black youth, and this is often cited as one of the factors that led to widespread rioting in the UK’s urban areas in 1980 and 1981.


MICHAEL FERREIRA, 1959-1978

Michael Ferreira was born in Stanleytown, Guyana in 1959. He died after being stabbed in the liver by a white youth along Stoke Newington Hight Street in December 1978.

Michael, the third child, grew up with his three sisters in the region of Berbice, the scene of a great slave revolt in the eighteenth century. Guyana is drained by huge rivers and covered in tropical forests and savannah, with a cleared coastal area of cultivated land, rice fields and small villages. In the yard of Michael’s parents’ house there were chickens, turkey and hogs, paw-paw and coconut trees- a far cry from the brick and concrete of his later home, Hackney, East London.

When he was six his mother emigrated to Britain, and gradually other members of the family, including his three sisters, left to join her. Michael went to live with his aunt in McKenzie, a mining town inland in Guyana, hacked out of the thick equatorial forest. There he continued his childhood, living near the bauxite mines and spending many happy hours fishing in the rivers and streams that abound there.

His family say that he was a happy, open, fun-loving boy at this stage of his life, even though he was always very small for his age. He never grew much higher than five feet, even when he reached his late teens. But his childhood in McKenzie was cut short in 1971, when he left Guyana to join his mother and sisters in Hackney. When he arrived in such a new environment his personality seemed to close up, and he became quieter and much more shy and withdrawn. It was only after he finally left school and in the last three years of his life that the liveliness and self-confidence of his childhood began to emerge again.

His years at Downsview School, Hackney, were marked by a growing interest in mechanics and practical subjects, and when he left school at 16 he went straight into a job as a motor mechanic. He had a dream of one day opening his own garage. He was never involved in any violence and had a pacific character that always sought to heal conflict rather than provoke it. Even when faced with the knife of the racist attacker he did not think of fighting, but stood his ground trustingly.

Michael’s horrific death, in the face of police connivance and delay, was not an isolated incident. We remember the brutal hounding of David Oluwale, West African, in Leeds in 1969, and the racist gibes and fists of the Leeds police that caused his persecution and death. We remember the young London Irishman, Stephen McCarthy, his head smashed by police against a steel bus stop in Islington in 1971. We remember the lack of inclination of the East London police to defend and support Asians like Altab Ali – murdered on the streets of Spitalfields last year. And we remember Kevin Gately, killed at Red Lion Square, and Blair Peach, an anti-racist teacher from a Bow school, clubbed to death at Southall by the Special Patrol Group.

How much of the reality of a peaceful, five feet one inch black teenager knifed by young white thugs who towered over him and left to bleed to death by London police, truly emerged in the courts? Clearly very little. The truth is still clear: despite a toothless and impotent Race Relations Act, overtly racist groups like the National Front and British Movement give open encouragement to white youths to attack and kill black people on the streets, and they still have the full freedom and protection of the law to continue to prompt them. British racists who publically talk of genocide and ‘one down down, a million to go’ after the murder of an Asian youth are acquitted and congratulated by British judges. The mentality of gas-chambers is upheld and promoted. Michael’s assassin, from the evidence presented in court, carried a knife for the express purpose of ‘having a go at coloureds’ and was a known associate and newspaper seller of the National Front. And yet the court and all-white jury declared that there was no racist motive for the killing.

This short play was written collectively by secondary school children shortly after Michael’s death. They never knew Michael or his friends or his killers, and so clearly the play is their attempt, through their imaginations, to understand the incident and and the characters, rather than a strict documentary drama. The children who wrote the play have their family origins in England, Scotland. Ireland, St Lucia, St Vincent, Barbados, Jamaica, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Hong Kong, Somalia, Morocco, Turkey, Cyprus and Mauritius. They are a part of the British People who will live and work to carve out a new life in London, and carve through the bigotry and racism that exploits and threatens us all.

1979 article from West Indian World

‘NO JUSTICE’

“There is no justice in this land for Black people.” That’s the way Mrs Ann Moses, the mother of 18 year old Michael Ferreira of Hackney, East London who was stabbed to death by a white thug late last year, reacted to the 5 year sentence passed against her son’s killer by Justice Stephen Brown at the Old Bailey Court, last week.

All White Jury

An all-white jury sitting in judgement of the two accused men, Mark Sullivan, 17 years old and a market street trader of Kingsland Road, Shoreditch, East London and 18 year old James Barnes a meat porter of William Penn House, Shipton, Bethnal Green, returned a guilty verdict on Sullivan and set free his accomplice, Barnes,

The court was told that both men had been involved in a fight with Michael and a group of his friends in Stoke Newington Hight Street late last year when Michael was fatally stabbed by Sullivan. Half an hour after the stabbing Sullivan and Barnes were picked up by the police for questioning and admitted that they had committed the crime. A few minutes after Michael was stabbed, he was taken to St Leonards Hospital in Hackney where we was announced dead on arrival by doctors.

A mass demonstration was organised by the Hackney Trades Council and Black organisations in the area following this and other murders of Black people in East London, with the protestors claiming that supporters of the racialist party, the National Front, were responsible for Michael Ferreira’s death. In the trial however, the judge dismissed any connection with the National Front in the murder and in passing sentence on Sullivan said:

“You used a deadly weapon on a completely harmless young man who had done you no wrong.”

“It must be made plain to all those who go forth with weapons of this kind that they can expect serious punishment if they use them.”

I interviewed the bereaved mother at her home in Rushmore Road, Lower Clapton, last Saturday, and with tears streaking down her cheeks, she said: “I am completely flabbergasted with the sentence. I cannot see Black people given proper justice in the courts of this land. I myself felt like dying when [I] heard that the judge had sent that “murderer” down for just five years. I expected that Sullivan deserved to get 14 years for killing my son.”

Mrs Ann Moses was also very critical of the racial composition of the jury and cast doubts on the integrity of the judiciary for their failure to include a black in judgement in cases of this nature.

After the trial in which the public gallery was filled with supporters of the National Front, a roar whent up in the court room when the judge announced the verdict.

Who killed Michael Ferreira?

Michael Ferreira, a West Indian youth, died during the early morning of December 10th, 1978, in Stoke Newington, East London.

This short play is a collective attempt, written by a class of third year school students from an East London secondary school, to trace the events leading up to his death.

Characters

West Indian Youths:

  • George
  • Dexton
  • Michael
  • Delroy
  • Leroy
  • Tony

White Youths:

  • Mark
  • John
  • Peter

3 policemen

2 ambulancemen

Mr and Mrs Daniels: Parents of Tony and Leroy

Mr and Mrs Ferreira: Parents of Michael

Mortuary attendant

Narrator

PROLOGUE

The evil wings of racism have once again
spread over this country,
The evil that has brought fear—
and I warn my black brothers
stay clear!
The police are racist
the employers are racist
the bosses won’t give you a job
if you’re an Asian called Abdul
or even a West Indian named Bob!
The police pick on us
because we’re black,
they nick us on ‘SUS’
they beat us up
insult us…
Now, there’s a dirty word—N.F.
and when the racists insult us
we have to act deaf.
But we’re not going to act deaf no more
because we know the N.F.
are rotten to the core!

There have been demonstrations
against the N.F.
but that won’t do no good!
The racists are cowards,
they’ve got no sense—
just young hooligans.
If you’re black, brown or even colourless
but red—
the N.F. want you dead!
Get together, let the people know,
there’ll be no fun if the Nazis grow!

WHO KILLED MICHAEL FERREIRA?

SCENE 1: Stoke Newington High Sheet

NARRATOR: The time is 1.15am. A group of youths are walking home down Stoke Newington High Street from a late night disco. The date is December 1978.

Enter George, Dexton, Michael, Delroy, Leroy and Tony. They walk a group down the street, talking together and sometimes staring into lighted shop windows.

LEROY I can’t wait to get home.

MICHAEL Hey—did you see those girls in the corner?

DEXTON Yeh, did you see that one with the big tits?

GEORGE Yeh—weren’t they massive?

DEXTON Monica looked great, didn’t the?

TONY She’s really good-looking—I could fall for her myself.

DELROY Keep your eyes off man, she’s mine!

GEORGE What about that girl with the red straights on – she had a right old pair of knockers.

LEROY But it was a great disco—wasn’t it?

GEORGE Hmmm…. not bad.

LEROY What do you mean ‘not bad’—it was brilliant.

GEORGE It was quite good, but the beer was too dear.

TONY Well—maybe the disco wasn’t very good, but the birds were.

Delroy stops at a shop window.

DELROY Hey, look in this sports shop here. They’ve got those new Adidas boots – hey George, what do they call them now?

GEORGE I don’t know!

TONY They’re called ‘World Cup’ 78′.

MICHAEL Hey—Tottenham lost 7-1 today.

LEROY That’s a lie—who was it against then?

MICHAEL The greatest team in the world.

LEROY Who’s the greatest team in the world then? I thought it was Tottenham?

MICHAEL Tottenham? Bunch of wankers! Liverpool are the best team in the world!

DELROY Hey- I like that track suit.

LEROY Do you lot know what the time is? It’s ten past one already.

MICHAEL Is it? God, my mum’s going to be worried about me man.

DELROY Look-I’m running, otherwise I’m going to get hit man. You coming?

TONY Yeh—I’ll come on with you.

LEROY Me too.

MICHAEL All right, we’ll walk on behind you then.

TONY Okay—see you!

Delroy, Leroy and Tony walk on ahead.

Enter three white youths, walking along the other side of the road, opposite George, Dexton and Michael.

Mark, John and Peter begin to signal and hoot at the boys opposite them.

LEROY Hey, who are that lot over there?

GEORGE I don’t know them, do you?

MARK (Shouting across to the other side of the road.)

Hey, look at that one (pointing to Michael) he must have come from the deepest part of the jungle by the looks of it.

PETER Pity there’s no trees here for him to swing on!

JOHN Ahhhh—there’s no bananas neither.

PETER Funny—I’ve never seen a monkey fight, have you?

MICHAEL (Shouting back to them) Come on then you….

DEXTON No it’s not worth it, Michael. We’ve already had that trouble with the police.

GEORGE Yeh, we don’t want no trouble with them.

DEXTON All right then, let’s move on a bit.

GEORGE (Pointing) I know them boys. I’ve seen them down Chapel Street Market giving out National Front leaflets.

MARK Oi-you black bastards! Get back to your own country before I kick you there!

DEXTON You know, I feel like going over there and smashing their faces in.

GEORGE No, we can’t do that. That’s asking for it. We’ve had enough trouble with the cops – you remember that SUS business?

PETER All you blacks are chickens! If you had any guts you’d come over and fight, you bloody monkey-chasers!

DEXTON Why don’t we go and do them?

GEORGE Cool it man—the Babylon shop’s just down the road.

DEXTON No—let’s go and teach them a lesson.

MICHAEL Look—it’s not worth it, is it? They’ve done us enough times for SUS, we don’t want no more trouble.

MICHAEL But don’t walk any faster because of them or they’ll think we’re a bunch of shitters.

George, Michael and Dexton walk on up the street.

JOHN Yah, look at you lot, running up the road already.

Going home to your mammies are you?

GEORGE Come on, let’s let it.

MICHAEL No, don’t run – just ignore them.

DEXON But they’ve got to learn not to provoke us like this, man.

MARK You bloody niggers! Come and fight us you load of wankers!

GEORGE Come on, don’t take no notice, we don’t want no trouble.

MICHAEL Look – we’ve had enough of the SUS, haven’t we? Just keep walking normally.

The three white boys cross over to their side of the road. They start to sing ‘Go Home You Blacks, Go Home!’

MARK Hey, come on! Three onto three’s a fair fight.

JOHN Yeh, come on you peanut-heads!

DEXTON (Turning) Come on then, come on!

MICHAEL Knock it off Dexton! Keep on walking.

DEXTON No man! They want a fight so they’re going to get a fight – I’m not chickening out of this one.

MICHAEL You’re giving them just what they want, you berk! They’re trying to get you into trouble. Don’t take no notice of them.

DEXTON We could beat them easy.

MICHAEL Look—we’re not chickens, we just don’t want no more trouble.

MARK Come on peanut-heads, what you waiting for?

PETER What? Expect a black to fight back? You must be joking!

JOHN Right—come on, let’s get them!

John, Peter and Mark jump on George, Dexton and Michael.

DEXTON Right—you started it, now you’re going to get it.

GEORGE Watch that one there—he’s got a knife.

JOHN (To Mark) Come on, put the knife away Mark!

DEXTON Look out Michael, he’s coming at you!

JOHN Put that bloody knife away Mark. We don’t need that.

DEXTON Michael, look out!

Mark runs at Michael with the knife. He stabs him in the liver.

MICHAEL AE.E.E.E.E.E.

DEXTON George—he’s bloody knifed him!

GEORGE Bloody hell—Michael!

JOHN (To Mark) I told you to put that bloody thing away. Now look at what you’ve done. Let’s get the hell out of here!

MARK Yeh, you’re right—let’s split!

Mark, John and Peter run off up the road. Michael collapses on the pavement.

DEXTON Michael—come on, you’re all right really, get off the floor.

GEORGE Come on, get up Michael.

MICHAEL Ah-h-h-h-h-h-h…..

DEXTON Bloody hell, that’s all we need now.

GEORGE Dexton, help me get him up. (They support him on to his feet.) We’d better get him to the hospital.

MICHAEL Bloody hell, it hurts…. I’m bleeding all over.

Delroy, Leroy and Tony tun back to see Michael.

TONY What’s going on?

DELROY Hey, what happened to Michael?

GEORGE One of them bloody skinheads knifed him.

TONY Don’t muck about—now, what happened?

GEORGE They stabbed him, I tell you!

DEXTON Don’t stand there chatting—look, he could be bleeding to death.

TONY Where’s the nearest call box? He needs an ambulance.

DELROY It’s just round the comer.

TONY Let’s go then. (Tony and Delroy run off.)

DEXTON (Supporting Michael) It’s all right Michael, we’re going to get the ambulance for you.

GEORGE Yeh, it’ll be here in no time.

MICHAEL Ah-h-h-h-h-h-h it really hurts now.

Tony and Delroy run back, breathless.

TONY The bloody ththg was broke.

DELROY Some vandals smashed the phone in.

DEXTON That’s all we need, isn’t it?

Michael groans, almost continuously.

GEORGE What are we going to do then? He’s really hurt.

LEROY The nearest phone’s in the police station.

GEORGE What—take him to the Babylon shop? Once we’re in there we’ll never get out.

LEROY What choice have we got—look how he’s bleeding.

GEORGE All right then, let’s get him down there.

MICHAEL (Almost delirious) Yeah…. come on…. take me there.

DEXTON Oh Christ, I suppose we’ll have to.

LEROY Bloody hell, I hope it’s all right.

They support Michael to the steps of the police station. They half lift and half drag him up the steps.

GEORGE Come on all of you. Let’s get him up here and find a phone.

End of Scene I.

SCENE 2 In Stoke Newington Police Station

The boys enter the police station. There are two uniformed policemen behind the desk.

POLICEMAN 1 What do you lot want?

POLICEMAN 2 What have you been up to?

POLICEMAN 1 Yeh—what’s going on?

GEORGE Please…. look, our friend’s bleeding. Can we call an ambulance?

POLICEMAN 1 Hold your horses, I want to know exactly what’s going on here.

GEORGE There ain’t time for that—look how he’s bleeding.

POLICEMAN 1 Shut up – now first of all, give us your names and addresses.

GEORGE Look, just phone for an ambulance first, we’ll tell you all about it afterwards.

DEXTON Yeh, he’s hurt, you know.

MICHAEL Please…. help me…. phone for an ambulance.

POLICEMAN 2 Keep quiet son, we’ll attend to you in a minute. I’ve got to take a statement first.

DEXTON Look, I can tell you very quickly. In a few simple words. We were jumped on by three white kids. One of them stabbed him.

OFFICER 1 Where was this?

DEXTON Opposite the park.

POLICEMAN 1 Did you recognise any of them?

DEXTON No, but we’ve seen the all down Chapel Street handing out National Front leaflets. Now come on, please call us an ambulance.

MICHAEL (Groaning) Please…

Enter a third policeman.

POLICEMAN 3 What’s going on here?

OFFICER 2 These boys have been starting trouble.

DEXTON What? We didn’t do nothing, they set on us. Now are you going to phone for a bloody ambulance?

POLICEMAN 3 Watch your language with me Sonny. Now, have you lot been in any trouble before?

DEXTON We were picked up once for SUS.

POLICEMAN 3 Ahhh! So you started a fight eh? Picked on some white boys eh? Then you got the worst of it and come here with your lies about other kids?

GEORGE (Pushing forward) Look – can’t you see how our friend is bleeding. Send for an ambulance!

TONY Yeh—if he gets any worse, you’re to blame copper!

POLICEMAN 3 Be very careful son. Now, what time did this so-called attack occur?

DEXTON I don’t know—about half-past one.

POLICEMAN 3 Oh yeh? And what were you little boys doing out at that time of night?

MICHAEL (Groaning) An ambulance….

DEXTON Look, for the last time—are you going to help him?

POLICEMAN 3 Just answer the questions.

DEXTON Look, we’re not the bloody criminals – they set on us, they knifed our mate. Why all the questions?

POLICEMAN 3 Just answer the questions.

DEXTON All right, we were coming home from the disco.

POLICEMAN 3 A likely story.

DEXTON It’s true for Christ sake, it’s true.

POLICEMAN 3 I don’t want no lip from you Sambo. Now, what street did this happen?

DEXTON This street.

POLICEMAN 3 What street’s this then?

DEXTON Stoke Newington High Street – you bloody well know! Now phone the bloody ambulance.

POLICEMAN 1 (Stepping from behind the desk with Policeman 2) Who do you think you’re bloody swearing at? Up against the wall!

GEORGE Leave him alone!

POLICEMAN 1 You too, up against the wall! (The two policemen throw Dexton and George up against the wall.)

LEROY Look—our mate, been knifed, and you’re not doing nothing to help him.

POLICEMAN 3 There’s nothing wrong with him, just a bloody scratch—you can’t have us on.

TONY Well, let’s phone for an ambulance, then.

POLICEMAN 2 Look, the quicker you tell us what happened, the quicker your mate will see a doctor.

DEXTON That’s bloody blackmail.

POLICEMAN 2 Well, I’m using it on the right people then, aren’t I?

POLICEMAN 3 So where were you when he got stabbed?

DEXTON We’ve said already—Look, can’t you see he’s getting weaker?

POLICEMAN 3 Have you even been in trouble with the police before?

DEXTON I told you- I was picked up on SUS once.

POLICEMAN 3 Ah-well that throws a different COLOUR on it, then, doesn’t it? So you could have been out nicking tonight for all we know.

Michael does a terrible scream, followed by low groans.

DEXTON For Christ’s sake, can’t you see the blood on the floor?

POLICEMAN 3 All right Jack—phone for the ambulance.

Policeman 1 phones. The action freezes.

NARRATOR The boys were interrogated for ten minutes by the police before they called an ambulance for Michael. It took another fifteen minutes for the ambulance to arrive. All this time Michael’s condition was getting worse and his blood was dripping on the floor.

Action unfreezes.

GEORGE Look—can we phone Michael’s mum to tell her what’s happened?

POLICEMAN 1 No telephone calls!

DEXTON Look, come on man, all our mums will be worried sick.

POLICEMAN 1 Are you deaf? I said no telephone calls, do you hear?

LEROY Look, it’s our right to let our parents know what’s happened to us.

POLICEMAN 1 Sonny—you black bastards have got no rights in this country. Just shut up.

Enter two ambulancemen with a stretcher.

DELROY Christ, what kept you—look at our mate.

AMBULANCEMAN 1 Come on, get out of the way. Let’s see him.

AMBULANCEMAN 2 Got him Bill? Okay, let’s have him.

Michael is put onto the stretcher, stiil groaning. The other boys move as if to get into the ambulance with him.

POLICEMAN 1 Where do you think you’re going?

DEXTON We’re going with him to the hospital.

LEROY Yeh—he’s our mate, we want to go in the ambulance with him.

POLICEMAN 3 Oh no you don’t! You’re staying here, I’ve got some more questions for you lot.

DEXTON All right—then let just one of us go then.

POLICEMAN 2 Sit down Sonny—you’re staying here, you’re not going anywhere.

DEXTON For Christ’s sake, he’s our mate! We can’t leave him alone.

POLICEMAN 2 All of you! You’re staying here with us for the night.

POLICEMAN 3 Yeh, you’re holding your mate up now, aren’t you? I thought you said he was bleeding to death?

POLICEMAN 2 (To the ambulanceman) All right, take him away.

The ambulancemen take out Michael as the boys look on. The Action freezes again.

NARRATOR It took 45 minutes for the ambulance to reach the hospital which was only a few minutes drive away. Michael was dead when he arrived at the hospital.
Who killed Michael Ferreira?

End of Scene 2.

SCENE 3 Leroy and Tony’s House

It is 7.15am. Mr and Mrs Daniels are eating the. breakfast. They are both very worried.

Leroy and Tony enter, puffed out.

MR DANIELS Where the hell have you been? Your mother’s worried sick. (He stands up at the table).

MRS DANIELS Boys, I was so sick worrying about you.

MR DANIELS Look-it’s breakfast time. You could have been knocked down, robbed, dead on the streets-how were we to know?

MRS DANIELS I was going to phone the police about you.

TONY Sorry mum, look day, it’s a long story—but to cut it short, Michael got stabbed by a white boy last night, and we’ve been in Stoke Newington police station all night.

MR DANIELS What did you say?

TONY And we only went in there to phone for an ambulance for Michael.

LEROY And they wouldn’t even let us phone you up, or Michael’s mum.

MRS DANIELS What…. Michael stabbed?

LEROY And they kept him in the police station for ages before they called an ambulance.

MR DANIELS Have you told Michael, parents yet?

TONY No—Dexton was going to go round there, but he’s dead scared to go.

MR DANIELS Did you say they kept him there bleeding without even calling an ambulance?

The action freezes

End of Scene 3

SCENE 4 Outside the Mortuary

Mr and Mrs Ferreira are waiting to see the body of their son.

ATTENDANT (Opening the door) I’m sorry, but you can’t come in.

MR FERREIRA Look, we want to see our son’s body, that’s all.

ATTENDANT Well, you can’t come in. The coroner said that no one, only the police, can see the body yet.

MRS FERREIRA (Passionately) I want to see my son…. please let me see my son.

ATTENDANT I’m sorry madam, I can’t let you in.

MRS FERREIRA I brought him into the world-now I can’t see him now he’s dead?

POLICEMAN 1 (Entering) Move along please, we don’t want any more disturbances here.

MR FERREIRA You’ve got our son in there. We want to see him!

POLICEMAN 1 Well you can’t, now move along home or have to nick you for obstruction. (He tries to take Mrs Ferreira’s arm.)

MRS FERREIRA Don’t you touch me! You were the ones who killed my boy. You’ll never hear the last of this.

POLICEMAN 1 You don’t know what you’re on about, you blacks are all the same.

MR FERREIRA You! Racist! Listen to me—we’re going to get all our people together and we’re going to fight your dirty racism! We’re as much a part of country as anyone.

MRS FERREIRA We’ll make a movement to help all the black people, and we’ll clear racism right off the streets of this country!

The action freezes.

End of Scene 4

EPILOGUE

THE NARRATOR reads his final poem:

The boys were coming home,
They had been to the disco
in Stoke Newington—
Delroy, Gocrge, Leroy, Tony, Michael and Dexton.
Along came the blokes
looking for trouble
The racists jeered and insulted,
They crossed the road and used the knife,
the lethal weapon
which took poor Michael’s life.
The thugs shouted ‘Let’s run!’
Poor Michael
He was bleeding but nothing could be done.

His friends took him to the police station,
the cops kept him there—
against his will
as if he was the criminal,
as if they were pulling his hair.
They kept him there for quite a bit—
they treated him like shit.
They killed that kid
just like the police in Ireland,
or Hitler with the yids.

The ambulance took half an hour,
the ambulancemen could have been having their dinner
or taking a shower.
By this time he’d lost a lot of blood,
they said they did all they could.
Michael is gone now
but we’ll remember him.
We hate the one who killed him-
he’s a slut.

After this, there’s no turning back,
Black and white unite
and together we will fight!
To stop these rats from roaming the streets.

THE END

Back cover

Sonia Solicari & The Many Ways Hoxton’s Robert Geffrye Slaver Statue Links Back To The City Of London

RECLAIM EC1

In past posts we have documented the ongoing links between slave trading former Lord Mayor of London Robert Geffrye and the City of London. Geffrye’s portrait still hangs in pride of place in Ironmongers Hall (Shaftesbury Place, Aldersgate Street, London EC2Y 8AA) and this noxious livery company also boosts a statue of slave owner William Beckford in its HQ and maintains other memorials to Geffrye outside London (as we have documented, scroll down).

What we haven’t addressed is how Sonia Solicari, the director of the Museum of the Home which hosts Hoxton’s unwanted Robert Geffrye statue also links us back to the City of London. As is clear from Solicari’s Wikipedia and LinkedIn entries, before becoming the director of this Hackney institution, she worked at the equally problematic Guildhall Art Gallery – housing the City of London council’s art collection which includes a number of portraits of its…

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Today in London policing history, 1983: Colin Roach dies in Stoke Newington Police Station

past tense

Who Killed Colin Roach?

Colin Roach died of a gunshot wound he received in the foyer of Stoke Newington police station on the 12th of January, 1983. The precise time of death was never established, but it was somewhere between 11:30 and midnight.

Colin Roach

On January 12th, Colin, 21, unemployed, black, asked a friend to drive him over to Stoke Newington High Street to visit his brother. His friend thought Colin seemed ‘petrified’, and on the journey he talked about someone who was going to kill him.
Colin got out of the car in the High Street and then walked into Stoke Newington police station. Concerned, Colin’s friend went to get Colin’s father, who lived in Bow. His concern was justified – as Colin walked into the front entrance of the police station, a sawn-off shotgun was pushed into his mouth and he was blown away. The police claimed…

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Who killed Michael Ferreira? Part One

Michael Ferreira (1959-1978)

At about 1:30am on Saturday 10th December [1978], six black youths were walking past the Astra Cinema in Stoke Newington [117 Stoke Newington Road]. They were returning from a party. Three of them stopped to get a drink and the other three waited. While they were waiting, three white men walked past on the other side of the road. They stopped and shouted National Front slogans at the black youths, two of them decided to move off to avoid any aggravation.

One of them, Michael Ferreira, decided to stand his ground. The three white thugs crossed the road, and one stabbed Michael in the chest. He fell and the three ran away.

Michael’s friends returned and carried him the short distance to Stoke Newingtion Police Station. They arrived there at 2am. The police began to question the others about what they were doing out at that time and didn’t seem very interested in Michael bleeding to death. It took 45 minutes for an ambulance to arrive. (Shoreditch Ambulance Station is less than ten minute’s drive away.)

Michael was eventually taken to St Leonard’s hospital, where he died at 4am.

Hackney peoples press #40 January 1979

Michael Ferreira was born in Stanleytown, Guyana in 1959. In 1971 he emigrated to the UK to join his parents who had moved here a few years earlier. He was a pupil at Downsview School, Hackney and left at the age of 16 to become a mechanic. Michael was still a teenager when he was killed.

According to Hackney Council for Racial Equality:

“The police were more interested in questioning him, instead of getting him to hospital immediately, although they said later that they called an ambulance straight away. His friends saw that he was rapidly weakening but could not get the police to accept that the most urgent action was needed. When the ambulance eventually came, it was too late. He died in the ambulance on the way to hospital.”

HCRE quoted in Benn & worpole

1978 – increased tensions in Hackney

Mentioning that Michael’s assailants “stopped and shouted National Front slogans” was significant. The fascist group had been increasingly active in the borough at the time.

  • On April 29th 1978 the National Front (NF) held an election meeting at Whitmore School in Hoxton, which was picketed by teachers’ unions and others. The day after this, the enormous Anti Nazi League “Carnival Against The Nazis” was held in Victoria Park, attended by tens of thousands of people.
  • In June 1978 the first meeting of the North West Hackney Anti-Nazi League was disrupted by an organised gang of 25 NF sympathisers.
  • Also in June 1978, 45 year old Ishaque Ali died of heart failure following a racially motivated attack on Urswick Road, Lower Clapton. According to some accounts, his attackers strangled Ishaque with bootlaces.
  • In July 1978 a ‘Black Solidarity Day’ was organised by the Tower Hamlets and Hackney Defence Committee in response to racial violence and discrimination in East London.
  • In August 1978 a group of NF supporters paid a visit to community bookshop and cafe Centerprise with rolled up union jack flags on ornamental poles and copies fo National Front News. The group verbally and physically abused customers and staff. One of them pissed in the childrens’ play area.
  • In September 1978, the National Front revealed that its new national HQ would be Excalibur House at 73 Great Eastern Street, South Hackney. Thirty NF members attempted to menace a special meeting of Hackney Council convened to discuss the new HQ.

There had been intense protests against large NF marches in Wood Green and Lewisham in the previous year and the NF was building up to a major campaign in the 1979 general election.

Michael’s death also needs to be seen in the wider context of violent racism throughout London at that time, for example the killing of Altab Ali in May 1978 in neighbouring Tower Hamlets – not to mention the day to day casual and institutional racism of the time.

The Communiy Responds

Over 150 people attended meeting on 21st of December 1978 to protest the circumstances of Michael’s death. They agreed to set up an group called Hackney Black People’s Defence Organisation. The group held regular public meetings at Ridley Road market and organised picekts of Hackney police stations.

On Friday 12th January 1979, the men accused of being Michael’s assailants appeared at Highbury magistrates court. They included 17 year old Mark Sullivan (a market trader from Kingsland Road, Shoreditch), 18 year old James Barnes (a meat porter from Bethnal Green) and a third whose identity I have not been able to determine.

According to the West Indian Times, the accused had been picked up by the cops shortly after the stabbing and had confessed to their involvement. Sullivan was accused of being the one who fatally stabbed Michael Ferreira. Barnes’ charge was reduced from murder to “disturbing the peace”. His bail conditons included him not setting foot in Hackney “for his own protection”.

Hackney Black People’s Defence Organisation arranged for a large turnout at the second hearing a week later on the 19th of January, which was met with suspicion by the authorities. According to Hackney Peoples Press:

  • All black people entering the court were searched, but white people were not.
  • The hearing was adjourned “due to the large black presence”
  • Michael’s mother Mrs Ann Moses, was naturally distressed at the adjournment and shouted “We want justice!” in the court, at which point the magistrate ordered the room to be cleared. Mrs Moses was then taken into police custody and “manhandled and insulted”.
  • A unnamed young black man protesting at Mrs Moses’ treatment was arrested and bound over.
  • A second young black man, Winston James was physically assualted by police in the corridors of the court with no provocation. He was charged with obstructing the police and assaulting a policeman. Hackney Black People’s Association secured Winston a good lawyer and publicised his case.

(Hackney Peoples Press #41 Feb 1979, p8)

Michael’s funeral was the day after the furore at the court – Saturday 20th January 1979.

Hackney Peoples Press

On a cold and snowy January Saturday, several hundred people gathered in Clapton to join the funeral cortege of nineteen-year-old Michael Ferreira, murdered just before Christmas in east London’s fourth racist murder in eight months.

No banners or placards were carried, no chants were raised, no papers were sold. There was just a solemn procession, about equal numbers of black people and white people following a flower-lined hearse, with an enormous wreath reading “SON”, and two black limousines carrying Michael’s family.

As the march moved slowly up Kingsland High Street, crowds of black people gathered at the end of Ridley Road market to pay their respects. Raised fist salutes were given as “We shall overcome” was sung again and again. And a man standing by the side of the road asked: “Who was he? Was it anyone important?”

Of course Michael Ferreira was important. He had a family, he had friends and they have lost a nineteen-year-old son or brother, cut down in a cowardly attack. But there is more to his name now. By his death he has become a symbol of all that is wrong with our racialist society.

This is why the black people on the procession were angry, and why many demanded that they should protest outside Stoke Newington police station, instead of tamely dispersing when the cortege moved off to the crematorium.

This is why the Hackney Black People’s defence organisation has been formed, to demand justice for the death of Michael Ferreira, and justice for the racialist oppression of black people everywhere.

Hackney Peoples Press #41 Feb 1979 p1

Friend of this site Alan Denney was at the funeral and has kindly sent us his haunting photos:

Police officers outside Stoke Newington police station during the funeral procession

Alan described the procession as a:

“Somber occasion”, with a ‘simmering sense of anger and disbelief’.

In conversation with Tom ramsden

Other attendees agreed:

“The funeral became an occasion for a dignified and very large procession through Hackney; an event which specifically focussed a strong sense of hostility on Stoke Newington police station.”

Melissa Benn and Ken Worpole

Teacher and author Chris Searle recalls meeting up with his friend Blair Peach on the day:

“As we walked with hundreds of others behind the cortege through the streets of Hackney, Blair told me how he had been targeted and attacked by local fascists.”

Three months later Blair Peach was killed by a policeman of the Special Patrol Group during an Anti Nazi League protest against the National Front in Southall. His killer was never brought to justice. Peach’s widow, Celia Stubbs, was monitored by undercover police officers for about twenty years afterwards.

Winston James’ trial

Winston James was charged with assaulting two police officers the initial hearing of charges aginst Michael Ferreira’s killers at Highbury Court. The officers had in fact brutally attacked him when he protested agains the treatment of black people attending. Winston’s case is covered in Hackney People’s Press #42 and #43. PC Drew 563 was cross-examined mercilessly by Winston’s barrister about grabbing his client by the testicles. Winston was acquitted of two counts of assaulting police officers, but found guitly of the far less serious charge of obstruction.

The trial of Michael Ferreira’s killers

Mark Sullivan and James Barnes were eventually both convicted of manslaughter at the Old Bailey. It seemed to be widely believed that Sullivan was a National Front sympathiser:

From Flame: Black Workers Paper For Self-Defence #28 July 1979

According to West Indian World, the judge “dismissed any connection with the National Front”. West Indian World also interviewed Michael’s bereaved mother:

“There is no justice in this land for Black people… I am completely flabbergasted with the sentence. I cannot see black people given proper justice in the courts of this land. I myself felt like dying when I heard that the judge had sent that “murderer” down for just five years. I expected that Sullivan deserved to get 14 years for killing my son.”

Aftermath

A class of local secondary school pupils was inspired to write a short play about Michael Ferreira’s death. This was published anonymously as a pamphlet and will appear here shortly as part two of this post.

Michael Ferreira was not the first black person to die following a visit to Stoke Newington police station. As far as I know that was Aseta Simms in 1971. Nor, tragically, would he be the last.

A year after Michael Ferreira’s death, Hackney’s newly appointed top cop, Commander David Mitchell was exposed as an admirer of the National Front.

In November 1982, Hackney Black People’s Association (possibly the next incarnaton of Hackney Black People’s Defence Organisation?) called for an independent public enquiry into the conduct of the police in Hackney. Their concerns were specifically about corruption, and violence against black people.

On the 12th of January 1983, Colin Roach died of a gunshot wound in the foyer of Stoke Newington police station. Corruption and violence by officers at Stoke Newington Police Station would intensify throughout the 1980s and 1990s – and so would the campaigns for justice by the local community….

Sources / Further Reading

Hackney Peoples Press – issues 32-43. Available as PDFs here.

West Indian World – undated clipping from “Who Killed Michael Ferreira” booklet. (1979)

Melissa Benn & Ken Worpole – Death In The City (Canary Press. 1986)

Policing in Hackney 1945-1984: A Report Commissioned by The Roach Family Support Committee (Karia Press, 1989)

Chris Searle – Remembering Blair Peach: 30 Years On (Institute of Race Relations, 2009)

John Eden – They Hate Us, We Hate Them” – Resisting Police Corruption and Violence in Hackney in the 1980s and 1990s (Datacide #14, 2014)

The clipping from Flame: Black Workers Paper For Self-Defence is courtesy of Splits and Fusions Archive.

Newsline 10th January 1989

Wolcott – Hackney’s Black TV Cop Series (1981)

Wolcott was a four-part TV drama produced by Black Lion Films. 13 million people watched when it was broadcast – on ITV, 13th-15th of January 1981. There were no repeats.

The show was shot in and around Hackney. Its locations and cast of up and coming Brit actors give it a certain cachet for middle aged nostalgics like myself. (Black Lion Films also produced the better known Bob Hoskins gentification-of-old-London feature film The Long Good Friday, released in the same year.)

Detective Constable Winston Churchill Wolcott is a recently decorated plain clothes copper who has been reassigned to a troubled, but unnamed, London borough. He’s played by George William Harris (now best known for his role as Kingsley Shacklebolt in the Harry Potter franchise). The police station is “played” by, er, Hackney Town Hall, disorientatingly:

The series was directed by Colin Bucksey (later to direct some episodes of Breaking Bad) and written by Patrick Carroll and Barry Wasserman (who would later be a huge figure in music videos – see the link for a 2014 obituary). All three were white, and both writers were American, which raised some eyebrows – but more of that later.

Plot & Locations

Wolcott is promoted to Detective Constable after single-handedly foiling an armed robbery. His reward is also to be transferred to an all-white police station in inner London. On the way to the station, he walks past Caribbean House and is admired by some young women:

Wolcott’s reception by his new colleagues varies from cold, to out and out hostility. He finds a toy monkey bearing a racist slogan in his locker. Christopher Ellison (later The Bill’s DI Burnside) plays a sneaky bent cop. Rik Mayall plays a thick racist cop. In an early scene, an Asian man at the is interrogated by the station’s reception desk officers whilst bearing a head injury – in a chilling echo of the death of Michael Ferreira in 1978.

There is a brittle relationship in the district between established white gangsters and newer black criminals – who in turn have a complicated relationship with the local black community: “I don’t know if you want to be Malcolm X – or Fagin!”

The main Black baddie Reuben Warre is played expertly by Raul Newney, assisted by a flamboyant rollerskating character named “Headphones” played by Archie Pool, who was a fixture of classic Black British films like Pressure and Babylon.

There are also some not-so-great portrayals of Jewish nightclub owners and betting office managers. In Wolcott, young women are mainly decorative and old women mainly victims of violence, as was fairly typical of TV of the era. The female lead is a sassy American liberal journalist played by Christine Lahti, who operates as Wolcott’s fractious sidekick and local guide.

Episode one features some local street politics:

Alexei Sayle did a wonderful turn as a Socialist Worker-type street orator being heckled by Keith Allen’s Hackney NF yob.  This sequence was filmed on location in Dalston’s Ridley Road Market: a site we thought apposite, as it had been the scene of anti-fascist/Mosley-ite clashes in the 1930s.  

Patrick carroll

(As far as I know, the NF never dared sell papers in Ridley Road in the 1980s, favouring Brick Lane and Islington’s Chapel Market instead).

Episode two includes cricket action on Hackney Marshes and crown green bowling action which might be in Clissold Park or Springfield Park? The Shiloh Pentecostal Church on Ashwin Street, Dalston also features with its distinctive red exterior.

A blues party on “Albion Road” is raided by the cops whilst Mikey Dread’s classic “Break Down The Walls” is playing on the soundsystem. Brit reggae legends Aswad play a live set in a Dalston Junction nightclub.

Episode three has a scene at a posh garden party in Hampstead with some conspicuous anarchist squatter punks:

There’s also a large carnival procession which I assume was a real event that the TV crew tail-ended? You also get a scene in F Cooke Eels of Hoxton Street.

Episode four is set mainly at night, which make it quite difficult to discern the locations. There is some action by the canal though.

Throughout the series there are various estates (Haggerston West?), pubs, streets and lock ups that I’ve not been able to identify – if you can: please leave a comment below!

Wolcott: The Verdict

Producing groundbreaking TV in the midst of a culture war will win you few friends.

The critical reaction to Wolcott was, to put it mildly, mixed.  Opinions ranged from that of a Deputy Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan police who had been asked to vet the scripts and who told us sourly that the entire enterprise was a straight forward party political broadcast for the Left, to the opinion expressed by the then television critic of the Observer that the production looked like it had been financed by the National Front. 

patrick carroll
TV Times

Listings magazine the TV Times was characteristically uncritical and gushing:

“He’s big, he’s black. In his own unequivocal terms he’s a ‘classy dude’. The name is Winston Churchill Wolcott and he is Britain’s first black television detective to get a show of his own.”

Brenda Polan in The Guardian noted that “The storyline… is slightly slowed by the necessity to fill in the sociological details for a television audience mostly used to seeing black actors as shallow stereotypes.”

Hackney Peoples Press didn’t really agree, pointing out that in the show “the black population of Hackney was seen to be almost entirely composed of drug-dealers, muggers and criminals – and other racist stereotypes”. The same article reported that Hackney Council for Racial Equality would be taking the matter up with the production company, ATV.

A more in depth critique came from four black film makers – Imruh Caeser, Henry Martin, Colin Prescoed and Menelik Shabazz. Their initiial thoughts appeared in this review:

Free Press #6 March 1981

A longer piece by the four appeared in Grass Roots: Black Community News – this was then reprinted in two books dealing with black representation and racism in the British media:

“For years we’ve complained that we are grossly under-represented in TV drama, documentary and popular entertainment. And for years our actors have complained that they should be offered full character parts, rather than female servants, studs, and crowd fillers. But if Wolcott is a sign of the band-wagons being offered for exposure and stardom – we must refuse and so must our actors.

Wolcott was written and produced to a formula, and although it looked as though it was shot on location in London’s black community, it was really not about nor in the interests of any part of the black communities in Britain. Black viewers will have recognised the faces, but not the lines – black youth don’t sit in parks chanting ‘pig, pig, pig, pig…’ when police, black or white, walk past.”

Patrick Carroll’s addresses some of these concerns in his essay:

“The idea of presenting genuine (as opposed to cardboard cut-out) black villains and disaffected African-Caribbean youths was seen as provocative and, paradoxically, by some as a betrayal of the cause of racial equality.  There were, of course, a few vociferous sections of the black community holding that we, as white writers – and Yanks to boot – had no right to even approach the subject and its characters.  We thought at the time ‘the hell with that!’ and I still do.”

Carroll goes on to suggest that the black actors on the show had more agency than its critics might have believed:

“Perhaps the most inane comment on the show came from Trevor Phillips when he complained that some of the black actors’ accents were inconsistent.  It didn’t seem to have occurred to Phillips that this was intentional, the writers and actors being aware – as any reasonably wide-awake school teacher could have told him – that the intonations used by an African-Caribbean adolescent when speaking to his parents, peers, pastors, police, teachers or any other authority figures were so different as to constitute separate languages.  What several of the black actors who had incorporated this knowledge into their portrayals had to say about Phillips after hearing his remarks is even now unprintable.” 

Aftermath

The original plan for a 13 part series never came to fruition. Carroll suggests, plausiblly, that this was partly because of the wide-ranging negative responses to the pilot, with some secondary issues around the restructuring of ATV’s franchise.

Wolcott, since its first and only network broadcast, became a skeleton pushed into the furthest recesses of the British television closet.  Halliwell’s Television Companion contains no entry for Wolcott while erroneously naming the BBC series The Chinese Detective as the first police drama to feature an ethnic minority hero.

patrick carroll

A no-frills Wolcott DVD and Blu-Ray was released in 2015, with the publicity majoring on Rik Mayall’s involvement. Mayall had died the year before, but only had a minor role in the series. A Sight and Sound review by Robert Hanks noted:

“The American writers… bring an awareness of the interaction of policing and politics rarely found in British cop dramas, even if the detail is not always convincing. The sexual politics have dated worse than the racial; towards the end the plot feels rushed and illogical. But it is still a very welcome rediscovery.”

My own view is that Wolcott is an incredible curiousity. It has merit simply on the basis of being a visual document of Hackney in the early 1980s. Its problems – and there are many of them – are partly balanced out by the discussions it provoked. The criticisms of well-meaning white liberals by black radicals are essential reading and an indication of a generation finding its own voice and not taking any shit. I don’t wholeheartedly agree with all of Patrick Carroll’s reflections, but his sincerity and affection for a bold project he was involved with 40 years ago is compelling.

But you can make up your own mind, dear reader. At the time of writing all four episodes of Wolcott are available to watch for free on Youtube, or very cheap on the British Film Institute site.

Sources and further reading

Patrick Carroll – Wolcott Revisited: Rattling a Skeleton in the British Television Closet (2011) – One of Wolcott’s writers reflects on the show following its release on DVD and Blu-Ray.

“Wolcott Offends” – Hackney Peoples Press #65 February 1981 p7. (Here).

Phil Cohen & Carl Gardner (eds) It Ain’t Half Racist Mum: Fighting racism in the media (Comedia/CARM 1982) p34-41

Therese Daniels & Jane Gerson (eds) The Colour Black: Black Images In British Television (British Film Institute, 1989) p76-84

Imruh Caesar, Henry Martin, Colin Prescod, Melenik Shabaz – “Wolcott: Meet The First Black Prince of the Police” (reprinted in the two books above along with a Guardian piece on the show)

Free Press: Bulletin of the Campaign for Press Freedom #6 March 1981 [PDF Here]

Sergio Angelini – Wolcott (1981) BFI Screenonline

Robert Hanks – Wolcott DVD review (Sight & Sound, October 2015, p108)