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Birmingham black migrants story told in new BBC documentary

EXPLORATION: producer Ed Barlow and Sue Brown during the Q&A alongside Dr Robert Beckford, second left, Khembe Clarke and Milton Godfrey, hosted by BBC presenter Ayo Kinwolere

A BBC documentary that tells the story of Caribbean migrants to Birmingham in the 1950s and 60s was given a preview screening to invited guests ahead of its planned regional and national broadcasts on television.

A Very British History: The First Black Brummies was shown to a capacity crowd of close to 800 people at the Birmingham Conservatoire.

The screening was followed by a question and answer session featuring the documentary’s producer, presenter and some of its contributors.

The hour-long documentary will be broadcast across the West Midlands on December 10 on BBC One, and then nationally on BBC Four on a date yet to be announced.

Featuring first-time presenter and Birmingham-born poet Sue Brown, it recounts the discrimination the new arrivals faced in seeking work, homes and even in many of the city’s churches – and how they battled back to build new lives for themselves.

These include the experiences of her own parents, who came to Britain from Jamaica in 1956, leaving two children behind with the intention to re- turn in a few years. Unexpected circumstances and obstacles meant they couldn’t afford to send for them.

Sue leads the exploration of the importance of identity within the community and looks at how music, hairstyles and the black church all helped people feel at home, with contributions from activist/hairdresser Khembe Clarke and musician Milton Godfrey; also from academic and broadcaster Dr Robert Beckford, with his reflections on the challenges peo- ple of Sue’s generation (she was born in 1961), faced growing up during the 1970s and 80s.

Despite the challenges, Birmingham today is home to a strong and thriving Caribbean community, many of whom Sue meets in the programme.

She told The Voice: “I felt so comfortable in sharing my family’s story [during the filming], not feeling as though the crew were trying to take something away from me.”

The documentary includes a poignant video-call interview with Sue’s older sister. Sue added: “I am so thrilled to be part of the programme and to highlight the Caribbean culture in Birmingham that I am so proud to be a part of.

“It was great to connect with everybody and talk about how the community has changed over the last 50 to 60 years.”

The presenting opportunity came to Sue when she was contacted by producer Ed Barlow earlier this year during the research stage, having been recommended as a lead into gathering content for the programme.

Following a meeting at the landmark Cannon Street Memorial Baptist Church, Sue, who has had a long career as a family support worker in the city, was offered the presenting gig.


Filming started just days after she took redundancy, and a number of the church members’ experiences were included in the final cut.
“I was surprised to get the offer considering I hadn’t presented before. I enjoyed it.

“It is a chance to document our stories, and to help make others aware of what we have been through, which is important. Working with the production team has been excellent – positive and encouraging. You can’t fit everything into an hour but I am confident that those who are in the programme will be happy.”

Speaking before the screening, producer Barlow added: “My hope is that the piece is an uplifting watch. I hope that people can walk away from it tonight with a smile on their face despite the struggles they went through. I wanted to make it authentic.

"I didn’t want a professional TV presenter that would turn up and read a script that I had written – I wanted to hear from a real person.

“Sue is a Brummie and we spoke to a lot of her family and friends. There was no scripting in which Sue had to read pieces to camera, we made it conversational.

“Many people watching may know these stories, of course, but there are third and fourth generation [people of Caribbean descent] and those who are not from these communities who don’t.” The production even taught the producer a few things.

“I learned more about the hardships in those early years. It related to the stories of people from the Caribbean community who I knew but although my granddad was a vicar, I knew nothing about the experiences of people in the black churches [being shunned by established churches here].

The First Black Brummies is third part of a four-episode BBC Four series, A Very British History, which explores key moments affecting minority communities across Britain. The date for the national transmission on BBC Four will be announced with only two weeks’ notice, so interested parties are advised to check their TV listings in the New Year.

For more information, search #BlackBrummies on Twitter.

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