chapter  1
22 Pages

‘Welcome to The University of Brixton’

BBC Radio and the West Indian Everyday
WithRachael Gilmour

On 12th January 1971, less than a year after it first started broadcasting, British Broadcasting Corporation (hereafter BBC) Radio London began airing a new comedy drama serial, devised in collaboration with the BBC’s English by Radio unit. The University of Brixton, set in Brixton’s West Indian community and dramatising the everyday goings-on of the Plummer household, was aimed at teaching immigrants from the Caribbean to speak ‘Standard English’; each episode began with the announcement ‘Welcome to the University of Brixton. You won’t get degrees or diplomas here, but you can get a first-class education.’ 1 Though now largely forgotten, the 26-part series may justifiably be seen as one of BBC local radio’s successes of the early 1970s. Its popularity saw it repeated on Radio London the following year as well as broadcast in other English cities with sizeable West Indian populations: Birmingham, Bristol, Oxford, Manchester, Derby and Leeds. 2 The series was also syndicated to seven radio stations in the Caribbean as well as stations in the United States: in Massachusetts and across the Eastern Pacific Radio Network. 3 Representations of and programming for black and minority ethnic audiences on British radio have not received the same kind of scholarly attention as film and television in this period. 4 Yet radio – and, in particular, local radio – was central to the BBC’s efforts to provide dedicated programming for Britain’s immigrant communities in the late 1960s and 1970s, and what few programmes the BBC did produce were capable of attracting large numbers of listeners. 5 The University of Brixton illuminates the BBC’s strategic emphasis on teaching ‘Standard English’ and educating for citizenship through domestic programming for ethnic minority listeners in this period. The programme sees the Corporation acting to promote linguistic and cultural integration as a means to serve the West Indian community’s needs – as it saw them – in a time of crisis. The programme emerges out of, and itself dramatises, a complex negotiation between the BBC’s normative protocols and burgeoning notions of West Indian cultural 28distinctiveness, while its self-conscious agenda of integration operates both in recognition and in denial of the era’s incendiary racial politics. 6 Written and broadcast less than two years after the watershed of 1968 and Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, the series makes a decisive intervention by casting West Indians as central to the emphatically local, everyday life of Brixton in a largely frictionless blending of Caribbean and British cultures, a move made possible by recourse to the popular fictional forms of the soap opera and radio comedy drama. Framed around the teaching of ‘Standard English,’ as well as the legitimisation of state institutions and procedures (the police, the legal system, employment law, education), the series appealed to the sensibilities of that first generation of West Indian migrants for whom connection to British culture was deeply felt. 7 Yet its storylines – aimed, albeit in a lightly comic vein, at the pressing issues of the day – obliquely engage all sorts of contemporary debates within the West Indian community around the politics of language and culture, and of West Indian and British belonging, in a period of rapid cultural and political change. Thus for all its light-heartedness, and indeed in many ways its downright oddness, at the heart of The University of Brixton lies a complex push-and-pull between elite, popular and vernacular cultural forms, and between various kinds of ‘containment and resistance,’ in Stuart Hall’s terms, via a fictionalised version of the day-to-day goings-on of West Indian life in South London in the early 1970s. 8