Black History Month: Some of the best TV shows representing the black British and Irish experience

·5-min read
(Alamy/PA)
(Alamy/PA)

While there is still a long way to go, representation on the small screen has come along in leaps and bounds.

This Black History Month, why not watch some TV shows representing all different aspects of the black British and Irish communities?

Creatives and academics have picked out their top shows, to start in October and continue for the rest of the year…

Sex Education – Abiola Bello, author (a-bello.com)

Abiola Bello has been enjoying the Netflix show Sex Education, particularly for the character Eric played by Ncuti Gatwa.

“The way his character has been developed is really interesting because I don’t feel like there’s a lot of LGBT representation on TV – there’s not really black representation, period, but LGBT [as well],” she says. “I like that Eric’s family – who are Nigerian – they’re OK with the fact he’s gay. They might not like how outrageous he can dress, but they generally accept the fact he is gay – they just want him to be safe and not get hurt.

“I just finished season three and I love they took it back to Nigeria and showed the gay scene in Nigeria. I’ve never seen that before on TV and I thought that was a really good representation, and it kind of breaks the narrative and the stereotype that we’re all just homophobic.”

Bello also mentions other characters including Ola (Patricia Allison) and Jackson (Kedar Williams-Stirling) for giving different representations of black British life.

She says: “I thought those storylines – I’ve never really seen that before on British TV, especially with black people being at the centre. I thought that was really cool, and I hope they keep doing more ground-breaking things like that, where we’re seeing ourselves in those positions.

“In this day and age, I think representation is really important. It’s not enough now to make sure you have black, Asian or other ethnic groups presented on TV” – they have to have fully fleshed out and diverse storylines.

Famalam – TL Huchu, author of the Edinburgh Nights series

TL Huchu picks BBC sketch show Famalam, calling it “frivolous, irreverent and utterly glorious”.

Huchu says: “There are no sacred cows in a show that revels in lampooning everything and everyone, veering from Nigerian aunties clashing over leftovers after parties, riffing off blaxploitation flicks, giving us a new black Jesus, featuring hilariously PC postcode gangs and the sweetest 419 scammer to ever grace the small screen. Madness. Famalam is pure British comedy gold.”

The Library Of The Dead by TL Huchu is out in paperback October 14 from Tor.

Youngers and Undercover – Ola Ince, director and dramaturg (olaince.com)

Ola Ince says: “It’s so important to have our experiences documented and shared because there is comfort in knowing that you’re not alone- that you’re not imagining the situation” – and two shows particularly spring to her mind.

Channel 4’s Youngers (running from 2013 to 2014) is a “feel-good TV show about young black talented teens trying to make a name for themselves. Full of love, music, comedy and community,” she says. “[It] was like watching my friends on TV, which was so rare then and now, and refreshing. So empowering to see my community on TV without any mention of violence or crime.”

The other show is 2016 BBC series Undercover, starring Sophie Okonedo and Adrian Lester. Ince says: “It’s a crime drama about a black British middle class family who are rocked by a long-term legal fight to prove the innocence of US death row inmate Rudy Jones. It’s suspenseful, thrilling and explores identity, loyalty and the black power movement. I loved the performances and the opportunity to see complex and intelligent black people on TV.”

I May Destroy You – Michael Jenkins, writer, director and producer (blakwaveproductions.com)

“From my perspective, there isn’t anything on TV that really explores black British life,” says Michael Jenkins, but he does mention Michaela Coel’s drama I May Destroy You as “the first time in recent years I felt [a show] really explored a different side of black British life rarely seen”.

Jenkins calls the programme “so authentic in its portrayal, which was refreshing” – particularly as he adds: “There is a lot of misunderstanding in the wider community because TV bosses have failed to commission authentic black British shows over the years” – leading to the community being “misrepresented” and “falsehoods being able to spread”.

“This is why representation matters,” says Jenkins.

Small Axe and The Colour Inbetween- Dr Zélie Asava, academic and author (zelieasava.com)

“Steve McQueen’s Small Axe (2020) series captures the London I remember so well,” says Dr Zélie Asava. “Having moved there from Dublin in the Seventies, my Irish-Kenyan family encountered many of the pains and the joys he documents, and his filmmaking brings back the magic and madness of Brixton which awed and overwhelmed me.

“I was also blown away by Jade Jordan’s The Colour Between (2021), a short film that mirrors some of my own experiences as a new mother back in Dublin, coming to terms with the barriers and obstacles racism creates, even in one’s own home, while exhausted but endlessly enriched by the experience of raising my incredible son. I loved its emphatic assertion of the urgent need to recognise the inclusivity of Irish identity, and the bright possibilities the future offers once we open ourselves up to embracing that expansive image of the national family.”

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