By Ishmahil Blagrove
When Channel 4 called me up some time around 2005 and said they would like me to give a talk to seventy filmmakers, I thought to myself, “Oh, they’ve acknowledged the work I’ve been doing and would like me to share some of my storytelling techniques and methods.” Only a few months earlier I had received a call from the P.A to Nick Fraser from BBC Storyville, asking me to come and see him at his BBC offices in Central London. On that occasion I thought it was to award me a commission of some sort, even though I had not pitched any ideas.
Instead when I turned up at Nick Frasers office, he greeted me with a broad smile, a firm prolonged hand shake and said he just wanted to meet the man who people were talking about who travelled the world and had all these great adventures. That was it!
That was the highpoint of the meeting! There was nothing more, no commission, no advice, no prospective follow-up conversation. He simply wanted to meet the man who travelled the world and had all these wonderful adventures. I really liked the Storyville format and believed that Storyville was the natural home for my work. I left the BBC offices thinking to myself “Was that it? He just wanted to meet me? How f*****g conceited and arrogant!” On this occasion he was extremely lucky that I was in a meditative and generous mood – for in most instances I would have given him a piece of my mind and told him about his BOMBOCLAART!
I was looking forward to giving the talk at Channel 4 and sharing my experiences of making low-budget shoestring documentaries and starting my own independent company Rice N Peas Films in 1999 – but the Nick Fraser incident still haunted me. The call from Channel 4 signalled that we were also on their radar and that a commission to do the work that I so loved to do was possibly imminent.
When I walked into the Channel 4 auditorium, I was greeted by a sea of Black faces. I was informed that I was to be a member on a panel of esteemed filmmakers that included Keith Shiri. I looked around trying to figure out what was going on. You don’t usually get so many Black people in one room at either Channel 4 or the BBC. Were we to be extras in some C4 slave drama? Or were they going to lock the doors and gas us in there? I felt a little uneasy in that temporary realm of the unknown. All I knew is that when they have so many Black people together in one space, in either Channel 4 or the BBC, then something fishy is going on.
Sat to one side of the auditorium on separate seating, was the C4 executive Adam Gee, a woman from Film London whom I had met on a previous occasion and a Black woman who sat at the end. The Black woman stood up, took to the podium and introduced herself as the diversity representative for Channel 4.
After being warmly greeted by the audience, she opened up, “Thank you all for coming. As you are aware this is Black History Month.” Immediately the penny dropped – it was the month of October. The diversity rep continued, “Channel 4 are committed to reaching its diversity targets; however, we cannot commission you if we do not know your work and do not know you are there. You have to submit your work. You have to get out there, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah”.
She then introduced me as the first speaker and invited me to take the podium. I took the microphone and told the Black audience. “Do not listen to a word you’ve just heard. Channel 4 has no intention of commissioning any of you. Let us first understand why we are here. We are here because it is Black History Month and Channel 4 has programmed this event as a means of fulfilling its diversity obligation in the month of October. How can Channel 4 talk about commissioning any of you, when I am stood here in front of you as the guest speaker and I have never been commissioned by them? The only thing we can be sure of is that we will be here again, the same time next year, repeating the same ritual about the need to commission diverse talent!”
The audience in the auditorium rose to their feet and erupted into a cacophony of rapturous applause. I glanced over to the corner of the room and caught the diversity rep uncomfortably looking up towards the ceiling, Adam Gee the C4 exec had his head buried into his hands, looking through the cracks of his parted fingers. The woman from Film London sat there, nonchalant, unmoved, with a very slight smile that betrayed her amusement at the embarrassing spectacle. After the audience eventually calmed down, leaving only the discord of loud whispers, sniggers and the mumbled words of incoherent conversations, I continued, “Now let’s get on with the talk and why we are here…”
The event was quite successful. Keith Shiri gave an enlightening talk about African Cinema, the rising genre of Nollywood and the novel approach to independent distribution that they had adopted. The audience were left nourished and enthused. In the audience was a budding film maker named Owen Shahadah, who had produced the seminal documentary “500 Years Later”.
Channel 4 didn’t even realise that they were in the company of an immense amount of Black talent that were already out there doing the work, precisely because they were not being afforded the opportunity through the mainstream broadcasters. As I was leaving the diversity rep approached me and sheepishly thanked me for coming. Adam Gee who appeared to have physically shrunk, greeted me with his head half bowed, peering up at me through the droopy eyes of a child who had been caught doing something wrong. He apologised that I had not been informed in advance that the event was part of their Black History Month programme.
What they were not to have known, is that I do not accept engagements by mainstream entities during the month of October. I do not play that game where we are appreciated and acknowledged for one month of the year. I have several issues with the way in which individuals and organisations put together Black History Month celebrations. They often lack creativity, recycle the same African-American and Caribbean characters each year, without digging into the wealth and depth of the African continent and African achievers. With the exception of those BHM events that are well thought out, it is generally a perfunctory ritual of lacklustre events performed as recycled routines rather than events organised with any real intention to edify and initiate change.
Furthermore, it is my personal opinion that such a month should celebrate the achievements of all oppressed and formerly colonised people; learning about the rich experiences and achievements of a host of other diverse ethnic groups.
Needless to say, I never again heard from Channel 4 – until of course the Grenfell fire of 2017, when they came bearing gifts of a commission and all sorts of inducing offers. All of which were refused. The window of good will and genuine interaction and exchange had closed. If you make the mistake of inviting me to the plantation without coming correct, my sole intention will be to burn it down.