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Farewell to men who shaped Black Britain

WRITE ON: Playwright Barrington 'Barry' Reckford was one of Britain's earliest writers to have his work produced

BLACK BRITAIN is mourning the loss of three pioneers whose talents and passion for the arts helped to transform the cultural landscape.

Veteran broadcaster Barry Clayton, playwright Barrington ‘Barry’ Reckford and musician Selwyn Baptiste - who died within one month of each other - each made invaluable contributions to Black British society.

Hundreds of mourners from the media and film industry turned out to pay their respects to Clayton whose funeral took place at Islington Crematorium, in Finchley, on January 16.

One of the most significant achievements of Clayton’s distinguished career was as producer on the BBC’s iconic radio show, Black Londoners, which he founded in 1973 alongside journalist Alex Pascall who presented it.

The show was the first of its kind; tackling issues that affected Britain’s flourishing African and Caribbean migrant communities and raised the profile of race relations. From a one-monthly broadcast it became so popular it began to air daily.

It helped bring much-needed black British representation to a mainstream media that even in recent times was described by former director-general, Greg Dyke, as “hideously white”.

Black Londoners first aired on November 22, 1974, and ran for 14 years providing coverage through some of the key moments in modern black British history like the New Cross Fires and the Brixton riots.

Clayton, whose deep voice was behind hundreds of promos, TV shows like children’s series Count Duckula, died on December 21, aged 80.

Paying tribute to his close friend and former colleague, Pascall told The Voice: “Without Barry Clayton, there would not have been a programme called Black Londoners. He used his own time to force the BBC into considering black programming.”

He described his friend, who hailed from Sheffield, as “a black man in white skin”.

“Barry was a very special man, a kind and warm character, immensely talented, perceptive and a demonstrator of equisite taste. Even better, he truly cared about the world", he added.

Their partnership also led to a special Channel 4 Christmas broadcast from three Caribbean islands and, in 1994, alongside Nick Hughes, produced an eight-part BBC Radio 3 series on the impact of the black presence on British music and musicians.

In a double blow for Pascall, he also said goodbye to Trinidadian Selwyn Baptiste who died on January 5, 2012, from cancer.

The 75-year-old moved to the UK in 1960 and quickly became an integral part of the Notting Hill Community.

He was one of the driving forces behind the Notting Hill Carnival, one of the country’s biggest steel bands and is credited as being the founding father of the sound of steel on west London’s streets.

Baptiste served as chairman of Europe’s biggest street festival and founded the Carnival Development Committee in1975 which he chaired until 1979.

His love of the carnival, coupled with his passion for education, inspired him to introduce the steel pan to new generations of all races through classes he taught at an adventure playground in Notting Hill and at a school in Muswell Hill, north London.

One of his greatest contributions, said Pascall, was the rejuvenation of the Tabernacle which is synonymous with Notting Hill’s carnival scene.

The Grade II-listed building had fallen into disrepair and was taken over by pigeons before Baptiste led the charge to clean the place up.

It is now a vibrant cultural centre and home of the award-winning Mangrove steel band. Last year, the Tabernacle honoured Baptiste with a lifetime achievement award.

Pascall, a former chairman of the Carnival and Arts Committee, said: "Baptiste put his heart and soul into educating young people about Caribbean culture using the steel band.

"He was a deeply cultural person and was very concerned about the welfare of young people."

Jamaican-born playwright Barry Reckford, who spent most of his life in England after winning a scholarship to Cambridge University, was part of a wave of writers, which included Wole Soyinka and Errol John, to be recognised in Britain.

He died on December 20, aged 86, at home in Jamaica where he had settled five years earlier.

Explaining the decision, he said: "Few West Indians can live as emigres in London, as I did, without feeling guilt, and mine took the form of an increasing interest in Caribbean conditions and politics: if I wasn't experiencing them I ought, at least, to worry about them.

"After coming down from Cambridge in 1953, I made the occasional trip home like a tourist; but a point comes at last - this is happening to more and more people in my situation - where the absurdity of this becomes intolerable and one decides that one must go home and, at any rate, try to participate in the life of one's country instead of pronouncing on it from a distance."

Reckford captured the conflicts of class and race in 1960s and his most famous play, Skyvers, was first produced in 1963 at London’s Royal Court and again in 2006 to mark the theatre’s 50th anniversary.

The play deals with the alienation and anger of a group of south London boys during their last few days at school.

Days before his death, Skyvers was broadcast as part of a new BBC Radio 3 production – Drama on 3 – after lobbying from actor/director Kwame Kwei-Armah to ensure black dramatists were given their rightful place in history.

Reckford also wrote two television dramas for the BBC, In the Beautiful Caribbean and Club Havana, as well as a book on Cuba, Does Fidel Eat More Than Your Father?

His work is included in Penguin’s New English Dramatists series, first published in 1966.

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