Saturday, 26 November 2016

Theme Time : Matumbi - Empire Road

The BBC has done much across its channels to mark Black History Month this November with a wealth of programming, but it's a real shame that it didn't find space in its schedules to raid the BBC archive for long unseen programmes made specifically by or for black audiences. I'm thinking specifically of course of Empire Road which ran for two series on BBC2 from 1978 to 1979.

Created by Michael Abbensetts, the show depicted the life of Afro-Caribbean, East Indian and South Asian residents of a street in Birmingham. Ostensibly a drama in the soap opera tradition, Empire Road was written, acted and directed predominantly by artists who identified with being part of the ethnic minority within the UK. As such, this enabled the series to tell things totally and accurately from the perspective of the multicultural communities of the country. 

It starred future Desmond's star Norman Beaton as Everton Bennett, a West Indian who had arrived in the UK and built a business as a residential property landlord and the owner of a minimart. Bennett was seen as the neighbourhood's 'Godfather' figure, and if you had a problem, Everton Bennett was the man to go to, using his wisdom, experience and common sense to resolve matters. This is perhaps best exemplified in a storyline featuring Rudolph Walker (Love Thy Neighbour, EastEnders) as a Rachman-style slum landlord, Sebastian Moses, with his eye on buying property in Empire Road. Seeing both his patch and his neighbours potentially threatened, Bennett sets about a series of stings that publicly humiliate Moses, and a feud between the two men develops.

Made by the BBC's legendary Pebble Mill studios and with location work in the Handsworth district of Birmingham, Empire Road starred a host of talented actors including the aforementioned Beaton and Walker, along with Corinne Skinner-Carter, Joseph Marcell, Wayne Laryea and a young Julie Walters. The series theme tune was by reggae group Matumbi who were well known in the Rock Against Racism movement. It was released as a single in 1978 and went on to become the title of a best of collection for the band in 2001.

EDITED TO ADD: Sadly news reaches me today that Empire Road's creator, Michael Abbensetts passed away on 24th November, just two days before I made this post. Read his Guardian obituary here RIP

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