Saturday, September 09, 2006

RIP Charlie Williams

I always admired Charlie Williams. As a comedian he wasn't in the same league as, say, Tommy Cooper. But he had at least one thing in common with Cooper: the moment you saw him, you knew you'd like him.

It has been fashionable for some time to denigrate Williams. I haven't seen the term 'Uncle Tom' used about him, but that's what most of the criticism amounts to. A particularly churlish - and hypocritical - condemnation came from Lennie Henry (quoted in the Guardian's obituary of Williams, September 4 2006):

"Charlie told a lot of 'darkie jokes'. 'I've been left in the oven too long' or 'I'm perspiring a lot, I'm leaking chocolate' - which were very immature. I remember doing a show in Hull and a guy shouting out 'Oi! You've got to do jokes like Charlie Williams. That's the kind of thing we expect from black comedians up here'.

"I would go to see Charlie pulling the house down doing stuff about 'darkies' and I thought 'this is obviously what you've got to do if it's a predominantly white audience - you've got to put yourself, and other people, down'."

Henry omits to mention that he, himself, started his career as a Charlie Williams imitator - and continued using Williams-type material into the 1980's, until his missus, Dawn French, told him it was Not OK. And, of course, by the 1980's it wasn't "OK" to tell those sort of jokes (actually, these days, it probably would be: so long as the sophisticated audince understood that you were being 'ironic', in the way that Matt Lucas takes the piss out of gays or Meera Syal ridicules Asian women; Jewish comics have been mocking Jews since Abraham told the one about Adam's shlong and the chopped liver).

What Henry, and the others who decry Williams, also leave out of account, is any sense of historic context: Williams came up as a comedian in the late 1960's and early '70's: the high water mark of the National Front, Enoch Powell and routine police harassment of black people. The BBC was still running the bizarre 'Black and White Minstrel Show' (to large audiences), while over at ITV the most popular sitcom was 'Love Thy Neighbour' - probably the most racially offensive show ever aired on British television.

Williams himself made his TV debut on Granada's 'The Comedians', which put clubland stand-up comics on the telly, doing their routines more or less as they would be seen in a CIU club. Stereotyping was an essentail part of the formula: there was Frank Carson (Northern Irish), Mike Reid (Cockney)...and Bernard Manning (Yorkshire). Manning was the most openly racist comedian ever to appear on British TV. Unfortunately, he was also very talented (as Darcus Howe, who interviewed him a couple of years ago, acknowledged).

What was Williams, in this environment, supposed to do? Denounce the racism of mainstream light entertainment - the very world in which he was trying to make a living? Of course not! What he did (though I doubt that he would have described it thus) was to subvert the genre, using its conventions and stereotypes to establish himself as a black man who happened to be very funny and to have a Yorkshire accent every bit as strong as Bernard Manning's.

The other factor in all of this was that Williams (I'm guessing now, but I'm pretty sure) saw himself first and foremost as working class. His Barbadian dad had come to Britain in 1914, and served in WWI before finding work as a coal miner. He married a Yorkshire girl and their son, Charlie, followed his father into the pits. It was while he was a Yorkshire miner that Charlie started playing football and was spotted by a Doncaster Rovers scout. I didn't know, until I read the obituaries, that long before he emerged as a comic, Williams had been a professional soccer player. And it just so happens that a work colleague of mine, Ian Nannested, moonlights as obituarist for the Professional Footballers' Association: here's what Ian wrote about Williams. Being a black professional footballer in the 1950's took some guts: racist chants and bananas thrown onto the pitch were commonplace until quite recently. As Ian writes, Williams "will be remembered for his unique role as a pioneer for black people in his two very different careers as a footballer and a comedian".

He was no Uncle Tom. Like many other pioneering black entertainers (Louis Armstrong springs immediately to mind) he had to work in circumstances not of his own making: and he did so with the material that seemed appropriate at the time. It is not for us to sneer at him; rather we should applaud him for breaking down barriers that allow other black entertainers to follow in his footsteps. And he embued material that now seems demeaning, with a certain dignity.

So long, "me old flower".


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