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Saturday, October 23, 1999 Published at 00:03 GMT 01:03 UK


Looking back at race relations

The 1981 Brixton riots shocked the nation

In a year when the Stephen Lawrence inquiry has dominated the headlines the UK's race and immigration history is being told in a new BBC TV series, Playing the Race Card. Its executive editor Samir Shah explains what inspired him to make the series.

When I first thought of this idea, I had the most eye-catching working title for it - A Nigger for a Neighbour. It said everything I wanted it to say - politics and race.

[ image:  ]
For those who knew, it would remind them of the notorious slogan used in Smethwick during the 1964 general election: "If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour."

For those who did not understand the reference, it would be provocative and intriguing.

In the event, we felt the line did not capture the whole series - Playing the Race Card was better - but it remains as the subtitle of the first episode that takes us from the 1950s through to 1968.

As head of the BBC's political programmes department - I had been responsible for two major series: Thatcher - The Downing Street Years and The Wilderness Years.

What I wanted to do was to apply the same techniques of eyewitness accounts and first person testimony to an issue close to my heart - race and immigration.

[ image:  ]
Right from the start we faced the familiar difficulties any history series constrained by talking only to players and not experts or analysts. Many of the important figures had died.

But we also experienced the joy of tracking down people who were key but who had never been interviewed or talked to before.

The first "star" we found was 92-year-old Bruce Paice, head of immigration at the Home Office from 1955-1960. Speaking with a forthrightness and candour rare nowadays, Paice took us into the minds of the civil servants of the day.

"The population of this country were all in favour of the British Empire as long as stayed where it was - they didn't want it here," he said with a twinkle in his eye.

[ image: Paul Boateng: From 1970s firebrand to 1990s home office minister]
Paul Boateng: From 1970s firebrand to 1990s home office minister
Politicians give revealing insights into forgotten periods of our history. Brian Walden speaks with his usual lucidity as he reflects on the Smethwick election that he witnessed as he fought the neighbouring seat of Birmingham All Saints.

But such histories also - by taking the long view - show that people change. Paul Boateng is seen as both poacher and gamekeeper.

In the late 1970s, he was the firebrand advisor to the Scrap Sus campaign, the goal of which was to get rid of a piece of legislation under which the police were able to arrest black youth for "suspicion" of wrong doing. Now he is a minister at the Home Office.

[ image:  ]
When I first started production of this series last year, I had little idea that the Macpherson report into the Stephen Lawrence inquiry would make this year the year when "race" re-emerged as a major issue.

And now there is talk of extending the scope of race relations legislation to cover police law enforcement.

Home Secretary Jack Straw has promised this will feature next month in the Queen's Speech.

Making the series has, for me, been a revelation. British race relations has been achieved through the interplay of political conviction, courage and cowardice. The result is arguably a better and more successful multicultural society than that of many other countries.

Playing the Race Card is broadcast on BBC Two at 1910 BST on 24 October 1999.

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