Monday, 15 December 2008

Remembering Ruby Flipper

Things I wish I’d know when I was writing…

In my book Crisis? What Crisis?, I quote an entry in Michael Palin’s diary from 1978 in which he acknowledges the poor state of the economy, but concludes that, despite everything: ‘I’m better disposed to letting the present Labour government run my country for me than any other group – apart, perhaps, from Pan’s People.’

And, purely as an aside, I point out that sadly he was behind the times, that ‘the five-woman dance troupe Pan’s People had recently retired, after ten years of providing visual relief for dads obliged by their children to watch Top of the Pops. They were replaced by the short-lived and barely remembered Ruby Flipper, whose mixed-gender line-up failed to console a bereaved audience.’

It was, of course, an entirely gratuitous reference to Ruby Flipper, included only because they so often fail to get a mention, lost between memories of Pan’s People and Legs and Co. But I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for them after their inexplicable performance to the sounds of David Bowie’s TVC15 in 1976.

And the reason this turns up now is that I’ve been reading Ian Gittins’ excellent history of Top of the Pops – Mishaps, Miming and Music: True Adventures of TV’s No. 1 Pop Show (BBC Books, 2007) – in which he reveals that Ruby Flipper were removed from the show on the direct instructions of Bill Cotton, then Controller of BBC.

This is the story as told by Flick Colby, the resident choreographer on the series: ‘Bill Cotton called me in to the BBC and said the British public didn’t want to see black men dancing with white women. I argued, but he told me to form another all-girl group or I was out.’ And so Legs and Co were born.

I didn’t know that until yesterday, which is a shame since I would certainly have included it in the section on the BBC’s attitude towards race. It would have fitted in well in the discussion about The Black and White Minstrel Show (which, let us never forget, ran on television from 1958 right through to 1978 – that is, it was still on after Ruby Flipper had been axed), particularly since I make explicit reference to the issue that so troubled Mr Cotton:

‘Initially the blackface make-up was worn by all the singers, but early on it was decided to restrict it to the men only, presenting the culturally curious spectacle of white women dancing with caricatures of black men, as though such a depiction might inoculate the nation against the possibility of miscegenation.’

In the years that followed the eventual (belated) cancellation of the televised version of The Black and White Minstrel Show, there were loud and repeated complaints that the viewing millions were being deprived of a harmless bit of entertainment. Even if there were some kind of racism, it was argued, it was unconscious and certainly not intentional. But Mr Cotton clearly knew what he was doing.

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