Back in the 1970s it was a Sunday afternoon treat for black Londoners, a radio show just for them at a time when they lived life on the edge in more ways than one.
Part news and part phone in with musical interludes, Black Londoners started out once a month but proved so popular that it ended up being broadcast daily for 10 years.
“It was the only black programme at the time and became the focal point of the community because it really gave people a voice,” recalls its presenter Alex Pascall.
It was broadcast by BBC Radio London but Pascall shaped its tone and content, even writing the signature tune. A musician and songwriter by trade, he had one of those classic radio voices and an easy, intimate style that drew listeners in.
Although the BBC had launched the programme in 1974 in response to community lobbying, its attitude towards it was often unhelpful, he says.
“There were those on the ground who made it their business to support and guide me and I pay tribute to them. But there also were a few super negative people in the senior echelons of the BBC who were afraid we were talking in tongues. ”
He mentions the managing director of BBC Radio, Aubrey Singer, with whom he clashed on a number of occasions, once over his on-air reference to Zimbabwe before its colonial name of Rhodesia had been officially consigned to history with the signing of the independence agreement.
But at the end of the day, Black Londoners enjoyed huge audiences and after two years of being broadcast monthly, it went weekly and then, from 1978, daily.
The show emerged during a seismic period in race relations which culminated in the 1981 riots that exploded in major cities across England as black youngsters vented their anger against the state’s marginalisation of them, a situation aggravated by the Thatcher government’s austerity 1.0 programme.
“It was a very tense time,” says Pascall. “Mrs Thatcher went from talking about Britain being swamped by immigrants to ignoring the news that 13 black children had died at New Cross [in a house fire] – the programme raised £21,000 for the victims’ families. At the same time, young people were finding it hard to get work, to get a good education and couldn’t walk down the street without the risk of being stopped by the police. But when the riots came the authorities were completely taken by surprise.”
As the commentariat struggled to understand what was going on, Black Londoners stepped in: “The news reporters were all too frightened to go down to Brixton so I had to go myself, but not in a radio car, that wasn’t allowed – it was just me and my mic. When I got there some guys recognised me and invited me into a house [on the frontline]. The message they gave me to give to Mrs Thatcher was not an easy one.”
Pascall, who had arrived in Britain in 1959 from Grenada aged 22, remembers many more relaxed moments, including the time ‘Miss Lou’ – Louise Bennet, Jamaica’s hugely popular folk poet – appeared on the show: “She’d hadn’t been to the UK for years and never been on air here and the Jamaicans went really wild. We could hardly control the phone lines.”
On another occasion a pre-superstar Bob Marley was at the Beeb. Pascall laughs: “They told me ‘we’ve got this guy here but we can’t understand what he’s saying. Can you help?’”
Pascall would go on to interview Marley several times, but the most memorable session was alongside Mighty Sparrow in 1976. “It was amazing to have the king of reggae and the king of calypso in front of me, especially because they both had great regard for each other’s work.”
A year later Muhammad Ali walked into his studio. “Ali was an extraordinary person and this was the programme that first tied him to the black community in Britain.”
Indeed, Marylebone Road, where Radio London was based, became the dropping off point for VIPs passing through London, or indeed anyone else.
“We were at the centre of anything that was going on in the black community and people would flock to visit us.”
However, in 1988 the BBC decided to pull the plug on the programme, a decision that led to a huge falling out between Pascall and the corporation. “I have no regrets about what I said at the time – years later the director general himself, Greg Dyke, accused the BBC of being ‘hideously white’.”
Pascall, a former chair of the Notting Hill Carnival, returned to his life as a performer and writer. This year he was back on the radio exuding his customary warmth and charm with Alex Pascall’s Londoners, an online talk show that included now historical archive material from Black Londoners.
“I have always had a desire to communicate and when you have the mic in front of you, you have the world in front of you.”
This article appeared in the Islington tribune/West End Extra on October 28, 2016