The website Caribbean aircrew in the RAF during WW2 draws attention to the 1953 feature film Appointment in London, a story about Bomber Command starring Dirk Bogarde, and in particular to a scene showing Bogarde mixing with his peers: among the officers is one of Caribbean origin. There is no plot point hanging on this fact – it is simply a tacit recognition of the contribution made in the RAF, as in so many other ways, to the Allied effort in both world wars by people of the Empire. What is sadly remarkable about it, however, is how rare it is to see black troops represented in this way.
One area that the Whose Remembrance? Project set out to explore was the extent to which the wartime role of the peoples of Britain’s colonies has been reflected in the popular media. My contribution was to produce a database of relevant films, tv and radio.
A good start for my search was the Colonial Films Database the result of an earlier AHRC-funded project in which IWM was a partner. As well as providing essays about contemporary films like With the Indian Troops at the Front (1916) and West Africa Was There (1945), this huge database also offers several dozen titles online. Trawls of various websites made it possible to add a number of retrospective documentaries, such as the 2009 Soldiers of Empire episode from Channel 4’s Not Forgotten Series, or Scottish Television’s 2004 programme Treefellers about the work in Scotland during the Second World War of lumberjacks from British Honduras. Drama series which came immediately to mind included Granada’s 1984 adaptation of Paul Scott’s ‘Raj Quartet’ as The Jewel in the Crown, and BBC2’s 1992 Black Poppies.
What the exercise made plain, however, was that candidates for such a database are actually quite thin on the ground, and some ‘obvious’ choices on closer examination hardly qualify at all. The film The African Queen (1951) may actually be set in the First World War in Africa, but African people appear only as frightened villagers or faceless ‘native troops.’ It is sadly typical that most titles set in the colonies focus almost exclusively on the lives of white settlers, with local people relegated to the role of servant or picturesque background. Britain has yet to follow France in welcoming a film like Indigènes (2006 – UK title Days of Glory) which tells the story of Algerians who fought for ‘the mother country’.
The Whose Remembrance? Film, TV and Radio database is very much a work in progress, and we would welcome suggestions for its improvement. If you spot any errors, disagree with any comments, or have any suggestions for additions, please communicate them to the Research Department at IWM.
We hope that our project may prompt some braver thinking by tv and film producers – public interest is thankfully much higher than in earlier decades and the territory is rich.