Philip Donnellan’s ‘The Colony’ – Paul Long

‘The Colony’ (1963) is remarkable for being different in concept and execution from the typical BBC documentary of the time, let alone any of those dealing with immigrants in Britain and the general manner in which they were treated as objects to investigate and speak about. Its distinctiveness was a result of the particular vision of its creator Philip Donnellan, a figure whose oeuvre has been barely acknowledged by the BBC itself or by historians of the media.
Donnellan was a documentarist based in Birmingham who felt particularly dissatisfied with the BBC’s approach to its public service remit.

At issue was the nature of the ‘public’ it assumed to address and those it did not. He recalls in his unpublished autobiography that he was conscious of the ways in which British society began to change in the 1950s and 1960s as result of the post-war settlement. All about him was evidence of the challenge to traditional social divisions and deference located around authority and class. Confident explorations and celebrations of the vitality of working class life were found in the of the work of Richard Hoggart and Raymond Williams, in the films of Free Cinema, in the theatre and novels of the so-called ‘Angry Young Men’. This new world was there also in the presence and vitality of the culture of Black migrants. For Donnellan, and with honorable exceptions (see below), little of this vista was adequately registered by the BBC, which was not only limited in its coverage but in the way it spoke of and to its audience. This was governed by an unspoken consensual idea of how Corporation employees proceeded about their work: ‘An understood, though undefined, cultural, social and political consensus which fenced in the world we inhabited and gave boundaries to decisions of taste, style, and subject and to the choice of broadcasters who might handle them correctly and safely’.

From his first film ‘Joe the Chainsmith’ (1958), which ventured into the Black Country, Donnellan aimed to challenge this consensus by extending the subject and form of documentary. He sought out working people and under-represented social groups, the Irish, travelers and Black migrants. He created a space in his films that would allow them to speak for themselves and about their concerns and opinions without any overt intercession from the authorial tones and spurious objectivity of the BBC. Conceived in this vein, ‘The Colony’ is one of the enduring achievements of Donnellan’s career for the way in which he sought to represent the Black experience in Birmingham. As he recalled:

The intention was not to examine ‘colour prejudice’ it was certainly not our purpose to report on or review white people’s feelings of superiority: that was frequently implied in one news broadcast after another, and in the routine programmes that almost entirely ignored the black minority. Our aim was to present what it felt like to be a West Indian, in Britain, in Birmingham, and to offer West Indians the chance to describe in their own way the feelings they had about Britain and the British. 

In order to fulfill this aim, Donnellan marshaled together a range of men and women who populate the film and give it its complex textures. They are seen and heard at home, in the workplace, at leisure, in prayer and participating in group discussions. Subjects speak directly to camera about their experiences, taking time to think about the insights they offer. In addition, a range of further, unidentified voices give testimonies that overlay the imagery that locates them in the day-to-day environment and interactions of the city. This mise-en-scène includes images of civic dignitaries at St Martin’s Church, busy streets, faces staring back at the camera (taking on a position of Black subjectivity), slum streets and walls daubed with racist graffiti.”

Paul Long (2011), ‘Representing Race, and Place: Black Midlanders on Television in the 1960s and 1970s’, Midland History. Vol. 36, No. 2, pp. 261–76



3 comments on “Philip Donnellan’s ‘The Colony’ – Paul Long
  1. Victor Williams was featured in the documentary ‘The Colony’ as a bus conductor for the West Bromwich Bus Corporation. The documentary was filmed in 1963. The documentary also showed Victor Williams and his wife Hazel and their baby daughter Sandra Williams.

    I am Sandra Williams, I now live in Canada. For years I have wanted to see the documentary of life in the West Midlands back in the 1960’s and geet a deeper understanding and feel of what life was like back then for my father and for so many other immigrants.

    Would love to hear from you.

    Sandra Williams

  2. The Colony (documentary filmed and aired in the early 1963 – featuring the late Victor Joseph Williams)

    The ‘clippie’, featured in the documentary ‘The Colony,’ is Victor Joseph Williams, my father. He arrived in west Bromwich, West Midlands from his native Jamaica, in 1959.

    I have vivid childhood memories of sitting at my father’s knee and gazing up into his eyes while he recounted endless stories about his experiences of living in Britain. I listen intensely as he goes back in time to the early days of 1959 when he first arrived in the ‘mother land’ as a young and naive immigrant. He had imagined a life where the streets were paved with gold, where meritocracy and egalitarianism were woven in the fabric of this modern civilization, and the sweat of one’s brow was rewarded with prosperity. As was the case with so many other immigrants to post-war Britain, Victor’s illusion was quickly shattered. He found himself in a land where the sun rarely shone, and the overcast and dreary weather enveloping grey drab buildings formed the perfect backdrop that could surely induce a deep depression. As for streets of gold, they were more likely to be covered with dog faeces and discarded fish-and-chip wrappings. In the winter months, the blanket of clean white snow on the pavements would inevitably turn into piles of dirty slush. On bitterly cold days, I can see my father braving the blustery breeze and blizzards, with shoulders hunched right up to his ears and his gloved hands thrust deep into his coat pockets, but his fingers remained numb. His toes, meanwhile, metamorphosed into solid blocks of ice crammed inside of his heavy laced up winter boots. It was during these bleak times that he most missed his beloved Hazel, who waited patiently in the Jamaican sunshine for my father to send enough money to book a one-way ticket to join him. Unlike Victor, there was no need for Hazel to endure the 21-day sail across the ocean on the Big-ona passenger ship, as air travel had become the preferred route.

    Finding a room to rent was a challenge in itself. As my father pounded the streets of West Bromwich, he would stumble across a ‘room to rent’ sign posted in the front window. However, when he knocked on the door to inquire, he was often scowled at and irreverently greeted with “no blacks, no Irish and no dogs.” How painful that must have been! All that he wanted was to prepare a home for himself and his dear Hazel. My father kept his perspective and taught me well, that there was good and bad in every race. His hope and patience were rewarded when he found someone who was able to see past the colour of his skin and provide decent accommodation.

    I remember my father’s smile, especially when he recalled one of the first letters he sent to my mother: “My dear Hazel”, he writes, “this Britain is not all what I thought it would be, nor the life I had envisaged for us. Here the sun rarely shines, the days are mostly cold and damp and I don’t see myself living here much longer. Do not fret my dear, for I have found myself a job and will work hard to save enough money to book my return passage home just as soon as I can.” As the weeks turned to months and the months quickly turned into a full year, my father slowly began to adjust to his new life in Britain. By 1961, he had saved enough money for Hazel to book her flight to join him in West Bromwich, West Midlands.

    By 1962, Victor got a job as a clippie with West Midlands Transit Corporation. Although he was more than qualified for such a lowly position, those in authority could not seem to fathom how a young Jamaican immigrant could demonstrate, show such poise and intelligence, and whose command of the English language allowed him to articulate and express himself with such eloquence and grace. However, his attempts to improve his lot by applying for a position as an inspector were consistently denied. Soon, he had to choose: remain a clippie or return to his former position as a labourer in one of West Bromwich’s grungy factories. Deep in his heart he always knew that he was capable of doing so much more than what was expected of him.

    I smile as I recall the stories my father shared about the obstacles in comprehending the local dialect. It took quite a while for him to understand the meaning of “ado cock how am ya” when greeted by the lady serving tea in the cafeteria, but it took far less time for him to understand when his race was being insulted. He was referred to as a “darkie” and he soon became familiar with other pejorative terms, such as “nig-nog”, “sambo”, “golly-wog” and “black-jack. ” Back then, they even had sweets that were called “black-jacks”, with a picture of a grotesque looking “golly-wog” on the wrapper. It was not uncommon to find children in their local corner shop purchasing a penny’s worth of “black-jacks”. It was several years before these offending sweets were finally taken off the shelves.

    Jamaican immigrants arriving in Britain had what they describe as the ‘five-year plan.’ It was the cornerstone of a work ethic and self-discipline that kept them on track to work hard and save diligently for five years. After that time, the plan was to return to their Caribbean homeland more prosperous, able to build a home, and provide a much better life for themselves and a brighter future for their children. In 1962, Victor and Hazel welcomed the arrival of their first child to be born in the motherland. Like so many other idealistic couples, their original five-year ideal was replaced by a more realistic 20-year plan. During this period, they raised enough money to purchase their own home and to have their three remaining children, who had been living in Jamaica with grandparents, join them in England.

    Both my parents did return to their native Jamaica, which was the intention of almost every immigrant who emigrated from the Caribbean. My parents were one of the few who did realize that dream, and in 1979, they returned to Jamaica with my youngest sibling Tracey and myself. Unfortunately, their return to the land of their birth did not play out as they had hoped and, ironically, it was difficult for then to readjust to their new life as returning expatriates. In 1980, my father returned to England to find work, only this time he had a two-year plan, but his untimely death prevented him from achieving his ultimate goal: to return to his beloved Hazel, whom he had left behind with his two youngest, me and my sister Tracey. With the passing of a dear husband and father, Hazel and ‘the girls’ decided to return to Britain. In 1982 we once again packed our belongings and returned to the familiar West Bromwich in the West Midlands.

    Hazel never remarried and continues to reside in the West Midlands. Tracey returned to the West Midlands after spending some eight-years living and working in London. She is now the Deputy Head of a school for children with special needs. Tracey resides with her husband and their two sons. As for me, I followed in my parents’ footsteps by embarking on a new life in another country. After graduating from the University of Oxford and then living and working in London for several years, I immigrated to Toronto, Canada in 1998. It was there that I met Lloyd, my long-term partner, and would you believe it, he was born and raised in Wolverhampton, West Midlands…how uncanny is that? We now share a home and cherish our seven-year-old son Declan. My dad would be so proud!
    As a second generation Brit, I have not allowed my achievements and successes to be marred by racial prejudice. Sadly, the ills of racial prejudice still exist albeit at a more covert level. To this end, I vehemently believe that, as the offspring of Caribbean decent immigrants, there is a place for us in this modern civilization where we can co-exist with the indigenous population. Many men and women of my generation have benefited enormously from the drive, determination and strong will that was passed down to us from a generation that overcame barriers and made it easier for use to succeed. Like many others, I, too, will cherish those same values and pass a proud and lasting legacy to the next generation.

    Sandra Williams


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