Make Yourself At Home

This is the story of how film captured the emergence of Britain’s Asian communities, from the BBC/OU's series Nation on Film.

By: The OpenLearn team (Programme and web teams)

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Film Copyrighted image Copyright: Used with permission

We start in the 1950s, when people from the Commonwealth were encouraged to come to Britain. Social change was recorded - by chance - when a Bradford mill owner hired commercial photographers to record working conditions in a textile factory. The newcomers were labelled as Asian immigrants, but they came from different countries, with different languages and different faiths.

Attitudes were hardening among some of the white people who lived near the new communities and, in the West Midlands, TV documentary makers encountered open expressions of prejudice. By the time the BBC covered a heated election campaign in Smethwick in 1964, it was clear that the issue of race would have to be handled carefully on camera. A new approach was needed by broadcasters, and ‘integration’ was the goal.

Mahendra Kaul was brought in to present a series of films, aimed at helping the new arrivals to settle and integrate. It was considered such an urgent need that the Postmaster General had to force through an emergency measure to allow television transmitters to operate on Sunday mornings for these programmes.

By the 70s, many of the ‘first generation’ immigrants were worried that further immigration would make all Asians more vulnerable to racist attack. Following the explusion of Asians from Uganda, more established communities in Leicester used film to pass on a message of their own: we don’t want you here.

For many British Asians, it was cinema that helped them escape from western culture and retain their own identity. They queued every week to watch films made in India, turning the cinemas into social centres. Asian families by now were getting access to their own film-making equipment. Their films are a record of a moment in history, showing young Asians growing up in a multicultural environment.