Bob Hunter was a member of the original Black and White Minstrel Show,now being revived on stage. He tells JANE HARRISON how colour wasn't an issue then - it was the music that mattered
YOU have to be a certain age to remember the Black and White Minstrel Show, a TV variety show famous for its white dancers with blacked up singers.
In an era when political correctness was not a watchword, the show won the 1961 Golden Rose of Montreux and could guarantee an audience of up to 19 million.
In 1967 the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination delivered a petition to the BBC, asking for the programme to be taken off the air. Inspite of that, it kept going until 1978 when its demise probably owed more to the genre losing some of its audience appeal.
The revival of its music and memories, with stars from the original Black and White Minstrel Show as well as Sing Something Simple, Friday Night is Music Night and many other famous George Mitchell TV shows, comes under the spotlight once again next week.
For one afternoon only, Music! Music! Music! celebrates 50 Golden Years of Song at the Beck Theatre in Hayes.
Bob Hunter, 71, who was in the first Minstrel show and stars in the Beck performance, believes the format is as strong now as it ever was, although the current cast will not be blacked up.
He says: "Many groups blacked up in those days, although mainly in America. There was no 'PC' at that time. A small minority objected but the West Indian cricket team once sat in the front seats.
"We were just following a tradition. The real strength was the musical content and of course the lovely costumes.
"George Mitchell was a brilliant arranger. He knew what the soloists' ability was and used that. It was light entertainment and there was a need for that then as there is now.
"Even on black and white TV, it looked fantastic and we always had a good comic act like Leslie Crowther.
"It was so popular - there were 19 million watching. Morecambe and Wise were getting the same numbers at their peak.
"It does still attract the over-50s and some children but a lot of people still come up and say 'Why can't we get the show on video?'.
"The BBC have got old black and white videos which they won't release. It's not considered acceptable. It's a shame because nothing has ever replaced it."
The Black and White Minstrel Show, first screened by the BBC on June 14 1958 and on the air for the next two decades, stemmed from a one-off special called the 1957 Television Minstrels, which featured the Mitchell Minstrels conducted by George Mitchell with the Television Toppers dance troupe providing the glamour. They specialised in sing-along medleys, some originating from America's deep South and others of country and western origin.
The Black and White Minstrel Show became one of the most popular musical programmes on TV, with the music breaking sales records and the stage show becoming equally popular.
Bob, of Lynwood Road, Ealing, who is touring with the show at Eastbourne and Blackpool, says: "I was associated with the spin-offs as well as the original show and the reaction of the public was tremendous.
"You couldn't put on that type of show now. It would cost a fortune and it was live. There were so many costume changes people didn't know how we did it. It was virtually a sixday week to put the show on. You needed a lot of energy."
Bob came from a musical family, demanding to play the fiddle at the age of three when he saw his father practising on the violin.
At the age of 17 he joined the County Durham Chopwell and District male voice choir where his father was secretary and then the Royal Engineers' Band when he joined the army.
He says: "I spent three years working as a professional musician. Most of us in that band went into major orchestras like the LSO and Bournemouth Symphony orchestra."
A month before leaving the army band, Bob auditioned for the George Mitchell singers and the rest was history. He says: "Anyone could write in and say they wanted to audition. I had to sight-read music and sing and they just said straight away they wanted me to join them."
Bob sang in other shows, with at least 35 professional groups and on recordings with the likes of Ken Dodd and Kathy Kirby.
He says: "I have recorded with quite a few from PJ Proby to Pavarotti. I loved all the different parts of the job when no two days were the same. Variety has to be the spice of life and I have really had that in my line of work."
He is really looking forward to putting a little bit of that spice back into the current performance, which boasts Syd Little as special guest star. He says: "We need shows like this. People come out smiling and that is what we need at the moment."
* Music! Music! Music! is on at the Beck Theatre, Grange Road, Hayes on October 9 at 2pm. Tickets from the box office on 020 8561 8371.