Learning to Skip: distant memories

What with the all the fuss about BNP’s Nick Griffin being on BBC’s Question Time a couple of week’s ago, reading Al’s posts about the British Council’s film archive1 and being prompted to think about politics generally, I have been remembering an experience I had over forty years ago.

I was in a film about race relations in London – set in Notting Hill Gate. This was the time of the Notting Hill race riots; Notting Hill was a run down area, not home to politicians and film stars as it is now. In 1965 – when my story is set – the Second World War was still memory rather than history; people were still arriving on ships from the Carribean like the Windrush; tension was high.

But really, it was just a story about a little boy and a little girl: Jemima and Johnny. I played Johnny (and originally it was called Johnny and Jemima, which is how I still think of it…); a little girl played Jemima (obviously enough). In the film Johnny’s father was a rabble-rouser for the National Front (the precursor to today’s voter-friendly, unracist BNP); Jemima’s family recently arrived from the Caribbean. The film was set among the rubble in bombed streets of Notting Hill and Westbourne Park (no Trellick Tower; no Westway); the two warring families on different sides of the race divide had to work together to rescue us.

I don’t actually remember much about making the film: early November mornings, dark and cold; walking through Portobello market to buy chips; playing with a white rat; having to be taught how to skip down the street.

jj pic1
Me. And “Jemima”. Not quite skipping.

It was only by chance that I was in the film. The director, Lionel Ngakane, a South African emigre, was a friend of my parents; he saw me at a party and exclaimed “that boy must be in my film!” So I was. My brother was too, part of a gang of kids running through the streets.

It was a low, low budget film. Lionel couldn’t afford to record sound, so it was overdubbed afterwards. For reasons I never understood, he used an actress to speak my lines, and the voice never really sounded right. They spelt my name wrong in the credits and couldn’t afford to correct it: my one shot at fame and IMDB have my name wrong!

Lionel was an interesting character. I saw a lot of him over the years; he often talked of making a sequel to Jemima and Johnny, but nothing came of it. The film was shown at various film festivals and won a prize at the Venice.

I was never certain why Lionel was exiled from South Africa. He was an active supporter of the ANC, and there was a story that he had been gun-running, smuggling guns into the country. It is possible a much younger me made that story up, though. For whatever reason, he had to leave South Africa, unable to return; he believed that he was being watched by South African agents in London.

One of my earliest political memories involves Lionel. When I was about ten, Lionel’s father died, and Lionel applied for a temporary visa to return to South Africa for the funeral. He surprised that he was given permission to visit. On arriving in South Africa, however, he was arrested, questionned and put on the first plane back to London. Young though I was, I thought this was unbelievably cruel and mean-spirited; I could half imagine the South African authorities not allowing him back, but to say he could return for the funeral and then to stop him on the brink seemed incredibly mean.

I remember speaking to Lionel in April 1994. He had just cast his vote in the first democratic elections for South Africa at South Africa House in London. He was ecstatic – he couldn’t believe it. Not only was he able to vote in a South African election for the first time, but he had been actively welcomed into South Africa House – a building he had picketed many times and which he had never been allowed in before. Now they were happy to have him enter! He wept down the phone.

He returned to South Africa permanently in the late 1990s and died a few years later.

Jemima and Johnny is still being shown – it can be found in the BFI. My then-partner saw a screening in the Edinburgh Filmhouse when it was shown as part of a series about Black Britain a few years ago – I couldn’t go. It has recently been discussed on Radio 4 in a programme about black British cinema. I have a copy on video tape somewhere, which I really should get transferred to DVD, I guess.

1I must declare an interest – I am involved in the Counterpoint projects, but not in an editorial or content-creation role – it is just that my involvement has pricked these thoughts!

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