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BBC 100: Sir Lenny Henry on Una Marson’s forgotten legacy

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When Una Marson became the BBC’s first black radio producer and presenter in the 1940s, she brought Caribbean voices and culture to a global audience, but her name is now little known. Sir Lenny Henry explains why he is reviving Marson’s story.

When I think of Una Marson, I think of a trailblazer – a pioneer who connected the Caribbean to the world through her radio programmes. But most people don’t even know who she was, let alone anything about her work at the BBC.

It would take many, many hours to uncover her story but my production company, Douglas Road Productions, makes a valiant attempt to tell it in a new documentary.

We mix rare archive of Una from the 1940s with reflections from historians and writers, and actress Seroca Davis skilfully brings this remarkable woman to life.

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Una Marson (centre) introduces Uriel Porter, Gladys Taylor, the singer, Ike Hatch, the entertainer and Lionel Trim, the comedian, during a BBC broadcast to the West Indies in which these artists took part, and members of His Majesty's Forces from every island in the West Indies sent greetings to their parents and wives at home, 23rd December 1941.

Born in 1905 in rural Jamaica, Una was the daughter of a Baptist preacher. She had a middle-class upbringing, learned to type and attended a boarding school. From an early age, she had drive, ambition and the smarts to go far. By 1926, she was the assistant editor of a political magazine, the Jamaica Critic. Two years later, she had started her own magazine, The Cosmopolitan, aimed at a young, politically-aware Jamaican audience.

In the years that followed, she wrote Tropic Reveries, a collection of poems challenging traditional notions of womanhood, and At What Price, a play about a mixed-raced relationship that would later be staged in London’s West End.

By the time she came to London in 1932 to find new opportunities for her writing, Una was a force to be reckoned with. But she found herself in the midst of the colour bar that blocked non-whites from entry into certain jobs and restricted their access to housing and social and cultural life.

In her poem, Little Brown Girl, Una spoke about her isolation in “a white, white city” at that time.

“You speak good English little brown girl, how is it you speak English as though it belonged to you?” she wrote.

Not one to stand back and do nothing, Una got involved in political activism in the UK. She shared a house with Dr Harold Moody, the founder of civil-rights organisation The League of Coloured Peoples.

Though its name sounds like a Marvel movie franchise waiting to happen, the League had a serious objective – eliminating the colour bar. As its assistant secretary, Una organised receptions, meetings, trips and concerts. The fight against racism inspired her, made her tough and gave her a manifesto for a career.

During a reception for Jamaican technicians who are working in factories in Britain, the BBC recorded messages from the men to their relatives at home, for transmission in the BBC's Service to the West Indies, 16th June 1942.

Image source, BBC

Her big turning point was being hired by the BBC Empire Service in 1941 for a radio programme, Calling the West Indies.

The show incorporated personal messages, war-time tales, interviews and music. It had a huge impact – people back home could listen to people away from home and feel connected.

Priceless archive shows Una in a radio studio surrounded by black and brown people, waiting for a signal before stepping up to the microphone to speak to the world in a cut-glass English accent.

“This is Una Marson introducing West Indians in Britain,” she said. I’m struck by her confidence, both as I watch the archive footage, and also, as I watch actress Seroca Davis recreating Una’s speech cadences and attitude.

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Una’s literary talent was undeniable – she contributed to poetry programmes alongside George Orwell and TS Eliot, reading her own work. But she also gave a platform to unknown writers in her weekly radio feature, Caribbean Voices.

All those years ago, she was supporting Caribbean creatives in the same way that my production company is supporting diverse talent today. She always went that extra mile, locating the authors herself and helping them to publish their writing.

As an articulate, intelligent black woman with a purpose, Una didn’t have it easy in the patriarchal world of the BBC and Britain of the 1940s.

She had to deal with racism from some of her BBC colleagues. A confidential report on her work in the BBC archives praises her broadcasting skills, but mentions the “social” difficulties she faced due to “the prejudices which undoubtedly exist among some of the staff.”

But Una knew what she was doing was important. And no matter what people said, she got the work done, and that’s to be applauded.

Sadly, her mental and physical health came under severe pressure. She had worked so hard, elevating others and advancing causes but in the end, neglecting her own well-being.

By May 1946, she had been certified as suffering from schizophrenia and the BBC assisted her passage back to Jamaica. There she would establish her own publishing company but after her death in 1965, her legacy faded from the pages of literature and history.

Sir Lenny Henry

Image source, PA Media

“How could we have let someone of Una Marson’s calibre just disappear?” asks author and biographer Dr Delia Jarrett-Macauley in the documentary.

But the names we remember are chosen by the people who write the history books. In producing a film about Una Marson’s life, my team and I are choosing to say her story is important. She deserves to be lauded and I hope we have added to her legacy.

Una Marson, Our Lost Caribbean Voice, will be broadcast on BBC Two at 21:00 BST on October 23 and will also be available on BBC iPlayer.

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