Speaking for Ourselves

'How Britain changed the migrants and how they changed Britain'

'How Britain changed the migrants and how they changed Britain'

Daniel Nelson

 Migrant Voice -
 Migrant Voice - 'How Britain changed the migrants and how they changed Britain'

In the latest of our occasional commentaries on the coverage of migration in the media, Daniel Nelson looks at the BBC's Big British Asian Summer.

Please put your hands together in appreciation of some recent positive programmes about migrants.

Yes, the media likes to highlight negative stories. Yes, as Migrant Voice research has shown, too many stories do not give space for migrants' voices. But let's give credit where it's due.

The BBC's Big British Asian Summer featured a variety of stories on Britain's biggest minority population (that's the BBC's phrase, the accuracy of which of course depends on how you statistically dice and slice the term "minorities"). The topics varied - from British Asian Men to Searching For Mum, in which four adopted children from the Subcontinent seek their birth mothers, and from Inside the Factory: Curry Sauce to Gardeners’ World British Asian Special. 

Even the cliched ideas (Recipes That Made Me and Bollywood: The World's Biggest Film Industry) exuded good humour and goodwill. Anita Ranim, who grew up in Bradford, brought an infectious enthusiasm to the Bollywood programmes, and included a glimpse of reverse migration, as she took a look at the British dancers and actors travelling east to make fame and fortune in India's still booming film world.

Similarly, historian Yasmin Khan did not restrict the lives she reconstructed from ship manifests to Indian and Pakistani migrants to Britain ("the beginning of a noticeable Asian presence"), but gently prodded viewers into realising that this was a two-way process by including Brits returning from Empire. Not all the Brits were administrators: one man featured in the programme was a jockey in a maharajah's stable. 

Khan has a gift for calling out racism and injustice in a gently subversive, non-confrontional way - like reminding a charming old man that the ayah (nanny) he fondly remembered had slept on the deck of the ship returning to UK while he and the rest of the fmily were snugly ensconced in their cabin. "I feel a bit sorry for her and a bit embarrassed, because she was one of the family," he responded. Apparently there was a house in London where hundreds of ayahs stayed: now that  would be a fascinating follow-up programme.

Khan also usefully reminded viewers that the immigrants were not all poor or lacking in skills or money. Many were students, from land-owning, well-to-do families, who with a good education might become members of the 'heaven-born' elite of the Indian Civil service.

The stories she investigated threw light not only on the differing motives for migration, but on the effects - on the migrants who slotted into British life ("He just shed his Bengali skin"), and the ones who went back to India; on the women who married them, and on the families that ensued.

Occasionally, too occasionally, the programmes in the South Asian season had a flash of genuine originality, notably My Asian Family - The Musical. It was the story of three generations of Thakrars, who were thrown out of Uganda in an Asian purge in 1972, and have re-made their lives in Leicester. It was a glorious, heart-warming documentary in which they sing (mostly badly) and dance, Bollywood-style. You'd have to be implacably bigoted and closed-minded not to see this as a joyous paean to migration.

Khan's often-repeated mantra, and implicitly that of all the programmes in the season, was "How Britain changed the migrants and how they changed Britain". That's not a bad message.

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