David Olusoga was one of very few non-white people on the Newcastle council estate where he grew up. His Nigerian father had met his white British mum at the city’s university in the1960s, and when they separated David joined his mum. “I’m a Geordie Nigerian,” he says of his ancestry. But in his case the famous Geordie warmth turned out to be more myth than reality.
“The National Front attacked the house repeatedly with stones and broke all the windows and we were living under police protection,” he says now. “I was 14.” Olusoga and his mum were eventually forced out of their home by the racists. He remembers returning to the house and seeing it boarded up. “On the white door someone had painted a swastika and the words ‘NF won’.’’
Given such violence and provocation, it’s a wonder that Olusoga thrived. But he did. And his great love was history, though he could never understand why black faces were largely invisible in Britain’s story.
When he flicked through the pages of the Ladybird book of Roman Britain he would see only white faces and he naturally assumed that the conquering Romans were as white as his neighbours and classmates. It was the same story when he turned on the television – black people were largely invisible, their stories untold.
“I got into history because I wanted to make sense of the forces that have affected my life,” he says. “I’m from that generation who would look at Trevor McDonald on television – his gravitas and authority – and see hope and potential.” University followed and then the BBC, take class out of the girl… working first behind the camera and more recently as the presenter of acclaimed series on slavery (2015) and the Indian, African and Asian troops who fought in the First World War (2014). Coming up next year is the programme that will seal his status – Civilisations, a reboot of Kenneth Clark’s famous series, which he will co-present with Mary Beard and Simon Schama.
Today, though, the 46-year-old is talking about his new four-part series Black and British: a Forgotten History, part of the BBC’s Black and British season of programmes.
Reggie Yates, Emma Dabiri and David Olusoga – guests at the BBC’s Black & British Season
Someone at the BBC, I suggest, seems mightily keen to fast track his career. “If my other series had not got any viewers or had not been nominated for any awards [Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners was nominated for a Royal Television Society award] I would not be doing any of these things,” he counters. “I’ve been making history programmes for a decade, but until now I have just been the name at the end of the credits.”
Olusoga’s rise has been so fast that he has yet to have his own Wikipedia entry. “The idea of sitting down and creating your own page seems the most ludicrous act of self-promotion,” he says, before adding that the reason he wanted to be on screen was because “I really, really care about this stuff and I think I’m capable of getting that across. It would have been immensely embarrassing if, after years of telling other people how to present, I had fallen flat on my face.”
A few days before we meet, Jon Holmes, formerly of Radio 4’s The Now Show, has been splashed across the Mail on Sunday under the headline “BBC sacked me for being a white man”.
“If there is a white guy who would like to do this [series], I will take my chance at interview,” Olusoga laughs.
Does he think that TV has a problem tackling diversity? “I think the whole [broadcast] industry has struggled,” he says. “TV is full of lovely liberal people who personally are not racist and what that has led to is a presumption that because we’re all nice, the industry is going to reflect that niceness.”
I remind him of the comment made recently by Reggie Yates, the DJ turned documentary-maker, that it wasn’t possible to name five black faces on television who aren’t Trevor McDonald or in a soap. He nods. “Everyone can name five black sportsmen, five black musicians, but can we name five black thinkers or writers? I think most people would struggle – and that says something.” What does it say? “That we haven’t tried enough,” he replies. “The country and institutions have not tried hard enough and we have allowed things to go unchallenged for a long time.”
It isn’t only on ethnicity where Olusoga feels the media is failing. “I’m black British, but I’m also from a council estate and as much as I go to media conferences and not see many black people, I don’t see many from council estates either.”
As I watched a preview copy of Black and British: a Forgotten History, I found myself thinking about this summer’s vote in favour of the UK leaving the European Union. Olusoga repeatedly stresses that he was intending to make a history series, not one that touches on current affairs, but there’s an undeniable timeliness to the series. “I don’t think the stories of black Britons have been weaved into the national story enough. This is a shared history and this series is an opportunity to place them back into the mainstream – history makes you realise you are part of a longer story.”
That shared history stretches back way before Commonwealth immigration began with the Windrush and even the Victorian era. “Africans got here a millennium before British explorers reached the coast of West Africa,” he says. “When I was a little boy I assumed that the Romans were all Italians, but in fact there were blacks among them – there were parts of Roman York that appear to be more ethnically mixed than parts of modern York.”
The fact that there has been a black presence in Britain since Roman times also means that there are millions of Britons, such as Olusoga’s white mother, who are unwittingly connected to black history through their blood. “My family’s history is part of a long, long trajectory,” he says, “and British history is better, richer and more interesting if the relationship with Africans is weaved back into the bigger story.”
This shared history also suggests – and this feels particularly pertinent now – that those wishing to turn the clock back, or longing to return to an imaginary time when Britain was all white, are deluding themselves. “There is a tendency to imagine there was some period when Britain was not connected to the outside world,” Olusoga says. “That if you go back far enough, you will find this England where everyone sat around under oak trees with no connection to the outside world. What this history shows is there is no mythical England to get back to – there is no Britain to get back to before ‘they’ got here.”