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News & Views

Celebrating Black Lives: Charlie Williams

Updated: Oct 11, 2022

As part of Rosslyn Hill's 'Celebrating Black Lives' series, we commemorate Charlie Williams, a well-known Black comedian television personality in the 1970s.


"My colour didn't matter down the pit. We had no time for daft things like that..."

Born in 1927 in a small south Yorkshire mining village to a Barbadian father and a mother from Yorkshire, from the age of 14 he worked as a coal miner. Although he was raised in a predominantly white area, Williams and his family were treated well during his childhood, something he later described as a "lovable rarity".


"By and large he got his own back by his performance."

However, by the 1950s the UK became a more hostile environment for the Black community. Williams signed with Doncaster Rovers part-time in 1948, where he faced virulent racism on the football field. Despite this opposition, Williams became a regular first team player in 1955.


"Eh up, me old flower!"

After retiring from football, at 32 Williams started out working as asinger and comedian in northern working men's clubs. From 1971, he found mainstream acclaim on the stand-up show The Comedians, followed by a This Is Your Life special, a Royal Variety Command Performance and his own BBC show. This success was rare for Black comedians during this decade.


"I don't have any regrets. I told jokes that I thought would suit the audience"

However, British society's acceptance of Williams came at a price. By poking fun at himself with racist jokes, Williams made himself palatable to white audiences in the decade of Enoch Powell and the National Front.


According to Lenny Henry, "I went through a period of thinking it was all bad, but I just think it was the times and you did what you had to do to get by. I think you did what you had to do to survive in a predominantly white world."


By the 1980s, society had moved on and the glory days of Charlie Williams were over. In 1999 he was awarded an MBE for his charity work and he died in 2006 after a battle with Parkinson's disease and dementia.


Each month we mark the significant life of a person of colour as a positive statement and a contribution to redressing historical imbalances in our society. More profiles.


Sources:

Editorial Team. "Charlie Williams – The first Black British comedian to experience mainstream success." Black History Month, 7 July 2019, https://www.blackhistorymonth.org.uk/article/section/bhm-firsts/charlie-williams-the-first-black-british-comedian-to-experience-mainstream-success/.

O'Donnell, Nick. "Charlie Williams." FURD, https://furd.org/content/charlie-williams.

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