In her time, Una Marson was famous, and she was at the centre of everything. There she is not just in a photograph with her BBC colleagues George Orwell and TS Eliot, but right at the centre of it, commanding the room. There she is next to Haile Selassie when he visited England. She pioneered two hugely successful radio shows and broadcast Caribbean voices to Caribbean people on the BBC for the first time. Yet since her death in 1965, her name and memories of her extraordinary achievements have been largely lost. Una Marson: Our Lost Caribbean Voice (BBC Two) aims to right this unjust disappearance from history.
Marson’s life contained a series of spectacular firsts. She was the first Black producer and broadcaster at the BBC. She was the first Black writer to stage a play in the West End. This intuitive documentary pieces together the fragments of her life that remain, using scant archive material – much of her work has been lost – as well as her own writing, with occasional dramatisations, in which she is played by Seroca Davis.
It begins with her birth in Jamaica, where she was educated and got her first job, in the typing pool at a newspaper in Kingston. Within four years, she was its assistant editor. Her life moved at seemingly great speed. She set up magazines, wrote poetry, was published. In 1932, 16 years before the Windrush generation began arriving, she set sail for the UK, where she had what one talking head here, Prof Jean Seaton, describes as “a terrible awakening”. Marson wrote about the racism and hostility she experienced in London, turning it into powerful poetry.
She joined the nascent League of Coloured Peoples, eventually becoming its magazine’s editor. To the surprise of some of the “old codgers” in the movement, she proved that a woman could hold her own in matters of Marxism and colonialism. She met foreign dignitaries and gave speeches on equality that made the news. She wrote a hit play, At What a Price. “A storming success, even if I do say so myself,” she noted.
After Marson joined the BBC’s Empire Service, in 1941, she quickly rose up the ranks. She presented, then produced Calling the West Indies, a show in which soldiers read letters to their families, and then Caribbean Voices, which hosted writers, musicians and political figures. When she appeared on Orwell’s show, Voice, standing in for TS Eliot, she read one of her own poems. It is a bittersweet moment that demonstrates this film’s sensitivity and insight. She wants to read a poem called Black Is Fancy, but knows they would prefer one called Banjo Boy. She reads Banjo Boy on air, then privately castigates herself: “I should have made a better choice, something I believe in.”
This film, directed by Avril E Russell and Topher Campbell, does not shy away from showing the devastating personal cost of Marson’s phenomenal professional rise. It is a history of the early 20th century, too, and its attitudes. It is unsurprising to learn that, as a Black woman from the Caribbean, Marson faced hostility from some colleagues. Complaints about her alleged “rudeness” come with a side order of unconcealed racism. She is conflicted about whether or not to marry, knowing that, owing to the era, it would mean giving up her career. She had to delicately navigate which parts of herself to show and which to conceal. There is conflict pressing in on her all the time.
Eventually, this appears to have led to what we might refer to now as burnout. Her mental health suffered and she ended up being hospitalised in a psychiatric institution in Jamaica. Upon her recovery, she returned to charitable work and political campaigning, setting up a publishing company that made the work of Jamaican authors accessible to as many people as possible. When she spoke about her work on Woman’s Hour, many years later, she noted that it marked her return to the BBC.
Our Lost Caribbean Voice deftly weaves together the many strands of Marson’s life. Its talking heads – academics, artists, Marson’s biographer – offer powerful analysis of what she did and why she is so important. The dramatisations are used sparingly enough to give it life without weighing it down in too many theatrical interludes, and Marson’s magnificent writing carries it all along with the kind of life force that she must have possessed. This film leaves little doubt of it. It ends beautifully, movingly, with a perfect signoff, as befits a pioneering broadcaster. “But so, God bless me, I have no regrets,” Marson says.
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