Tara Prem: pioneer of British multicultural TV drama

A discussion of the career of Tara Prem
including extracts from an interview
conducted by the author

by Eleni Liarou

The history of British TV’s multicultural programming, and particularly TV drama, is usually associated with the work of the BBC’s regional unit in Birmingham in the 1970s, but even more commonly with Channel 4 and its distinctive policy of catering for culturally diverse audiences. The names usually remembered for their contributions to this TV drama history are overwhelmingly male: David Rose, Peter Ansorge, Jeremy Isaacs, Farukh Dhondy, Michael Abbensetts, Hanif Kureishi, Stephen Frears. Amongst them, and even before some of them, was a strong-willed, independent-minded young woman, Tara Prem.

Tara PremTara Prem was born in London, daughter of an Indian father and Irish mother. She attended the French Lycée in South West London and went on to study drama at Bristol University and in France. She worked as a theatre actor for a short while in the early 1970s, at Watford Rep and the Royal Court. She then travelled to Chicago for a year where she became more interested in directing. Very inspirational in Prem’s formative years – during the late 1960s – were Tony Garnett and Ken Loach’s ground-breaking social realist dramas for BBC’s Wednesday Play, and so when Prem came back from America she decided to give up her theatre work and move into television. Her first job was as a trainee script editor at the BBC in London where they put her on Play of the Month, a strand of programmes based on theatre classics, exactly what Prem had run away from! But she knew Barry Hanson, who had just gone to work for the BBC in Birmingham with David Rose, and they both wanted to do ‘modern, new, regional work’. Prem really wanted to be ‘up there’ and she left her job in London and joined Rose and Hanson. That’s how her television career but also the story of multicultural TV drama began.

The following are extracts from my interview with Prem, related to different stages of her TV career and available here as audio track links.

Going up north: Tara Prem at BBC Pebble Mill in Birmingham and early influences:

Extract 1 [2 mins and 18 secs] 

Making A Touch of Eastern Promise (BBC Birmingham, 1973): Initiating multicultural TV drama
Prem talks about her father, the TV actor Bakhshi Prem, and how his work inspired her to write A Touch of Eastern Promise, a half-hour TV drama shot on film and recorded in Balsall Heath, Birmingham. It’s a story of Mohan (Dev Sagoo), a young Indian boy, whose dream of meeting his favourite Bollywood star, Shalini, may come true when he finds out that Shalini is coming to perform in Birmingham. A Touch of Eastern Promise was the A Touch of Eastern Promise (1973)first drama on British television to have an entirely Asian cast. Even more importantly, it kicked open a door and led to the making of the first Black British soap opera, Empire Road (BBC Birmingham, 1978-79), written by Michael Abbensetts, and his Black Christmas (BBC2, 1977), another key title in the history of Black British TV drama.

Extract 2 [4 mins and 19 secs] 

‘Bringing the guys in…’: Peter Ansorge, Michael Wearing and Stephen Frears come to BBC Birmingham
Prem first went to Birmingham in 1972 to work with David Rose, Head of Drama at BBC Pebble Mill, and Barry Hanson, the script editor. Soon enough their team grew bigger. Here Peter AnsorgePrem remembers when Peter Ansorge joined them.

Ansorge has been a producer of television drama at both the BBC and Channel 4. Among his award-winning productions and commissions are Chris Mullin’s A Very British Coup (C4, 1988), Simon Moore’s Traffik (C4, 1989), Paula Milne’s The Politician’s Wife (C4, 1995), Alan Bleasdale’s GBH (C4, 1991) and David Hare’s Licking Hitler (BBC, 1978). He is also the producer of Empire Road.

Extract 3 [1 min and 08 secs] 

After Peter Ansorge, Prem brought in another script editor, Michael Wearing, best known as the producer of the highly-acclaimed dramas Boys from the Blackstuff (BBC2, 1980-82) and Edge of Darkness (BBC2, 1985). Stephen Frears followed suit and worked with Prem on Black Christmas (BBC2, 1977) as director, marking his first major work concerned with issues of race, ethnicity and cultural identity.

‘Second City Firsts’: What’s in a name? Intercultural and international crossings
Prem reveals how she came up with the name Second City Firsts, the BBC drama series (1973-1978), which she was in charge of. Several first-time writers were commissioned to write for the series, bringing some ground-breaking, original writing onto British TV and a fresh perspective on English regional cultures.  

Extract 4 [1 min and 21 secs] 

Working as a producer: Prem reflects on her work as a TV producer

Extract 5 [2 mins and 24 secs] 

‘Bringing it all back home’: Prem’s recent work
Don WarringtonDon Warrington, the Trinidadian British actor, known from the British sitcom Rising Damp (ITV, 1974-78), amongst other things, wanted to use the talent that had come out of Talawa, one of Britain’s radical black-led theatre companies, and get them onto television. A few years ago, Warrington, Prem and Peter Ansorge set up Pampaset Productions, a company that evolved from Talawa with a mission to reflect the growing diversity of British culture on primetime television. They worked for 3 years on this and got two commissions from C4 but unfortunately their project did not get off the ground.

But Prem hasn’t given up.  She is at the moment working on a short film project with one of the writers she met at Pampaset. As she says, ‘this is a fantastically good writer, mixed race from Yorkshire. The project is all very Yorskshire, very regional. Same old stuff…I might as well stick to what I’m good at!’

Eleni Liarou teaches film and TV history at Birkbeck College,
and she is currently one of WFTHN’s Network Co-ordinators.
Relevant to some of the issues discussed here is her recent
publication co-authored with Mark Duguid ‘Lexicons of post-
colonialism in Gangsters (BBC, 1975-1978)’ in S. Nandi and
E. Sanyal (eds.) The Bloody Screen: A Study of Violence and
Masculinity in postcolonial film and television, New Delhi:
Zubaan Books, 2012.

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