Frances-Anne Solomon – First Lady of Film, Radio and Television Recounts her Extraordinary Career in UK, Canada and Caribbean.

Frances-Anne Solomon

Reading Frances-Anne Solomon’s bio, one is struck by how many ‘firsts’ she has achieved. First Woman of Colour appointed to BBC Radio 4 Radio Drama Team. One of the first handful of Black Women to sit on the directors’ panel of judges for both the OSCARS and BAFTA. A Co Founder of the UK Windrush Caribbean Film Festival and Founder of her own Media/Drama production company. 

In this frank account of her life’s story, Frances-Anne Solomon records the memories she holds of those breakthrough moments.

Looking back on my career now, it was hard, hard work!  I was full of outrage at what I was seeing. I was motivated by a vision of how it should be in the TV and media industry.  So, at the time, I did not feel like I was doing anything new. I felt more like I was fixing what was unjust.  

Growing up as a child in Trinidad, I had the experience of being in the majority and being from a family with incredible Black men and women, in leadership roles in my country. Both my grandfathers were “firsts” on the island as Black Island scholars and doctors. They cut the path before me. I grew up knowing about them and their legacy.  

Going to England – or even when I came to Canada – it was so off, so outrageous and stupid that there was so much inequality.  It was just wrong – that was not how I grew up seeing the world.  

Twenty plus years ago, being the first, I thought we were going to get this over with and address, fix it and move on.  Never in a million years did I ever conceive that 25 years later, we would still be starting from scratch.  It is sad, ridiculous, outrageous and tragic.  

Grappling with Issues at the BBC Then and Now

When I arrived at the BBC I started in radio.  At that time my department was 90-95% men and there were no People of Colour.  There were no People of Colour in any capacity in the organization.  Everybody was white, Oxbridge graduates and there was no consciousness.  I was hired because they were looking to hire a Person of Colour and I was acceptable – a young, light-skinned, highly educated woman who seemed pretty and amenable.  I think that was the bottom line. 

The issues of racism, inequality, lack of diversity, inclusion and representation were so dominant.  Being a ‘diversity hire’ who was good at what I did and not being intimidated by class or colour, I set out to fix what was wrong. My biggest motivation was to get other People of Colour on the same level as me – creating opportunities for others so that I would not be alone.  

There were no writers of Colour at the BBC at the time. I worked to get this rectified.  I was able to get them to create programmes to hire writers. Dozens of writers were hired as a direct result of these initiatives. They were very open to my suggestions and what I was saying.  In terms of actors, there was a pool of actors (an actors repertory) who were available for productions. We brought on four of these individuals.  We took giant steps in radio. The truth be told, at the time, I was very young and I had no fear.  

Coming from Trinidad and a society where we were not the minority and not powerless, I had no experience of dealing with discrimination. I did not consider or realize the magnitude of what I was taking on beyond the need to see change.  I wanted work that reflected our perspectives, I worked with management and HR to come up with programmes to hire People of Colour so we could produce material that reflected our experiences,  told in our voices and from our perspectives.  We did Peggy Su! and had a slate of other movies by writers of Colour ready to flood the airwaves.  But it was one of the hardest periods of my life filled with constant battles.  

Facing Progress and Roadblocks

Within that first year I was at the BBC, we hired 2 producers of Colour, one Black and one South Asian.  So, from no People of Colour to dozens in different roles within one year! It was absolutely intense.

By the time I got into television I had been beaten about quite a bit.I had begun to pull back.  My boss approached me and he said, “why aren’t you doing what you did at the radio?”  He said I will give you the funds to produce five feature length films by writers and directors of Colour with a budget to create a series of shorts.  

So again, we began the process of looking for writers, commissioning writers, developing scripts for shorts and for features. We found crews of Colour, brought in directors, producers and production companies led and owned by People of Colour.  

When we put out a call for writers, we got 600 applications.  Having gone through this in radio, I knew this would happen when you open the door.   Even though there was a lot of talent, they had zero experience with writing full length or short screenplays. There was a huge element of training which was both time consuming and very energy intensive.  

The biggest issues came when we were ready to go into production. I had carte blanche to hire and train who I wanted, but the BBC infrastructure was hugely problematic.  They did not want to hire People of Colour and the union was basically the tool used to strengthen that agenda and keep People of Colour out.  

Frances-Anne Solomon – ‘Coming from Trinidad and a society where we were not the minority and not powerless, I had no experience of dealing with discrimination.’

We were not allowed to hire anyone that was not a member of the union and there were really no People of Colour in the unions at that time.  We were told we can’t put money into the hands of people who are not tested by the BBC so they would not hire Black producers. 

At each of these roadblocks I would devise ways to circumvent them.  I created a bunch of jobs for Black producers as trainees to come into the system.  They countered by giving jobs to the old boys above them.  This was an ongoing battle. So, after hitting roadblocks. I would go back to my boss to get me through another section of the hurdle and I be on my own again.  

Eventually I took the route of doing the films as independent productions, giving the money to  independent Black production companies.  Then it was a matter of, we can’t give money to companies who have no track record.  So, here we are with the money and the ability but there were constant blockades.  

The final straw  was when the outside production companies were forced to hire white “proven” producers if they wanted to get the money to do the productions.  The huge opportunity, and the very reason why we were doing what we were doing, just disappeared.  It was heartbreaking and one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.  (As a result of this situation, it impacted a lot of relationships.)  Truly, and now in hindsight quite naively, I thought once this was done, we would have conquered racism. There would be all these People of Colour in the industry who were in a position to have careers and move the industry forward.  

I knew there was no progress in television because it is a juggernaut of big budgets. I realized it would take a lot more than me to change that structure because it is so driven by money.  

I really thought that the changes we made in radio drama were lasting.  Yet, when I went back to England a couple years ago I saw and spoke with a producer in radio and asked, “So who’s on radio now?” and she said there are no People of Colour in the radio department – no producers, no writers. Nothing.  

With the social climate after the George Floyd murder, Black Lives Matter (BLM) and Me Too, we are back were we were, when I was working there,  It makes me very very sad and frankly, quite sick. 

Inspiration and critical acclaim for the film HERO in 2019. 

The film began as a personal project at the request of my mother and her friend. This amazing man from Trinidad – Ulric Cross –  who served in the Second World War and was the most decorated West Indian, was my parent’s contemporary and a friend of the family. My mother got it into her head, along with another friend of hers, that they wanted to see a film made about him. Being the filmmaker in the family, they asked me.     

Initially I was very resistant because it takes so much to make a film.  But the more I researched, the more I felt that this was a film I needed to make.  Not only did this resonate with my background, with my grandfather also being one of the architects of Trinidad independence, it resonated because of the way the African diaspora is connected and the way in which our stories merge.  

We started by speaking about firsts, and here we have a group of people who were absolutely firsts. Not many know the role that Caribbean intellectuals and professionals played in the African Independence Movement. This gentleman played an integral one. After the war Mr. Ulric Cross went to Africa and served across the independent African countries as a lawyer, judge and in various other capacities.  He  got caught up in the movement of history, in that transformative period when the “empire” was coming to an end.  I thought this was really inspiring and an incredible story that everyone, and most especially our people, need to know. 

Returning to Canada to Set up a Production and Distribution Company

I was really very shocked to find the climate the way it was. I had this fantasy, when I was in England, of Canada being this multicultural haven where opportunities abounded and our voices and perspectives would be welcomed.  I went to university there, the University of Toronto, but was shocked when I discovered that Canada was so much further behind the UK at that time. 

Opportunities and Challenges of launching The Windrush Caribbean Film Festival, 

The opportunity to create the festival was amazing.  

Two years ago through a series of event screenings from Scotland to Brighton and across London, we distributed my film Hero across the UK and discovered that there is a huge audience for a film that spoke about the Windrush generation. This discovery is what led to the festival. We wanted to bring different kinds of films to this audience.  

Our challenges included funding, as is with the majority of start-ups, and then there was Covid-19, which presented us with amazing opportunities. That first year we had zero funding for the festival and Covid was a reality, so we had the opportunity to create a virtual festival at a lower cost than in-person. We were able to use the CaribbeanTales TV VOD platform to help deliver the festival virtually in the UK.  The second  year, with that experience, we were able to raise funding.  

The biggest challenge by far was having a team in England and one in Canada working together.  It meant both communities had to imagine themselves as one global team. What I found interesting is that this was not an experience a lot of our people had; this ability to think and work as part of a global whole.  It has been exciting.

Supporting Caribbean film makers through The Windrush Festival

Shockingly, there is right now no fixed Caribbean film festival in the UK. I think this is really a gift.  Caribbean film makers, I believe, have a desire to be part of a film festival where we can tell our stories and narratives.  The festival allows, fosters and encourages this. It’s very exciting. We have seen a growth in year 1 to year 2, There is this excitement in England that we have something of our own.  

Connecting with the younger generation of film makers

I am in awe of generation GenZ…who do not hold back.  I love them all…they are fearless! They love to not be the only person who opens her mouth and pays the price.  For 25 years, I have been the one opening my mouth and paying the price… I think my advice has changed a bit.  It is now, go brave and build on what you have been provided. Live your full life and don’t waste any time. 

 

A snapshot of Frances-Anne Solomon’s filmography

Peggy Su! (BBC Films, 1997); What My Mother Told Me (Channel 4 1995); Bideshi (British Film Institute 1994); Literature Alive (Bravo!/OMNI, 2006), Reunion (BBC,1993), I Is A Long Memoried Woman (Arts Council of England 1991). The film HERO.

For more information about Frances-Anne Solomon: mailto:evadney@shilohpr.com

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