JANGLES, from left: Mona Hammond, Tony Britts, 1982, © HTV/courtesy Everett Collection

What BBC fitness instructor Tony Britts tells us about Black gay history

The 80s aerobics instructor has become a quarantine home workout hit. The moment I heard his voice, and saw the tightness of his shorts, I felt a pang of congenial affection.

by Jason Okundaye
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09 April 2020, 12:00pm

JANGLES, from left: Mona Hammond, Tony Britts, 1982, © HTV/courtesy Everett Collection

I never saw myself writing about the renaissance of home fitness programmes during the coronavirus pandemic. Politically speaking, I fear encouraging people to order resistance bands and yoga mats from Sports Direct -- a company we should all be boycotting in light of CEO Mike Ashley’s total disregard for employment rights and protections. And writing about how social media fitness influencers are competing for top spot in Instagram’s merciless engagement hierarchy isn’t quite how I thought I’d be reporting on the digital landscape at this time, either. Yet, the internet’s former void of interest in fitness regimes has been filled by the BBC’s retrieval of archival footage of instructor Tony Britts, a man I am now utterly obsessed with.

In Twice as Fit, a three-minute segment on BBC’s Breakfast Time, the 80s predecessor of today’s BBC Breakfast, Tony leads his television audience through a routine which feels both structured and improvised. “Hi! Well I thought today we’d do about three exercises and try and put them together like we’ve normally been doing, okay?” Nothing quite prepares you for the elasticity with which Tony moves his herculean form -- nor for the sexy fit-wear that clads it. Far from your standard 80s workout video, this mash-up of dance, aerobics and yoga stretches beyond whatever limits you thought the human body had. As one presenter on Breakfast Time puts it, “I think his hips run on ball bearings.” Still, rather than ask participants to measure up to his sporting standards, Twice as Fit offered a liberated space in which citizens could embarrass themselves attempting to replicate Tony’s athleticism from the privacy of their own homes.

On first seeing Tony -- an incredibly sexy, muscular, camp Black man -- I felt an instant pang of congenial affection. As a young and occasionally vain Black homosexual, his outfits reminded me of what I wear to the club or what I’d planned to wear to this year’s Black Pride -- that same combination of a cropped mesh vest and striped sport shorts that say, “look, but don’t touch.” Swinging his hips to an 80s synth funk soundtrack, Tony reminds us to “enjoy it, because it’s all fun”. The scene then cuts to the formally dressed Breakfast Time presenters watching on. Rather than feeling contrived or parodistic as such juxtapositions often do, there’s a genuine sense that Tony’s performance commands admiration and respect.

But that simple cutaway also locks the scene within its specific socio-political context -- the 1980s, a time of national moral judgement and social neglect. As instantly as I felt affection for Tony, I also felt a desire to reconstruct his life in my thoughts. I wondered how the British public, at the time under the thumb of Thatcherism and its sexually conservative ethics, reacted to a Black man dancing on national TV as if he were among Black African and Caribbean queers in an underground shebeen in Brixton.

On hearing the cadence of Tony’s voice and seeing the tightness of his shorts, I knew that it was likely he was dead. Referring to archives and engaging in memory work has always been key in developing a cultural sense of my racial and sexual identity, but when I come across people like me, they’re often dead men who would only have been in their 60s if alive today. It’s become a default expectation. But still, the same pain I felt after watching Paris Is Burning and Tongues Untied and discovering that the lion’s share of their respective casts died early returns as acutely whenever I’ve come across an archived picture, text or film by a Black queer person.*

"The neglect of duty to preserve the memory of Black gay men is only made more apparent by the fact that another regular fixture of Breakfast Time, a white woman called Diana Moran, or the ‘Green Goddess’, has maintained a public profile ever since."

Tony fascinates me because the adoration and sexualisation with which he’s been received by social media audiences today seems similar to how he was received in his time. Tony was clearly popular, as in one segment he thanks the nation for their fan mail. But it’s also likely that the national broadcaster would have drawn homophobic complaints for airing such content before the watershed. Yet in absence of records of such letters or any newspaper clippings, I’m left to speculate on just how he was received. Internet searches reveal nothing. Not that Tony matched this level of celebrity, but the only reference point I have for public reaction to a visibly Black gay man at not too a dissimilar time is late football star Justin Fashanu. Despite his pioneering status as Britain's first £1 million Black player and his excellence on the pitch, Justin is mostly remembered for his late-career outing in The Sun, complete with lurid revelations of a secret affair with a married Tory MP. It makes me wonder -- if Tony had been involved in a sex scandal with a high-profile white man, would his memory have been preserved?

As I understand it, Tony’s real name was Anthony Menson Amuah. According to sources, he was born in Ghana on November 24th 1955 and died June 1988. Though many faced difficulties in placing his accent, I quickly recognised it as one of West African origin, contorted with those Western inflections our relatives adopt to assimilate.

I’ve seen so many social media calls for a special documentary on Tony’s life and a resurfacing of further archive material, but it seems that the duty of thorough archiving has been consigned to activists and community organisers, rather than to major institutions. Archiving fan mail isn’t rare, so maybe the letters sent to him have been preserved? I’m certainly grateful that these videos of Tony have been unearthed, but I’m left wanting better for his legacy.

How is it that this man used to dance on the BBC’s flagship morning programme and I’m only just hearing about it now? The neglect of duty to preserve the memory of Black gay men is only made more apparent by the fact that another regular fixture of Breakfast Time, a white woman called Diana Moran, or the ‘Green Goddess’, has maintained a public profile ever since. Granted, Diana Moran is alive, and Tony isn’t, but gay men are so often stricken off the record of history in death. This causes pain for my generation of Black gay men and boys. We are denied the knowledge and experiences of too many of the forebearers of our culture, our identities and the social spaces we occupy today. Every time I meet and learn from an older Black British gay man, I think of all those I am not able to have that intergenerational exchange with. Memory work for Black gay communities so often requires imaginative speculation, and in discovering Tony Britts I have found so much joy and excitement -- but, still, so many questions and frustrations remain.

*Editor’s note: An earlier version of this piece said that the author understood, from people who had known Tony Britts, that he had died of AIDS-related complications; however, others have since disputed this, so we have removed the claim.

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