Of friendly bondage: Eno (left) and Perry won't relinquish their fascination with pushing boundaries. Image: Muir Vidler
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Brian Eno and Grayson Perry on how the internet taught us we are all perverts

Creativity, popularity and pornography – and why great art always involves losing control.

When the musician Brian Eno spoke to the New Statesman in May, he seemed to be irritated about the art world, its inflated prices and its critical language that so few people understand. When the potter and painter Grayson Perry began giving his Reith Lectures last month he paid tribute to Eno’s 1995 “sabotage” of a Marcel Duchamp urinal in New York (Eno siphoned his own urine into the artwork to explore whether the piece might be more valuable if it had been “worked upon” by two people). They had never met before but it made sense to try to bring them together in the New Statesman. They met at Perry’s studio in Islington, north London. Eno came with a Dictaphone and a magazine about electronic music; Perry was dressed as a man.

Brian Eno [Looking at Perry’s new kiln] That’s a big machine, isn’t it!

Grayson Perry Yes, if you want to make a big pot, you’ve got to have a big kiln.

BE So, what shall we talk about today?

GP That’s up to you. I have many well-travelled pathways in interviews, and in many ways I’d rather not go down any of them.

BE Me, too. I did have one idea, coming over, and that’s why I brought this keyboard magazine. I was thinking about the differences between the music and art worlds, and one thing that strikes me is that professional musicians are quite happy to share things with each other – their ideas and techniques, the tricks that made them famous. Is that something more characteristic of music than art?

GP Well, music is more collaborative. In the art world, originality is seen as a precious commodity and it’s increasingly difficult to get because the territory of art is so trampled. I always think that painters are fighting over the last original brushstroke. To find your own voice is incredibly hard. There’s very few people who have a revelatory, original thought; I think they’re almost mythical. Most people start off being someone else and then they make mistakes.

BE I find it interesting that artists are expected to be able to talk about their work in critical art language now – they have to have “personal statements”.

GP As someone who uses words a lot in my work, I’ve always enjoyed that aspect of it; but I’ve always been one for clarity, you know. As for the language of the art world – “International Art English” – I think obfuscation was part of its purpose, to protect what in fact was probably a fairly simple philosophical point, to keep some sort of mystery around it. There was a fear that if it was made understandable, it wouldn’t seem important.

BE Do you think it was primarily economic – in the sense that if you want to charge very high prices for things, you somehow have to make them appear very valuable?

GP Well, intellectual importance is directly linked to financial value in the art world. I mean, that’s the thing you really want – museum quality. You want to go down in the annals of art history.

BE I’ve been thinking recently about artists who were huge stars in their day who disappeared, like Sir Frank Brangwyn.

GP Or Thomas Kinkade. At one point he was the richest artist in the world. He made schmaltzy pictures of woodland scenes with cottages but he never sold the originals. He had a massive print thing going, and they reckon at one point one in six houses in the States had a Thomas Kinkade print. But he’s never going to feature in any art history.

BE It’s funny, because in pop music that kind of career path would be completely acceptable. First of all, we deal only in reproductions and the original doesn’t matter – there’s no difference between the master tape and what you hear on the CD.

GP No. I find myself thinking quite often that the art world has no equivalent of the popular, really. People always mention Jack Vettriano or Beryl Cook. Even Banksy, to a certain extent, is a very popular artist who’s not necessarily welcomed into the fine art world. But they’re exceptions, and they are not the people who line up their paintings on the railings in Bayswater.

BE The problem with fine art is that in most cases people have to make a special excursion to go and look at it: they can’t afford to own it. So it isn’t really part of their life in the way that music can be.

GP Well, in these sorts of conversations, the phrase “3D printer” always comes up – you know, musicians, authors and journalists have all been shat on by the software companies so it’s the artist’s turn soon, and people will just start downloading your works for themselves. I don’t see it happening just yet . . .

BE But even if it did happen, would it really matter? It just means you make work in a different way. People said that making records would take the life out of music, but then recording became a new kind of art. Now, of course, we’re in a slightly different phase where people are so unfascinated by recording that festivals are on the increase like nobody’s business.

GP Yeah, and I think that the art world benefits from the digital natives, too, because they want a live experience – to go to an art gallery, to be in the presence of an object. I think it goes right back to relics and idols. We learned how to look at art from religion. [The German art historian] Hans Belting thought our whole idea of “fine art” started about 1400, when objects weren’t just seen as religious artefacts any more and started to be appreciated as works themselves.

BE I think one of the big sources of confusion in any discussion about art is the difference between “intrinsic” value and conferred value. Nearly all art criticism is based on the idea that there’s such a thing as intrinsic value –

GP No, I would disagree with that. I think beauty’s a constructed notion, and it’s cocreated in the same way as conferred value. It goes back to that idea of looking at something as fine art: why does everyone think “that is a lovely thing”? Because they’ve been conditioned to do so. Different cultures have different ideas of what is beautiful. I’ve never been to China, but whenever I see Chinese art there’s something about their sense of colour, composition, texture, that for me is always slightly off – and I’m thinking, why don’t I just dive into that artwork and completely love it? It’s because I grew up as a westerner and we were completely separate We might as well have been on the moon for most of history.

BE Our experience of any painting is always the latest line in a long conversation we’ve been having with painting. There’s no way of looking at art as though you hadn’t seen art before.

GP Yeah – that’s why I have the rubbish dump test. When I was at college, one of the tutors used to say, “Oh, that won’t pass the rubbish dump test,” which is, if you throw your artwork on a rubbish dump, would people, members of the public, pick it up, thinking it was an artwork? It’s quite a cruel test but, you know . . .

BE I tried this with my friend [the South African artist] Beezy Bailey: we’d been doing some paintings together and we decided just to put some out on the street and see what people did. It was very funny. We hid behind a wall and watched people. Most of them didn’t pick them up.

GP With a lot of art, people wouldn’t! But I do think the Duchampian magic of bringing an outside object into a gallery seems fairly thin these days – what he did was amazing but at the same time, a hundred years later, I want something more. I always come back to the fact that all the urinals you see in the museums around the world, the so-called Duchamp urinals, they all had to be remade by a skilled potter.

BE Because they couldn’t find the original, could they?

GP Exactly! [Sing-song] Nah-nah-nah-nahnah! BEGood point.

GP I was talking to the curator Hans Ulrich Obrist and he said, “When you appropriate something, you have to be smarter than it.” You’ve got to say, “I’m going to make that more rich, more complex, more elaborate . . .” you’ve got to do better with the thing you’re dragging into the gallery.

BE Well, some ideas don’t actually have that much extension left in them. There’s a whole branch of conceptual art that I was very much immersed in at the end of the Sixties and early Seventies, and it kind of petered out. A lot of things that are being done now I call “onelinerism”, where really the description of the work is as good as the work itself.

GP The YBAs did to a certain extent rehash the work of that late-Sixties, early-Seventies period, but what they did on top of it was make it very appealing, very sensual, and sort of covetable. They put it through an advertising agency, almost.

That said, I called it Theme Park Plus Sudoku. People wanted spectacle – they wanted big, shocking, engaging art, colourful and funny – but they wanted a little puzzle, too: “Hmm, what’s this about?” The problem is, the worst of that kind of art leaves you with a feeling of: “Is that it?”

BE One of the messages of contemporary art has been that, well, anyone could do it . . . GP Well, that’s something I would refute. But I was thinking about this – how do you become a contemporary artist? Well, you could just say you are one and start doing something, and in a purely literal sense you’ll be right. But you’re never going to have a career that way. As Constable said 200 years ago, the self-taught artists were taught by a very ignorant person. You have to go to art school. You don’t meet an artist in the art world who’s not been to art school. There will be undiscovered geniuses out there in Mali or Brazil or China because they’re not cultures that have been strip-mined by dealers and curators yet. But in the west [phone starts ringing] – Oh my God, sorry about this, it’s so rare for my phone to ring . . .

BE I’m interested that you don’t have a phalanx of assistants.

GP No. I have an assistant who fights email for me, but there’s not a lot I could delegate, really. I toy with the idea . . .

BE I’ve never been able to delegate either. I’ve tried so often to have somebody who can help me do music, and I just have to look over their shoulder too much, so it’s not comfortable for them, and it doesn’t save me any time.

GP My wife has this theory that the happiest people are people who say, “That will do.” Today, I went to buy a bin, just for the fricking kitchen here in the studio, you know, but the ones they had in the hardware shop I didn’t like, so I’m still without a bin and I’ll waste another hour trying to find the right bin somewhere.

Somebody who goes “that will do” is probably the happier person in the long run.

BE I do have one good working relationship at the moment, with a guy called Peter Chilvers, who’s a software code writer. We’ve been making apps together for iPad and iPhone, and that’s been a good collaboration because there are quite large areas of nonoverlap.

GP Yeah. I’m working on an architectural project where we’re building a house in Essex, and that’s been a pretty collaboration, too. I’d always wanted to make a place of pilgrimage. So I was looking at religious buildings, but I had to be talked down from some of my more kitsch fantasies by the architect, who had a better handle on the dignity of an object in the landscape.

BE Is it a private house?

GP It’ll be a holiday let. It has an altar and will have tapestries and sculptures, and the outside is going to be completely clad in tiles. I’m fascinated by the idea of pilgrimage, again going back to that idea that in a virtual world you want to experience the real thing. I think pilgrimage is more popular now than ever, whether people know it or not. When I rocked up at Santiago de Compostela on my bike, they gave me a form and it said, “Is your purpose spiritual, cultural or sport?” If you put “spiritual”, you got a really elaborate certificate, but I put cultural and sport so I got a much cheaper, more prosaic one. I loved the fact that it was so banal.

BE If you’re making a new place of pilgrimage, how do you make it seductive enough for people to want to go and spend time there? What do you call upon if you haven’t got religion?

GP I think one of the things people always do is have their photograph taken in front of something now. You’ve got to kind of think about what is realistic behaviour for modern people. When we were on the road to Santiago, I saw loads of people who were more likely to be there because of Paulo Coelho’s book than the Bible. I said, “I bet when we get there, you can get a bong with a Santiago St James shell on it” – the logo –and you could. Increasingly, contemporary art overlaps so much with religion. If you look at all the art centres being built over the past 20 years in Britain, they’re all trying in a way to build pilgrimage sites so they can get the tourists in. It’s a good tourist dollar, in a middle-class, organic-quiche-eating way.

BE But so many of the things we like doing really fall under the umbrella of surrender. That’s sort of what a pilgrimage is, isn’t it? We like putting ourselves into situations where we let go of some control and we’re swept along by something. You’re told what to do and you’re told that when you get there – or in the process – something will happen to you. If you think of sex, drugs, art, religion, they all actually offer you the chance to be taken over, or to let go.

GP Yes, because I think there’s a whole horror of not knowing what to do. But I think conservatism is quite a damaging mental health condition. Anybody worth their salt is up for a challenge. If you’ve got lots of things going and you’re willing to branch out, you’re more likely to survive dementia and all sorts of things. The major influence on me in the last 20 years has been psychotherapy. We look at all human activity through the lens of our emotions. The most brilliant people are often the most difficult, because they try and talk themselves out of this the whole time. But all problems need cleverness, and emotional intelligence is something different.

BE This is why the idea of surrender is so interesting to me, because surrendering is what we are most frightened of doing. Everything is telling you to stay in control. One of the really bad things that’s happened in the art world recently is the idea that a piece of work is as valuable as the amount it can be talked about. So these little pieces of paper you see beside every artwork, in every gallery: if you watch people, they look quickly at the painting, then they read for a long time, then look quickly at the painting again. The analytical mind always wants to say, “OK, I understand this. It’s no problem, it’s no threat.”

GP Well, it’s the classic result of the fact that we hate not knowing. I feel it in myself. I want to tidy things up in my mind. My ideal artwork is one where I have the complete idea, it’s watertight, it’s going to look beautiful: all I’ve got to do is craft it; I can relax and put the radio on. And that would be a dream for me, my own tradition. I’m jealous of those artists who rock up in the studio every morning and do a version a tiny little bit different from what they did the day before.

BE Albert Irvin. I love his work, and I look at it and think: “How nice to go into your old age knowing what you’re going to do every day.”

GP One of the things I really enjoy doing is drawing with only half my mind on it – so I’ll have a couple of beers and get my pens out, and I’ll sit in front of X Factor, and I’m half watching the telly and half drawing. I don’t give a damn; I’m really free. And at the same time I’m operating because I’ve got my lifetime of experience to bear on it.

BE Yes, sure – in a way, you liberate that experience.

GP Yes. I wish I’d stop having fricking ideas and trying to make work that’s got somehow socially applicable.

BE Do you finish everything?

GP Not everything, not nowadays. I used to.

BE I finish so few of the things I start. A lot of the stuff that I’m doing is just seeing how new tools work. So, in order to do that, I try to make a piece of music with it. And often it produces a notebook sketch, really.

GP Yeah, I am loath to make a cock-up! But creativity is mistakes and if you can’t accept that, don’t get involved.

BE So that’s a way of saying creativity is letting yourself lose control?

GP Yeah, you’ve got to do risk. When I was young, I smashed a lot of my early pots because they were crap. In your twenties, you’ve got all that energy, and it’s wild and uncontrolled; in your thirties, you corral it somehow; then in your forties you make the money out of it, and in your fifties, you’re suddenly confronted with being secure. And you’ve got your reputation and you suddenly think, “Well, I could just churn out this work.”

BE I want it to keep me alive, actually, I don’t want to be the person keeping it alive.

GP That’s a lovely thought. I was thinking about Henry Darger the other day. Do you know him?

BE Yeah. Fifteen thousand pictures, they found, when he died?

GP Yes, he never lived to see his work selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars but it gave him a rich life. And I thought, “Wow, nobody even knew he did it, pretty much.” You look at his paintings, and he’s obviously got some art-historical knowledge, he’s not completely innocent. But I don’t think any outsider art is completely isolated.

BE I always had the impression it was probably a totally hermetic, personal thing for him. Like someone generating their own pornography; they don’t particularly want to show it to anyone else. Another very interesting area of outsider art now is drawn pornography. God, there’s some amazing things going on. They’re using semi-real images, but they’re just extending the bits they want more of, you know – or much further than that. I’ve started collecting them.

GP Careful! Speaking as a pervert myself, what the internet did was tell you that you weren’t alone. And it was shocking. When I was young, when I was about ten years old, I used to have this fantasy, which used to turn me on greatly, of being in a body cast – lying in hospital, motionless, unable to move. And then when the internet came along, one day I just thought, “I wonder,” and then I just googled “plaster casts” and like – eugh! There’s websites called things like Cast Your Enthusiasm. It’s an offshoot of bondage.

BE It’s an offshoot of surrendering, as well – the same thing. You’re deliberately losing control.

GP And it’s kind of a loving thing, I think. It has to be. If you think about giving up to God, God is always there and is a parental presence, a parental projection. In bondage, there is always somewhere in the fantasy the loving but cruel parent figure.

BE The loving dominator.

GP Yes, we’re all gimps to a certain extent. Often when we look at perversions, you’re seeing an extreme, ritualised version of what everyone else has latent in them.

I see a lot of religious practices as offshoots of kinky sex. If you look at Catholicism and elements of Islam – well, I’ve got quite a thing about headscarves and I’m certainly not alone there. And I remember once, very early on in the age of the internet, I googled “headscarf fetish”, you know, and woohoo! It all comes out.

The fourth and last of Grayson Perry’s Reith Lectures will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 5 November (9am)

Martin O’Neil for New Statesman
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Why the British addiction to period drama is driving away our best black and Asian actors

There is a diversity crisis in British TV and film as, increasingly, stars are decamping to America to make their career there.

Back in April, a six-part drama called Undercover premiered on BBC1. Perhaps you were one of the five million people who watched it: the story was audacious and continent-hopping, enfolding a narrative about a man on death row in the United States with an all-too-believable tale of a Metropolitan Police officer who marries a woman he is meant to be keeping under surveillance.

The reason the programme attracted so much attention, however, was not what it was about, but whom. Starring Sophie Okonedo and Adrian Lester, Undercover was widely reported as the first mainstream British television drama with black actors in the lead roles. This wasn’t true: as James Cooray Smith wrote on the New Statesman website, that milestone was passed in June 1956 by Mrs Patterson, a BBC adaptation of a Broadway play starring Eartha Kitt.

Yet Undercover was still a breakthrough. Smith, casting his mind back over more than six decades of British television, could not think of more than a handful of other examples. Writing in the Observer, Chitra Ramaswamy expressed her feelings with quiet devastation: “In 2016, it is an outrage that it’s a big deal to see a successful, affluent, complicated black family sit at a ­dinner table eating pasta.” Think about that. In 2016 in Britain, a country where more than nine million people describe themselves as non-white, it is news that a black, middle-class family should not only feature in a prime-time BBC drama but be at its heart. Undercover exposed how white most British television is.

Actors of colour have appeared on British film and TV screens for decades, and they have been visible on British stages for centuries – yet they have been shunted into the margins with depressing regularity. In January the actor Idris Elba urged British MPs to take the matter seriously. “Although there’s a lot of reality TV,” he argued, “TV hasn’t caught up with reality.”

In February, there was renewed uproar over the lack of racial diversity in Hollywood at the 88th Academy Awards, and the infuriated hashtag #OscarsSoWhite blossomed again on social media. A month later, Lenny Henry argued that black and minority ethnic (BAME) talent was being “ghettoised”. The term could hardly be more charged. Speaking at the London premiere of Mira Nair’s film Queen of Katwe, the actor David Oyelowo said: “What we need now is for a change to come. I think the talk is done.”

There has been some change. In March, the Royal Shakespeare Company opened a production of Hamlet starring Paapa Essiedu, an actor of Ghanaian heritage raised in London. It was the first time that a black performer had taken the role for the company. A new set of BBC diversity targets both on- and off-screen was unveiled in April. Noma Dumezweni is playing Hermione in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in the West End, and in October the BFI launched Black Star, a nationwide season celebrating black talent in film and TV. But what does the picture really look like, in late 2016? And what, if anything, needs to change?

The first challenge is that many in the film and TV industry find it difficult to talk about the subject. Researching this article, I lost count of the number of people who demurred to go on the record, or of actors who seemed eager to speak but were then dissuaded. Fatigue might be partly to blame – it’s exhausting to be asked repeatedly about diversity because you didn’t go to Harrow and your skin isn’t white – but I got the sense that there’s more going on.

One man who passionately believes this is the screenwriter Trix Worrell, the creator of the pioneering Channel 4 sitcom Desmond’s, which brought an African-Caribbean barbershop in south-east ­London to Middle England’s living rooms in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

“TV is very difficult to break into. There’s a protectionism there,” he says with a shrug, when we meet for coffee on the seafront in Hastings, where he now lives. “People are nervous about rocking the boat.”

Though cheerful about most of the things we discuss, Worrell admits to feeling a roiling anger when it comes to this particular matter. Does he think that diversity has improved since he was pitching Desmond’s, three decades ago? “No. I say that with absolute certainty and surety.”

It is hard to underestimate the influence that Desmond’s had. The series ran for 71 episodes and at its peak it had five million viewers, remarkable for a sitcom. Starring the veteran actor Norman Beaton alongside a largely British-Guyanese cast, it made that community visible in a way that has not been rivalled in Britain in the 22 years since it came off air. It did so with the deftest of touches, addressing problems of interracial relationships and tensions within the black community through warm comedy.

“Up to that point, black people were ­never seen on TV,” Worrell recalls. “The only time we appeared in any media was in the red tops – muggings, vice. The idea was to show a black family who were just like any other.” Yet it seems that, apart from the spin-off comedy series Porkpie, occasioned by Beaton’s sudden death in 1994, Channel 4 has regarded the idea of portraying a normal black family in a sitcom as too great a gamble in the years since, despite an increase in the number of non-white roles in its other drama output.

Worrell smiles, but it is clear that the ­matter isn’t a joke. “The thing that’s said among black people is that there’ll only be one black sitcom every ten years.”

***

When I phone Paapa Essiedu while he’s on a lunch break from Hamlet, I am prepared to get a more positive perspective. Just 26, Essiedu has had a spectacular and seemingly unimpeded rise. A graduate of the prestigious Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, he joined the RSC in 2012 and then hopped to the National Theatre in Sam Mendes’s King Lear, before returning to Stratford. The Telegraph greeted his debut as Hamlet with the notice that every actor dreams of: “A new star is born”.

But Essiedu seems ready to implode with frustration. “It’s ridiculous,” he says. “This stuff has been here for decades and decades: we’re lying to ourselves if we think there’s been a lack of awareness until now. Lots of people are talking and talking, but we need action.” Has he experienced racism directly? “Put it this way: quite often, I’ve been in a room where everyone else is white.”

A major issue, he says, is the apparently unshakeable addiction of British TV and film to corsets-and-cleavage period drama, which has left many BAME actors locked out of the audition room. The BBC is in the middle of a run of literary spin-offs, from War and Peace to The Moonstone. Over on ITV, we have had Victoria and the invincible Downton Abbey.

It still feels as though much of British drama is stuck in an airbrushed version of the country’s past. Though partly set in contemporary Egypt, BBC1’s adaptation of The Night Manager by John le Carré had only a handful of non-white actors in significant roles. Allowing for exceptions such as the BBC’s version of Andrea Levy’s Windrush-era novel Small Island, broadcast in 2009, you could be forgiven for thinking, had you never visited Britain, that people of only one skin colour live in this country. That the largely white drama series are successful on the export market only helps to extend the cycle.

“Producers say, ‘Oh, we commission stuff that people want to watch,’” Essiedu tells me. “But it’s such a narrow version of history – middle-to-upper-class Caucasian men, generally. Period drama can be from anywhere in the world: Africa, Asia. Where are those stories?”

Drama is just a sliver of broadcasting output, but other genres aren’t much better. Journalists from ethnic-minority backgrounds have made steady progress in television newsrooms – but not fast enough, Channel 4’s Krishnan Guru-Murthy has ­argued; there is a glaring absence, however, when it comes to lifestyle and entertainment TV. The recent success of the intrepid youth TV star Reggie Yates notwithstanding, it is difficult to ignore or account for the dearth of BAME presenters in documentaries and “serious” factual programming; and no major current British chat show has a permanent anchor who isn’t white.

Adil Ray’s BBC1 comedy Citizen Khan, which focuses on the escapades of the overbearing Muslim patriarch Mr Khan and his family in the Sparkhill area of Birmingham, is a rare exception. It has just returned for a fifth season. A worthy successor to Desmond’s in its tongue-in-cheek approach to potentially inflammatory issues (the 2014 Christmas special featured the birth of Mr Khan’s grandson, Mohammad, on Christmas Day) the programme also resembles its forebear in a more depressing way: it appears to be one of a kind.

When I ask Ray why he thinks this is, he selects his words carefully. “It’s not prejudice exactly,” he says, “but in the TV business, there are a lot of formulas. If you’re doing curry, get an Asian person. If it’s hip-hop, someone who’s black. If you’re doing a walk in the countryside, or drinking tea in the Cotswolds . . .” He leaves the sentence hanging.

What appears on screen is only the visible part of the problem. Actors get cast in roles only if writers write them; projects get made only if commissioners commission them. TV and film are notoriously incestuous and competitive industries. Careers are unstable. Knowing someone who knows someone is often – too often – the only way of getting work.

According to figures produced this year by Creative Skillset, many media companies fail dismally when it comes to representation. Just 24 per cent of those in senior roles in cable or satellite firms are female; 4 per cent of employees in positions in senior terrestrial broadcast are BAME; and, if the numbers are to be believed, there are no BAME people at all working on the senior production side of independent film companies. The figures aren’t entirely robust – they rely on organisations filling in forms and returning them – but if they’re anywhere near the truth they make for grim reading.

The BBC’s statistics are more encouraging (according to the latest figures, BAME people make up 13.4 per cent of staff overall and hold 9.2 per cent of leadership roles) but don’t include freelancers, an area in which it is reasonable to suppose that, without quotas to fill, representation will be worse. In September, the media regulator Ofcom put broadcasters on notice that they could face “harder-edged” regulation if they did not improve diversity.

Chi Onwurah, the MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, who has been vocal about these matters in parliament, says that the BBC has a special duty to up its game. “It’s not doing enough,” she tells me. “If it was, there wouldn’t be a problem. It was very interesting watching the [European Union] referendum; all the efforts broadcasters have gone to to make sure there was balance. If they went to half that effort for BAME, gender and disability, it would be a different world.”

The BBC is keen to show that it is paying attention. Last year, it appointed Tunde Ogungbesan as its new head of “diversity, inclusion and succession”, and in April his team announced eye-catching targets: gender parity across every part of the corporation; 8 per cent of staff disabled; 8 per cent of staff lesbian, gay or trans; 15 per cent of staff from BAME backgrounds. Those numbers will be replicated on screen, lead roles included, and are roughly equivalent to averages for the overall population of Britain.

Yet the idea that established BBC presenters will go quietly seems optimistic. Take the ruckus that the comedian Jon Holmes recently raised when his contract with The Now Show (Radio 4) wasn’t renewed. Holmes asked in the Mail on Sunday: “Should I, as a white man . . . be fired from my job because I am a white man?”

Ogungbesan – a former head of diversity for Shell – has a businesslike attitude to the challenges he faces, which are, he concedes, considerable. “We’ve got four years to do this, and we know there’s a hell of a lot of work to do.” That is why his team has given itself a deadline. “Hopefully, when we hit those targets in 2020, we’ll be the most diverse broadcaster in the UK.”

How does he respond to Onwurah’s suggestion that the BBC is skilled at announcing targets but less good at making change happen? “We’re publishing our results,” he says. “You’ll be able to hold us to it.”

And what if the targets aren’t met? Ogun­gbesan laughs, for perhaps a touch too long. He will not consider the possibility. “I’m like a boxer. I refuse to look at it.”

***

If British TV and film don’t get their act together soon, there may be no one left to cast. Increasingly, black and Asian stars are decamping to America to make their career there. Among those who have joined the brain drain are Archie Panjabi and Cush Jumbo (The Good Wife), David Oyelowo (Selma) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave). Idris Elba, who brooded brilliantly in BBC1’s crime procedural Luther, would likely never have been cast in a big British series if he hadn’t already made a name in the United States with The Wire. Before she appeared in Undercover, Sophie Okonedo said in an interview that the scripts she was offered from the US far outnumbered those from the UK.

Visiting Los Angeles recently, I tracked down Parminder Nagra, who made her name in Bend It Like Beckham before being spotted by a producer for the long-running medical drama ER. In 2003 she was offered the role of the Anglo-American doctor Neela Rasgotra, which she played until the series ended in 2009. A big part in the NBC crime drama The Blacklist followed, along with other film and TV work.

She never intended to move, she says, laughing ruefully, when we meet at a café in a well-to-do suburb of LA populated by movie folk. She has worked occasionally elsewhere but, 13 years on, she is still on the west coast. “The jobs I’ve got, like most actors, haven’t come about in a conventional way. It’s generally because someone is open-minded enough to look at you.”

Although she is careful to make it clear that the US is far from a utopia in terms of how it portrays race, sexuality or gender on screen – she tells a gruesome tale of a white writer who sent her his attempt at an “Asian” character – Nagra senses that things are more open in the US. “It’s a bigger pond here, because of the sheer size of the country,” she says. “There are writers of colour in the UK, but what happens is that you’ve only got one or two people at the top who are making decisions about the taste of the country . . . Those people are white.”

The landscape is certainly more open in the US. Leaving aside the allegations about Bill Cosby, NBC’s Cosby Show (1984-92) was a force for good, with its focus on a middle-class African-American family and with the numerous ethnically diverse shows it made possible: A Different World, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, In Living Color, Scandal (the last was commissioned by the influential black writer-producer Shonda Rhimes). Back in the early 1980s, the gentle NBC sitcom Gimme a Break! – starring Nell Carter – explored issues of racism, too.

US cable and online subscription ­services are even more courageous. Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black has an ethnically kaleidoscopic cast and plotlines that vault across almost every conceivable question of gender, sexuality, body image and politics. Where it has apparently taken the BBC until 2016 to realise that families can be both black and upper middle class, ABC in the US was years ahead: in 2014 it commissioned Black-ish, which offers a subtle portrait of an advertising executive who frets that he is losing touch with both his Obama-era kids and his inner-city origins.

Nagra nods. “There still are a lot of issues here, but if you’re an actor of colour, there is more work. All those British period dramas are really well done, but there’s a yearning there: ‘Can I please just see somebody like me on TV?’”

The reason all this matters is that TV, theatre and film have a duty to show us not merely who we are, but who we can become. In Undercover, Okonedo becomes Britain’s first black, female director of public prosecutions: this may seem unlikely, given the state of the UK’s judiciary, yet seeing it on TV helps to shift perceptions. No one would argue that Okonedo’s co-star Dennis Haysbert got Barack Obama into the White House by playing a black president of the United States in 24, but perhaps it made such a world marginally more imaginable.

The time is overdue for British TV to abandon its fetish for bodices and show us what our nation actually looks like, in all its variety – and to be more imaginative about the kind of history it presents. Colour-blind casting is mainstream in theatre. Actors of various heritages appear in Pinter or Chekhov and no one raises an eyebrow.

Anthropologists argue that race and gender are forms of performance, sets of shared codes, rather than something intrinsic to who we are. Is it so difficult to imagine a Jane Austen production with performers of black or Asian heritage? Is that any harder to believe than the thousand impossibilities we witness every day in TV drama?

I ask Essiedu if he is optimistic. Yes, he says forcefully. “I have to be. Optimism is the only way we initiate change.”

When I put the same question to Nagra, she pauses to think. “I remember being asked about this when I started ER, and I was a bit tired of the issue even then. Yet here we still are.” Her expression is wry. “So ask me in ten years’ time.”

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: out of exile