Wild hearts: the Brontës built a mythology around the Yorkshire landscape. Photo: Michael Turek/Gallery Stock.
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The A-Z of northern fiction

From the bonny beck to the kitchen sink and Heathcliff to the angry young men, Frances Wilson explores the personality of writing from the north of England, while Philip Maughan asks how the land lies today.

In Writing Home, Alan Bennett describes having speech difficulties. He grew up to be fluent in two voices. There was “speaking properly”, like in the matinees at the Grand Theatre on a Saturday afternoon, and there was “being yourself”, which was how he was expected to speak at home in Leeds, where his father was a butcher. “Speaking properly” was metropolitan and they did it down south; “being yourself” was provincial, like it was up north. As a fledgling dramatist, what was he to do? Should he write about the middleclass life he knew from books or the life in a dull, northern town in the 1950s that was “largely unwritten about”?

The children in the stories Bennett read as a boy all “spoke properly”. They called their parents Mummy and Daddy and lived in a “down south” equipped with thatched cottages, millstreams, picnics on red-and-white chequered tablecloths, owls in hollow trees and sticklebacks in buckets. Leeds could provide none of these things, not even hollow trees, so his only option if he wanted life to be more like literature was to try replacing “Mam” with “Mummy”. This was discouraged by his father as a sign of social pretension and of not “being himself”.

My experience of childhood reading was the opposite of Bennett’s. My compass always faced north. As someone of no fixed abode whose family perched during my most impressionable years in the West Midlands, I didn’t have a book in my bedroom that didn’t take me up the M1. The north had personality – it almost seemed to be a person – whereas the south, slumbering beneath me, was only a place. The south was literature’s finishing school but the north undid etiquette; it was where people stopped talking properly and became themselves. It was in the north that the spoiled Mary Lennox found her secret garden in the tangled grounds of Misselthwaite Manor and turned from nasty to nice; the north was where E Nesbit’s “railway children” – Bobbie, Phyllis and Peter – sent their love to their father on the 9.15 train to London and where John, Susan, Titty and Roger camped on their Lake District isle in Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons. Dracula landed in Whitby, Wilkie Collins’s Woman in White was set in Cumberland and West Riding provided Jane Eyre, Agnes Grey and Catherine Earnshaw.

I would have loved then to have known the Newcastle of David Almond’s Skellig, where Michael befriends a Blakean angel in the garage. To me, the north was a place of courage and transformation while the south was about storing what you already had (sticklebacks in buckets).

Northern tales often contained two voices. In Wuthering Heights, some characters spoke “properly” while others, such as the servant Joseph, were so brazenly themselves that they seemed not to mind whether we understood them or not. Joseph’s vernacular was his badge of belonging: “T’ maister’s down i’ t’ fowld,” he would scowl. “Go round by th’ end o’ t’ laith, if ye went to spake to him.” Like the poet and playwright Tony Harrison, Joseph subjected everything, as Alan Bennett put it, “to one defiant Leeds voice”. When Mary Lennox speaks, in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, her words fall dead on the page but the language of her servant Martha soars into flight. The moor, Martha explains, is “none bare. It’s covered wi’ growin’ things as smells sweet.”

I identify the north of my childhood reading with the heritage north catered for by the refurbished Brontë Parsonage Museum at Haworth and the dinky reconstruction of Wordsworth’s cottage in Grasmere. There was, I later learned, a less Laura Ashley experience of northern writing. A new school of writers emerged in the social transformation of postwar Britain and the kitchen sink replaced the bonny beck. Bennett’s “largely unwritten-about” world became the subject of the northern “lad lit” of John Braine, raised in an Irish-Catholic enclave of lower middle-class Bradford; Stan Barstow, a coal miner’s son from the outskirts of Wakefield; and the Leeds-born Keith Waterhouse.

“We had the temerity to think we could write,” said Barstow, “but [with] no teachers and no models.” Heathcliff and Rochester had morphed into the daydreaming William Fisher in Waterhouse’s Billy Liar (1959), the upwardly mobile Joe Lampton in Braine’s Room at the Top (1957), Vic Brown in Barstow’s A Kind of Loving (1960) and the angry young Frank Machin, who leaves the pit to play league rugby in David Storey’s This Sporting Life (1960).

The other England: (from top left) Thomas De Quincey,
John Braine, Charlotte Brontë and Alan Bennett
Photos: Bridgeman, Rex, Getty

 

The West Riding of Waterhouse, Braine and Barstow is isolated and landlocked, caught, as David Storey puts it, between “two deep and narrow valleys on the eastern slope of the Pennines”. Its “obsessively puritan” inhabitants operate on a “very simple morality: that work is good and that indolence is not so much deplorable or unfortunate as evil”. In Storey’s Wakefield mining community, the maxim is further simplified: physical work is good and mental work is evil.

In the opening pages of Room at the Top, Braine’s first novel, we read: “I came to Warley on a wet September morning with the sky the grey of Guiseley sandstone.” Warley is the name Braine gives to Bradford; Guiseley is a small town in the suburbs of north-west Leeds. We note the weather; the writing is spare. In an interview with J B Priestley – another Bradford man – Braine described his home town as dominated “more than any other in England . . . by a success ethos”, an ethos that is at the heart of his fiction. Joe Lampton comes to Warley from Dufton with the aim of earning £1,000 a year. He secures a desk job, joins the amateur dramatic society and gets the girls.

“It is hard now to convey,” Stan Barstow once said, “the importance of Room at the Top for a generation of writers from the north of England.” Braine’s novel allowed Barstow, Storey and Waterhouse “to hoe their own row”, to write about the world they knew “from the inside”.

In Billy Liar, William Fisher, working for the local undertaker and living with his parents in a small Yorkshire town, fantasises about life as a comedy writer in London. In Barstow’s A Kind of Loving, Vic Brown’s dreams end when he gets his girlfriend pregnant and, because there is a housing shortage, the couple move in with her mother.

What readers responded to in these novels (and in the films that they all became) was the primitive sexuality of the men. D H Lawrence, the last provincial writer to have risen to the top, had cleared the path in this respect. Working-class men, especially those with northern accents, were represented as more masculine than their middle-class counterparts who “spoke properly”. Working- class characters in books had, in the past, been described solely in terms of social economy, while middle-class characters were endowed with psychological depth. William Fisher and Vic Brown were given complex moral interiors; Billy constructed his own reality, while for all his banter about sex, it is love that Vic is looking for.

The 1960s was the decade of angry young men, lecherous young men, chancers, Jack the Lad figures and blokes. Gone were the effete, over-educated southerners such as Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Powell, who had dominated the pre-war literary scene. So macho was the atmosphere that women such as Winifred Holtby, who had helped to shape the landscape, might be forgotten. Snootily described by Virginia Woolf as a Yorkshire farmer’s daughter who learned to read while feeding the pigs, Holtby was a socialist feminist who lectured for the League of Nations.

Her novel South Riding, later adapted for television by Stan Barstow (South Riding is a fictionalisation of Holtby’s native East Riding), was published in 1936, a year after her early death. A state-of-the-nation romance, the plot might be described as Jane Eyre uncovers local government corruption. Sarah Burton, an idealistic young headmistress, takes over a school in Kiplington (an amalgam of Hornsey and Withernsea) and gets involved in council politics; her nemesis, the conservative Robert Carne, proprietor of the dessicated Maythorpe Hall, eventually wins her heart.

Holtby was well aware that the accessibility of her writing was out of sync with the ethos of the Bloomsbury set. In her critical study of Virginia Woolf (which was published in 1932) – the first such book on Woolf to appear – Holtby weighed up the benefits of modernist and traditional fiction and found herself preferring literary democracy over elitism, the values of the north over those of the south.

If we follow a female line, Holtby is succeeded by Margaret Drabble, Beryl Bainbridge and Jeanette Winterson, who are rooted, respectively, in Yorkshire, Liverpool and Lancashire. She is preceded by the Knutsfordraised Elizabeth Gaskell, whose North and South (1855) appeared at around the same period as Dickens’s Hard Times. Both Gaskell and Dickens set their stories in Manchester, which Dickens called Coketown and Gaskell called Milton. While Dickens wrote from the position of a Londoner, Mrs Gaskell, who now lived in the great Cottonopolis, understood, as Charlotte Brontë said, “the genius of the north”.

A tale of two Englands, North and South describes the transformation of Margaret Hale from stuck-up southerner to informed observer of the Industrial Revolution. Her family moves from the tranquil Helstone, a place of thatched cottages and owls in hollow trees, to the smog-ridden Milton, a place of dust and tuberculosis. Their arrival coincides with a series of strikes at the local mill. Sympathising with the impoverished workers, Margaret clashes with the factory owner, the wrong but romantic John Thornton. By the close of the novel, she has learned to love not only the cotton mills but Thornton, too.

Elizabeth Gaskell’s Life of Charlotte Brontë (1857), written as a homage to her friend after her death, fuelled the myth of the elemental northern writer. The book begins in wailing wind, with a description of the Leeds and Bradford railway running through “a deep valley of the Aire”; Gaskell arrives in Haworth on a “dull, drizzly, Indian-inky day”.

The Brontë family is described as carved out of the landscape – as Ted Hughes, raised on the Pennine moorland would also seem – and Charlotte’s story is told as though she were a character from one of her novels. Yet the Brontës had already constructed their own mythology.

In a letter to Wordsworth, Branwell Brontë had said that he, like the poet, lived in “wild seclusion”, with only rocks and stones and trees for company. Haworth Parsonage was on the edge of the moor but it was not secluded; there was a village attached. Four miles away was Keighley, which, as Gaskell points out, with its “great worsted factories” and “rows of workmen’s houses”, could “hardly be called ‘country’”.

Simone Signoret and Laurence Harvey in the
1959 adaptation of "Room at the Top"
Photo: Rex/Courtesy of Everett Collection

The Brontës’ model of the Romantic life came from the biographical sketches of Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy by Thomas De Quincey, a Mancunian – a scandalous series of articles written for Blackwood’s Magazine in 1837. Today, Wordsworth is largely presented as the asexual spokesman of leech-gatherers and idiot boys but De Quincey described the poet, who was bourgeois to his marrow, as barely civilised and semi-incestuous. With his teeth bared and his eyes flashing, Wordsworth was fuelled by “animal appetites”. Dorothy, who her brother would kiss on the mouth, was also “beyond any person I have known in this world . . . the creature of impulse”.

Emily Brontë, who read Blackwood’s Magazine, surely based her tale of barely civilised and semi-incestuous siblings on this account of the Wordsworths. When I read Wuthering Heights, I am reminded of Dorothy Wordsworth’s Grasmere journals, in which she describes the two and half years that she lived alone with her brother in Dove Cottage, before he married and was transformed from a wild, Heathcliff- like figure to a gentleman resembling the priggish Edgar Linton. The nature of Dorothy’s love for William, which is hard for us to understand, is replicated in Cathy’s well-known des cription of her love for Heathcliff. Less a pleasure than a necessity, it is like “the eternal rocks beneath”.

“We are all, at heart, Wordsworthians,” writes J B Priestley of his fellow northerners in English Journey (1934). He has reached the point of his tour at which he is heading home. The hills have become “solidly black, their edges very sharp against the last faint silver of the day”; they are beginning to take on “that Wordsworthian quality which belongs to the north”.

Native northerners, Priestley writes, “have to make an effort to appreciate a poet like Shelley, with his rather gassy enthusiasm and his bright Italian colouring; but we have Wordsworth in our very legs”. (Wordsworth’s legs, according to De Quincey, were not his best feature; short and stocky, they were suited only for contemplating nature. It was a pity that he did not have a spare pair for “evening dress parties”.)

It is one of the peculiarities of the Lake District that, apart from its effect on Wordsworth, the sublimity of the landscape stems the flow of creativity. Wordsworth’s aim in the Lyrical Ballads was to write in “the very language of men” (he rhymed “water” with “matter”) but the writers who followed him to Grasmere found themselves tongue-tied.

Wordsworth country quickly became, as Michael Neve has put it, a country called Wordsworth: he is the only poet able to grow in its soil. The poet in Coleridge died when he moved from the coombs of the Quantocks to the crags of the lakes. De Quincey, Wordsworth’s first fan, lived in Dove Cottage for over 20 years but – like Ted Hughes – did his best writing down south.

De Quincey set his store by poetry but produced not a line of his own verse; his autobiography Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, mentions the country called Wordsworth – now his own turf – only from a safe distance.

The young De Quincey, who has run away from Manchester Grammar School, finds himself homeless and hungry on Oxford Street in London, a copy of Lyrical Ballads in his pocket. It is Wordsworth he wants to meet and Words worth’s rural idyll that he wants to inhabit. Like Branwell Brontë, he has written to the poet to prove his Romantic credentials. It is a cold night and he looks “up every avenue in succession which pierces through the heart of Marylebone to the fields and the woods; for that, said I, travelling with my eyes up the long vistas which lay part in light and part in shade, ‘That is the road to the north, and therefore to [Wordsworth], and if I had the wings of a dove, that way I would fly for comfort.’”

This was Thomas De Quincey’s version of writing home.

***

Martin Amis v The Provinces

By Philip Maughan

The Arctic Monkeys knew what they were doing when they chose the title for their debut album. Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, a line from Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, perfectly captures the brooding, self-defeating energies that power northern fiction.

Billy Fisher, the protagonist in Keith Waterhouse’s 1959 novel Billy Liar, dreams of a life as a writer in London. But when the opportunity to begin a new life in the south presents itself, he opts not to get on the train. Likewise, Sillitoe’s lonely long-distance runner Colin Smith is a highly cognisant thief, who, at the point when he is about to win a competition and delight his borstal masters, stops running. The barrier to “success” is not his incapacity, or want of personal volition. It is the realisation that he is competing in someone else’s race.

In 1957, John Braine, the author of Room at the Top, wrote an affectionate yet satirical essay entitled “Portrait of a Provincial Intellectual” for the NS. The narrator mocks his own pretensions (freshly ground coffee, no more tea) and the local scene (“the Little Theatre and the Arts Group”) and ends with a familiar refrain: “The next time the London job was offered, he wouldn’t say no.”

Eighteen years later, Martin Amis scorned Braine’s sole literary triumph: “One wonders what sort of shape the late-1950s imagination must have been in to get itself captured by such a modest and unsophisticated book,” he wrote. All sympathy for the thwarted outsider had drained away, partly due to Braine’s shift to the political right and partly due to Amis’s snotty metropolitanism. He recently told an audience at the RSA: “England is a one-city nation. I get the horrors when I go to provincial England. The sort of trundling, pottering English – I can’t be doing with that.”

The genius of the angry young men was to build vivid fictions from the soiled matter of everyday life. They expanded the boundaries of British fiction. Today’s northern writers – Sarah Hall, David Peace, Jon McGregor, Sunjeev Sahota – concern themselves with epic themes: nature, violence, landscape, multiculturalism. They are among the most inventive stylists in contemporary fiction and draw no end of blood from trundling, pottering life.

Frances Wilson is an author, biographer and critic, whose works include The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth. Her most recent book is How to Survive the Titanic, or the Sinking of J Bruce Ismay. She reviews for the TLS, the Telegraph and the New Statesman.

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