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Anxiety nation: why are so many of us so ill at ease?

It is difficult to quantify whether it is our feelings of anxiety that have changed, or whether we’ve just watched too much Woody Allen.

Image: Lola Dupre

For a condition that affects so many of us, there is very little agreement about what anxiety actually is. Is it a physiological condition, best treated with medication, or psychological – the product of repressed trauma, as a Freudian might suggest? Is it a cultural construct, a reaction to today’s anomic society, or a more fundamental spiritual and philosophical reflection of what it means to be human? For most sufferers, the most pressing concern is whether drugs work, and if therapy is a good idea.

Our modern, medical definition of anxiety could be traced back to 1980 and the publication of the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-III), the doctor’s and psychiatrist’s bible for identifying mental illness. The authors of DSM-III suggested that, according to their new criteria, between 2 and 4 per cent of the population would have an anxiety disorder. But three decades on, the America’s State of Mind Report showed that one in every six people in the United States suffers from anxiety.

The most recent nationwide survey, which took place in 2007, found that three million people in the UK have an anxiety disorder. About 7 per cent of UK adults are on antidepressants (often prescribed for anxiety, too) and one in seven will take benzodiazepines such as Xanax in any one year. Mental health charities warn that our anxiety levels are creeping even higher; they often blame our “switched-on” modern culture for this, or the financial crisis and the long recession that followed it.

And yet, it is difficult to quantify whether it is our feelings of anxiety that have changed, or whether it’s just our perception of those feelings that is different: are we increasingly viewing ordinary human emotions as marks of mental illness? “In theory, it’s possible that we’ve just watched too many Woody Allen films. That’s a very difficult argument to definitively disprove,” the clinical psychologist and author Oliver James told me.

If that seems like a slightly flippant way of framing the debate, that could be because James’s books, including The Selfish Capitalist and Britain on the Couch, are premised on the idea that rates of depression and anxiety have reached record highs in the affluent consumer societies of the English-speaking world.


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In January this year, Scott Stossel, who is the editor of the American magazine the Atlantic, published My Age of Anxiety, an account of his lifelong, debilitating battle with nerves. There has been a lot of interest in the book in both the US and Europe. Stossel, who is 44, is a successful journalist and yet he is deeply insecure. He has been in therapy for three decades and has taken a cocktail of antidepressants, anti-psychotic medications and sedatives (not to mention more conventional cocktail ingredients such as gin, Scotch and vodka) in an attempt to cope with any number of phobias, from the common (agoraphobia and fear of public speaking) to the more niche (turophobia: fear of cheese).

Stossel reveals in painful, intimate and sometimes comical detail the humiliations of living with high anxious tension and very loose bowels. Despite the severity of his problems, he successfully concealed them from most of his friends and colleagues until the book was published. He told me when we spoke that in recent months co-workers have given him lots of hugs (“which is sweet, but a little bit uncomfortable”) and thousands of strangers have approached him because they so identify with the experiences he describes in the book.

“I was very nervous about coming out as anxious,” Stossel says. “And now it’s too late and I can’t un-come out. It hasn’t been a cure, but it has been something of a relief. I now feel there are practical things I can help with, like trying to reduce the stigma around anxiety.”

He says we ought to view anxiety less as a “psychological problem” and more like a “medical condition, in the way gout or diabetes is. These are things that need to be managed and treated, and have an organic basis. It’s not necessarily that you are weak, but that you have an illness.”

Yet while we understand how our modern diet is making gout and diabetes more common, the causes of anxiety are more mysterious.


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Anxiety has long been associated with depression, and often the two were subsumed under the notion of “melancholia”: Robert Burton’s great book Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) was as much about anxiety as sadness. But the DSM-III classified anxiety and depression as separate conditions: the former is related to feelings of worry, the latter to low mood and loss of pleasure and interest. More often than not, however, the two occur together. The blurred lines between normality and illness, or depression and anxiety, make it very hard to grasp what it means to say that three million people in the UK suffer from anxiety.

If one in seven of us is taking pills to control or ward off anxiety, are we just medicalising an ordinary human emotion? Did the purveyors of the early anti-anxiety medicines such as Miltown – discovered in the 1940s, and the first in a line of blockbuster drugs including Prozac and Xanax – manage to create a new problem along with the solution they offered?

Stossel describes how in the 1950s a young psychiatrist called Donald Klein began randomly treating his patients with a new drug called imipramine. He noticed that patients on imipramine often remained very anxious but were less likely to suffer from acute paroxysms of anxiety. And so, having found a cure, he defined the problem – “panic attacks”.

Until imipramine, panic attacks didn’t “exist”. This process of working backwards from new drugs to new illnesses is known as pharmacological dissection, and it is not uncommon. Yet even if modern drugs shaped our understanding of mental illness, that doesn’t mean they made us sick.

Or maybe the UK’s epidemic of anxiety isn’t pathological at all but a product of historically unprecedented good health and affluence. Perhaps anxiety is a luxury that comes with wealth, freedom and the privilege of having nothing fundamental to fear in our modern society.

This isn’t an unpopular notion. A World Health Organisation survey in 2002 found that, while 18.2 per cent of Americans reported anxiety in any one year, south of the US border only 6.8 per cent of Mexicans did. Of the 14 countries surveyed by WHO, Nigeria reported the lowest levels of anxiety, with only 3.3 per cent of respondents experiencing anxiety in any year. Nigeria’s per capita GDP is $2,690, about 6 per cent that of the US, and in 2010 84.5 per cent of Nigerians were living on less than $2 a day, the international poverty line. Breaking out into a nervous sweat on the London Tube because you can’t remember if you unplugged your hair straighteners is the kind of indulgence you can’t afford if you’re struggling to feed yourself, or so the argument goes.

However, it’s not that simple. Again, it’s very hard to tell whether feelings of anxiety vary internationally or if people label them differently. In countries with a large stigma against mental illness, people are less likely to report disorders such as anxiety or depression. Yet the psychiatrist Vikram Patel, who recently featured on the BBC Radio 4 programme The Life Scientific, says his research in India and Zimbabwe has convinced him that rates of mental illness are the same all over the world.

The way we understand anxiety is cultural, says Beth Murphy, head of information at the mental health charity Mind. “If you’re living on the breadline in a hand-to-mouth existence you might not recognise what you are feeling as anxiety, but it’s quite probable that you’re going to be pretty worried about where your next meal is coming from.”

This raises another problem: if you are feeling anxious because it’s very likely you could go hungry tomorrow, are you in any meaningful way unwell?


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Just as sadness is natural but depression is an illness, most of the people I spoke to who suffered from anxiety instinctively drew a distinction between “good anxiety”, the nervous adrenalin that helps you get stuff done and meet deadlines, and “bad anxiety”, the destructive kind. Our common-sense interpretation of “bad anxiety” also suggests that the worries here should be disproportionate or irrational.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual used today identifies anxiety disorders according to how severe and persistent the feelings of worry are, and whether these feelings are accompanied by elements from a list of secondary symptoms, including sleep disturbance, muscle tension, poor concentration and fatigue.

Although the anxiety should be “excessive” the focus is solely on the feelings, and not what caused them. This might go some way towards explaining the boom in prescriptions for mental illnesses; doctors sometimes prescribe antidepressants to someone who has suffered bereavement, something Oliver James described as “ludicrous”. The counter-argument is: if a short course of drugs can make it easier to cope with the painful but completely healthy process of grieving, why not take them?

At its most extreme, anxiety is a debili­tating, life-altering condition. I spoke to Jo, a volunteer at the charity Anxiety UK, and she told me that feelings of anxiety have “blighted” her life.

“It’s stopped me from doing so many things that I would have liked to have been able to do and it’s stopped me from living what I feel is a normal life, doing things like having relationships, perhaps getting married, having children, having a career. It’s put paid to all that,” she says bitterly.

Jo, who is in her fifties, has been overcome by anxiety since she was in her teens. She dropped out of school at 16, unable to cope with the pressure of exams, and when her anxiety peaks she is unable to work and is left isolated. Anti-anxiety drugs have helped ease the physical symptoms – such as headaches and irritable bowel syndrome – yet they’ve left her with “the same worries and fears”.

What does anxiety feel like when it’s at its worst? “It’s an overwhelming feeling of being out of control, and overwhelmed by everything.” Jo pauses, and then adds quietly, “It’s not nice.”


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While researching this piece, I was struck by how many friends came forward with stories of anxiety-induced insomnia, phobias and stress, though mostly this didn’t prevent them from working or socialising. I spent one strange dinner with a friend who is a lawyer. I noticed when we met that her hands were raw and bleeding slightly, and while we ate she repeatedly reached into her bag and disinfected them. Under stress from work, she had developed a huge fear of germs.

Another friend, a corporate lawyer, recently collapsed while out shopping after she suffered a panic attack. There’s a recognisable stereotype of the neurotic, angst-filled high-flyer – and it has a historical precedent. In the 19th century nervousness was seen as a mark of social standing, because only the new leisured classes could afford such sensibility. But how closely related are these manifestations of unease and anxiety to those feelings experienced by people who are incapacitated by their nerves or phobias?

The triggers for people’s nervous complaints can be idiosyncratic. I chatted about this to Andy Burrows, a musician and the former drummer of the indie band Razorlight. He says he has never felt overly anxious about performing to huge crowds at Wembley or the O2 Arena in London – a prospect that might make most people break into a sweat – but he has suffered from anxiety since his teens and is so freaked out by lifts and tunnels that he can recite from memory the average time that a London overground train spends underground. It takes 16 seconds to travel through the tunnel from Hampstead Heath to Finchley Road and Frognal Station “at regular speed”, he says – and sometimes he just has to get off the train and walk between the two.

Of course, phobias can seem funny to an outsider. I can laugh with friends about the time I leapt up from my chair, tipped over my coffee and ran out of a café because I suddenly couldn’t cope with being in a confined space with a pigeon. And yet, for a brief few seconds, as someone with a fear of birds, I experienced a terror so profound that it overrode my usual instinct not to cause a scene.


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In 2012, the National Health Service recorded 8,720 hospital admissions for acute anxiety. According to research for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 40 per cent of new claimants for disability benefits in the UK are suffering from mental illnesses, of which anxiety and depression are the most common. The effect of this is that Britain has a higher proportion of people claiming unemployment benefit for mental health conditions than any other developed nation. The estimated cost to the UK of mental illness is roughly 4.4 per cent of GDP, through lost productivity and health-care costs.

What is going wrong? One problem is that we are not doing enough to support people with anxiety. The first port of call for most sufferers is their GP, and the response they get can vary. I know this because a few years ago, when I experienced a bereavement and a break-up in quick succession, I turned from a natural worrier into an unravelled bundle of nerves. I was unable to sleep, read or concentrate.

After a strange few months, spent mostly wandering aimlessly in London, as if somehow I might lose my panic down a backstreet, I burst into tears in front of my doctor. “Patient tearful but able to maintain eye contact,” the GP typed on the large screen in front of us, leaving me feeling like some zoo exhibit. She advised me to book an appointment with someone who knew more about mental health.

In the end, I was lucky. The second doctor prescribed me a low dose of antidepressants (against his advice, I decided not to take these). Then, although the NHS waiting list for counselling was months long, my university counsellor could see me and within two months I felt almost normal again.

Even when they are very much aware of mental illness, GPs can often be constrained in the solutions they can offer. One in every ten people in the UK has to wait more than a year for therapy and 54 per cent have to wait for more than three months (people from black and ethnic-minority communities often wait the longest).

Anxiety is a broad, confusing label and is a condition with multiple causes. We are not the first generation to believe we live in an exceptionally anxious age, and yet in some ways, thanks to the development of drugs and talking therapies, anxiety is a peculiarly modern experience. Perhaps at the very root of Britain’s struggle with nerves – whether viewed in terms of its economic effects or from the perspective of plain, simple suffering, or whether one merely wonders why three million of us appear to be afflicted by a disorder we still can’t quite define – is that we don’t often talk about it.

In an odd way, it might be easier to admit in modern Britain that you’re deeply sad than that you are anxious or scared. Collectively we might be freaking out but most of us are suffering in silence.

Sophie McBain is a staff writer for the New Statesman

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Anxiety nation

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.”

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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.”

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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