The Morvern peninsula in Scotland. Photo: Philip Capper on Flickr via Creative Commons
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The play’s the thing

The Highland games on a remote Scottish peninsula unite young and old.

For such a large area of Scotland – and 250 square miles is a lot of land by British standards – the Morvern Peninsula is not very well known. People know about Skye and the outer isles; they may be familiar with Mull and Kintyre; but a mention of Morvern often brings blank looks. This is perhaps because in those hundreds of square miles there live no more than 350 people: it has a population density of less than two people per square mile. To put this in context, the south-east of England has over 800 times as many people per square mile.

I am fortunate to have a house on the shores of one of Morvern’s sea lochs. From my window, I look out to the hills of Ardnamurchan, on the other side of Loch Sunart. The largest mountain in that direction is Ben Hiant, the Gaelic for “holy mountain”. In the morning, it is often wreathed with clouds but then it reveals itself in those shades of attenuated blue so characteristic of Scottish uplands. It is holy, I imagine, because some Scottish saint lived there a long time ago. Early Scottish saints, by the way, were often just the local missionaries; their wives were saints, too, as were their children – a nice idea.

At high tide, the sea is 20 feet or so from my front door; ebbing, it exposes a swath of foreshore covered with salt-resistant grass. On this shore, hidden among the shells, there are sprigs of samphire and wild flowers, plants that do not mind being inundated by the sea twice a day. Deer graze there in the evening: shy creatures, watchful, easily panicked.

Morvern is unhurried, which is an important part of its charm. There is one main route through it – a single-track road with passing places on which the sheep congregate and only reluctantly give way to cars. This road leads to the village of Lochaline and the ferry that crosses the sound to Fishnish.

People pass through it on their way to Mull and Iona. They are moved, no doubt, by the empty hills, the high, tumbling waterfalls and the sheer wildness of the landscape. This is the Scotland that is portrayed in the Ossianic ballads.

In July, things get going in Morvern, the highlight being the Highland games. Morvern is very proud of these games and with good reason: of all the games that take place in Scotland during the summer, there can be none with quite as magnificent a setting. A gently sloping field above Lochaline is set aside for the purpose; behind it is a sharply rising forest, dark and impenetrable, but when you look to the front, you have a heart-stopping view of Mull and its mountains. You can see fairly far down the sound – towards the point where the shore turns west and the seaway leads to islands such as Jura, Islay and Colonsay.

Everything is softened in this light, as if portrayed by a watercolourist who has then applied a delicate wash. Often there are veils of rain that drift across the sea and shroud the shores and the hills beyond. Every few minutes, it seems, the sky changes; white light suddenly becomes silver, fades and then reintensifies.

Everybody turns up at the games, as they do in small towns across the Highlands. They are generally undeterred by the two enemies of any outdoor activity in north-west Scotland: the weather and midges. This year, the weather was benign – as it has been, atypically, for the past few games – and the midges were discouraged by the sun. Most of the people present were local, although visitors are always warmly welcomed. This year, we went with an Australian guest – of Scottish ancestry – who was in transports of delight when the Mid Argyll Pipe Band marched into the field in a flurry of kilts. The band sets the comfortable, family-friendly tone for the whole event: it includes ten-year-olds and 60-year-olds, the youngest, tiniest drummers taking their cue from the older drummers beside them.

Then the fun begins. Most people associate Highland games with what are called “heavy events”. These are in essence feats of strength in which kilted figures throw heavy objects as far as they can manage. You can spot these contestants very easily, as they are all built like oxen, have low-riding kilts and look as if they could toss anything, including you, a good distance without undue exertion.

The traditional throwing objects are great ball hammers of the sort that must have had an industrial use in the days when the Scottish economy made such things as ships and chains; today, I suspect that their principal use is at Highland games. These hammers are whirled round and round in a sort of dervish dance and then, if all goes according to plan, are let go. Occasionally one of these mighty men fails to let go and can travel some distance through the air with the hammer before regaining his footing.

Then there is shot-putting, which consists of throwing a cannonball as far as you can and hoping that it does not hit one of the judges. Cabers are also tossed – usually retired telegraph poles. There is an art to tossing cabers, as the contestants need not only brute strength, but also a good sense of balance. This is not a sport for those whose experience is limited to, say, tossing salads; cabers can go in unpredictable directions. At this year’s games, the heavy-event judge unfortunately slipped and could have found himself prostrate in the path of an incoming caber. Fortunately that did not happen.

There is vertical throwing, too, in which people throw a 56-pound weight over a bar that is raised progressively higher. It is important to remember to step aside after you have thrown this weight. One of the heavy contestants told me that at a recent games elsewhere, a thrower forgot to move away. Staring up at the descending weight, he decided to catch it, which was not, it was explained, a good thing to do.

However, these competitors are not easily damaged; this one, I was reassured, had no more than a sore chest for half an hour or so. Scotland is still making these men, it appears, and they move around from games to games throughout the summer, picking up prize money at most of them.

The same contestant told me that he would be taking part in something like 15 games this season. His proudest moment recently was to attend the Scottish games in, of all places, Hawaii. He won. Now he would like to compete in Canada or even Japan. In his youth, he was a regular competitor in the Morvern games in the athletics events. “Then,” he said, “I became stronger.”

The games were about much more than heavy throwing. There were races in which anybody could enter – and did. There was high jump and tug of war. And in a well-known feature of the Morvern games, there was the annual appearance of the members of the Lochaline belly-dancing club, who dance with exposed midriffs to what can only be described as Egyptian-Scottish fusion music. This is not a good idea if the midges are out in force, as midges love exposed stomachs. For other stomachs, there was home-made marmalade to be bought, and rickety tents sold this natural larder’s bounty – venison and seafood.

It would be easy to sneer at Highland games and some do. They are wrong: for most people at this little set of games in Morvern, it’s all about community and tradition and a vague sense of belonging to something. If it affirms identity, with the pipe bands and the tartan and the caber-tossing – Caledonian clichés of the most resounding variety – then it does so in a way that is gen­erous and unthreatening. It is also about how a rather fragile society, far from the opportunities of the Scottish cities, can enjoy itself and remind itself of the advantages of being in an intimate place, far away from Edinburgh or Glasgow.

Identity is a crucial issue in contemporary Scotland. Next year, this country will cast the most important vote for it in many centuries. That has nothing to do with this innocent afternoon of play, this celebration of Homo ludens; or perhaps it has everything to do with it. But that was not on anybody’s mind that afternoon, and understandably so.

Alexander McCall Smith’s new book, “Bertie’s Guide to Life and Mothers” (Polygon, £16.99), is published in August

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