Would the BBC have taken a risk on “Luther” if Idris Elba hadn't been in The Wire? Photo: BBC
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What does it say about Britain that our best black actors have to go abroad to succeed?

For a country that prides itself on its multiculturalism, our television is shockingly unrepresentative of what the UK is really like.

A group of leading actors and writers have written an open letter to the five senior executives of the UK’s major broadcasting institutions, in which they have called for greater diversity of employees within British television. Noting that “only 5 per cent of employees in our creative industries are black and minority ethnic (BME), despite BMEs making up 12.5 per cent of the total UK population,” they propose that a sum of money be ring-fenced for investment for BME programmes. Well aware that their suggestion may be accused of tokenism, they explain that “it is about quality of programming, not quantity: money is only spent when quality projects are identified – not to fill a quota.”

The most striking thing about this letter – beyond even its radical call to arms and the calibre of those who have signed it – is how many of those signatories had to leave the UK in order to find the best platforms for the talent. Perhaps the most feted of them all, Idris Elba, had to go all the way to Baltimore before his breakout role in The Wire. David Harewood had to make a similar pilgrimage to the United States before starring in Homeland. And last year, David Oyelowo told the Guardian that “when I went to British film investors with stories of the black experience in a historical context, I was told verbatim: ‘We’re looking for Dickens or Austen. Your story is a hard sell.’ Britain is not inclusive of how I look or who I am, so I looked to America.” In the same article, Oyelowo made clear where he thinks the problem lies. “There’s a reluctance in our cinema to accept the real Britain we live in,” he observed, “and that’s because we still operate within the auspices of a class system motivated by nepotism.”

Oyelowo’s claim, when combined with the underrepresentation of ethnic minorities in his industry, seems to indicate that something is badly awry. If there is indeed widespread bias in the commissioning process, then it will have – or continue to have – a pernicious and knock-on effect, in that writers will only pitch work that is thoroughly conventional in its content. It is sobering to think, had Elba not already entered the realms of superstardom, that Luther might not have graced our TV screens and enthralled panels of judges both here and abroad. Commissioners may simply not have taken a chance on a brilliant yet unknown actor.

This open letter, with regard to Oyelowo’s claim, implicitly goes further in its scope than race itself: it also raises the question of class, and of British television as an establishment that is by definition slow to evolve. That same establishment may look enviously at the extraordinary success of HBO series after HBO series, and if so it would be wise to heed the central lesson of that brilliant channel: which is that it seems committed, as much as any western media outlet, to recruiting the best talent wherever it may find it. Indeed, it seems strange, given that Britain’s diversity was the cornerstone of one of the best pieces of popular entertainment in recent years – namely, the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games – that this same diversity is still struggling for expression.

Part of that responsibility, it must be said, may also come down to British television’s most successful writers, some of whom have not yet consistently managed to incorporate BME storylines into their shows. Perhaps, broadly speaking, there are two reasons for this. The first is that they themselves have narrow frames of experience, and are simply writing what they know. The second is that they would rather avoid the complexity of writing such storylines, wary of getting them wrong: a modern-day version of the concerns of Charles Schulz, who agonised over introducing a black character into Peanuts. However, neither of these grounds, though logical, is satisfactory; least of all in a country that prides itself on its multiculturalism. They may speak, more than anything else, to a failure of imagination; and, though the actress Naomie Harris has described progress in this area as “extraordinary”, the numbers suggest that there is still substantial work to be done. 

It may rankle, that several of Britain’s leading success stories on both the big and small screens have been despite, and not due to, the structures in place within the TV industry. (Most recently, and most famously, the 12 Years A Slave director Steve McQueen found his way to Oscar success after a nomadic career outside the UK.) Yet given the talent present within the UK’s BME ranks, it should not take too long for this proposed investment to start bearing fruit. Here’s hoping that we’ll one day see home-grown television every bit as epic as The Wire. It won’t be a moment too soon. 

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Politicians and fashion? Why their approach can be telling

My week, from spying on the spies to Theresa May’s fashion charm offensive – and how Sadiq stole hearts.

About nine months ago I was asked if I wanted to spend a morning with Zac Goldsmith, as he appeared to be wakening from the slumber that had obviously taken hold of him when he decided to run for mayor of London. However, after about three minutes in his company (maybe less, actually) I realised that not even his campaign team – let alone voters in the Borough of Southwark – thought he had a hope in hell of winning.

There was only ever going to be one winner, and the enthusiasm with which Sadiq Khan has been greeted by London has been heartwarming. He won the politician award at GQ’s Men of the Year Awards a few weeks ago, and I’d never heard such a roar as he leapt up on stage to collect it. Well, I’ve heard such roars for the likes of Michael Caine, Elton John and Amy Schumer, but rarely for a politician. In fact, the last time there was such fulsome applause for a politician at the GQ awards was when we gave one to a pre-Sextator David Blunkett. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised: the last time Noel Gallagher graced us with his presence, he asked: “Is this what a Conservative party conference looks like?”

 

On the dole

The recent past is being hauled over so repeatedly that soon there are going to be ­retrospectives of events that happened only last week. Or next week. On paper, the new exhibition at the V&A in London, entitled “You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966-1970”, seemed slightly behind the curve, but the reality is very different – as it’s probably the best exhibition you’ll see in London this year.

This is all down to the curation, which was handled by Geoffrey Marsh and Victoria Broackes, the wizards behind “David Bowie Is”, the most successful show in the V&A’s history. It’s a terrific exhibition, although being reminded of the cultural and political insurrection of the Sixties also reminds you of the period’s seemingly innate optimism as a new London was mushrooming into life. Winston Churchill was dead, abortion was about to be made legal and the rise in happiness seemed exponential. Britain was experiencing almost full employment (though the government wobbled slightly in the spring of 1966 when it was announced that the jobless total had gone up to half a million). It never occurred to anyone that there might not be a job
waiting for them when they left school or their red-brick university.

 

Priced out

There certainly won’t be a house waiting for them, not if they intend to live in London. The marketing bods behind the new development at Battersea Power Station came in to make a presentation at Vogue House a few weeks ago, showing us lots of slides and videos about their fabulous ­development. There’s a Frank Gehry this and a Frank Gehry that, a swimming pool, a private members’ club and lots of artisanal independent retailers selling organic rhubarb and fancy beer, blah blah blah.

Their roll-call of “good things” included the ominous words “affordable housing”, but this appears to be anything but. After the presentation, I promptly stuck my hand up and asked them what they actually meant by affordable housing. The answer I got wasn’t satisfactory, so I asked again: “What does your entry-level accommodation cost?” And the very charming man with the lapel-mike coughed apologetically and almost whispered, “£350,000.” At which point I made my excuses and left.

The idea that my daughters can one day get on the property ladder in London is pure fantasy, and they certainly won’t be living in Battersea, or indeed anywhere near it.

 

Back in fashion

Last Thursday, Theresa May hosted her first reception at Downing Street for the British fashion industry, an event that usually takes place twice a year, and which is attended by fashion designers, industry figures, newspaper and magazine editors and the like. ­Samantha Cameron was always a significant supporter of the sector (which contributes more to the country’s GDP than the car industry), as was Sarah Brown before her, and it is instructive that May has decided to follow in their footsteps.

It’s also telling that Mrs Cameron was not only invited to the event at No 10 but turned up, which says a lot about both women. Theresa May is a fundamentally shy person, yet she not only made a pitch-perfect speech in front of a Brexit-sensitive (and quite possibly suspicious) crowd, but chose to embrace the opportunity to espouse the growing importance of an industry that was so closely associated with the wife of her predecessor. There is such a lot of noise at the moment surrounding the PM’s apparent lack of interest in remaining on good terms with David Cameron, so one wonders what, if anything, is going on here. Taken at face value, May’s move at the reception was extremely classy.

 

The spying game

The following day I found myself in Cheltenham for a five-hour briefing on counterterrorism, cyber-defence, drug smuggling and child kidnapping at GCHQ.

I had expected the place to be like the Foreign Office, but it’s actually more like Google, Apple or Nike, and feels as though it could easily be a campus on America’s “Left Coast”.

There is an incredible sense of purpose at GCHQ, a feeling that they are all working for the common good, and frankly I found it infectious. While the denizens of Silicon Valley might be very adept at pushing the frontiers of consumerism, designing training shoes, telephones and algorithms, it felt far more appropriate to be spending time with men and women obsessed with making the world safer.

Dylan Jones is the editor-in-chief of GQ and a trustee of the Hay Festival

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times