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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.

Idris Elba in the BBC’s Luther. Photo: BBC
Would the BBC have taken a risk on “Luther” if Idris Elba hadn't been in The Wire? Photo: BBC

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.