Actor Chiwetel Ejiofor. Photo by Mike Windle/Getty Images for AACTA
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From a black James Bond to a female Sherlock, diverse casting isn’t PC gone mad – it makes stories better

There was a bit more to Agincourt than a dozen Rada graduates standing around between two curtains.

“James Bond is a total concept put together by Ian Fleming. He was white and Scottish. Period,” said Rush Limbaugh just before Christmas, apparently not having seen any of the films after Sean Connery’s. And without knowing that Fleming came up with the Scottish backstory only after Connery was cast in Dr No.

What prompted the blowhard radio host’s outburst? He was decrying the suggestion – made by the Sony film executive Amy Pascal in emails leaked by hackers – that Idris Elba might play 007 once Daniel Craig shuffles off to the Great Budgie Smuggler in the Sky. As it happens, I agree that Idris Elba shouldn’t play James Bond. But not because he’s black – it’s because his strength as an actor is a brooding physicality at odds with my idea of Bond as a smooth psychopath in a dinner jacket. Chiwetel Ejiofor, on the other hand . . . He’s the Bond for me. Bring on the phallic sports car and the cheap puns about electrocuting people.

Thankfully, overt racism about casting decisions is much rarer than it once was – at least outside internet comments, where one person I read suggested Elba playing Bond was a gateway drug to Frank Bruno as prime minister. But there are more subtle, and more successful, arguments that conspire to keep non-white actors out of leading roles.

The first is the power of the default. Too many roles are assumed to be white roles unless otherwise specified; James Bond is a classic case. Is it so bizarre to imagine that a black or Asian boy might be orphaned and dropped into public school, and might emerge a repressed charmer with great aim and a taste for Martini? Also, just putting this out there, but I hear there are non-white people in Scotland these days. (Notwithstanding Billy Connolly’s claim that actually most Scots aren’t even white: they’re pale blue.)

The second is the hard-headed commercial argument: ah, we would love to cast non-traditionally, but – oh dear! – it would be a commercial flop. This is the argument advanced by Ridley Scott to explain why his film Exodus featured a cast that would have needed to apply SPF50 ten times a day while crossing the Red Sea. “I can’t mount a film of this budget . . . and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such,” he told Variety. “I’m just not going to get it financed.” He’s right that the system is stacked against him, but equally, audiences can’t demonstrate what they want until they are offered it. Five years ago, you’d have been told that no one wanted a female action hero. Then came The Hunger Games. Before that, people fretted about having a black action hero. Then came Will Smith.

The last redoubt of this argument is the most persistent: the appeal to historical accuracy, the argumentum ad Downton, if you will. Unfortunately, it is also total bollocks. It ignores, for a start, that Europe’s population was not snow-white until the arrival of the Windrush in 1948. To take a random example, in 1789 London’s big literary sensation was the bestselling autobiography of the former slave Olaudah Equiano; he even went on a book tour to promote it. Just over 20 years later, a Bengal-born man called Sake Dean Mahomed established Britain’s first Indian restaurant, the Hindoostane Coffee House in London. Just because the history many of us were taught at school doesn’t mention the likes of Equiano and Mahomed doesn’t mean they didn’t exist.

In any case, we gaily ignore strict historical accuracy when it suits us. Every so often, someone has a conniption about an innovative way of presenting Shakespeare, with the implication that the director has mucked about with The Way It Has Always Been Done. But people have always mucked about with Shakespeare: the 18th century preferred King Lear with a happy ending. Against this, experiments with casting such as Patrick Stewart’s “photo-negative” Othello – he was the only white actor in an otherwise all-black cast – don’t raise many eyebrows. What might surprise you is that as recently as 1981, it was considered OK for Anthony Hopkins to black up for the part.

It’s a criminal waste of talent that many of our best black actors will be inundated with offers to play Othello but wouldn’t ever be considered for Hamlet. Look, unless you’ve got boys playing all the women’s roles and you’re doing it in original pronunciation, don’t come bleating about source material. (Yes, Lenny Henry’s accent is more “authentic” than John Gielgud’s.) I have a smidgen more sympathy with people who might find a non-white Henry V disorienting, but if they can imagine that there was a teeny bit more to Agincourt than a dozen Rada graduates standing around between two velvet curtains, they can probably cope.

In any case, more diverse casting is better casting. Why? Because we are addicted to franchises and remakes. Actively casting women and minorities in established parts opens up interesting narrative possibilities. Take the story of Sherlock Holmes: stripped of gas lamps and horse-drawn carriages, it’s a story about how the world accommodates a difficult genius, and what it means to care about someone who refuses to listen to good advice. In the past ten years, that has given us the BBC’s Sherlock, where the central relationship is reimagined as homoerotic; CBS’s Elementary, where a female Watson is much more reluctant to indulge her Sherlock’s whims; and Fox’s Bones, where Emily Deschanel’s forensic anthropologist is the high-functioning social maladroit and David Boreanaz the people person.

Diversity here is about more than “political correctness”; it makes for better drama. What keeps us coming back to Shakespeare, or Sherlock, is that they tap in to universal archetypes and emotions – but every generation can make them new again.

Now, get Chiwetel on the phone. There’s a dinner jacket with his name on it. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 08 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Churchill Myth

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide