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

Photo: Popperfoto
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How the Oval regained its shape: the famous cricket ground hosts its 100th Test

The challenge for Surrey is to ensure that the new fans drawn to the stadium in recent years keep coming.

Few stadiums have as rich a sporting history as the Oval. After opening its gates in 1845, it hosted England’s first home football international, the first FA Cup final, and Ireland’s inaugural rugby Test.

Though it took 35 years before a cricket Test match – the first ever in England – was played at the ground in Kennington, south London, it was worth waiting for. WG Grace scored 152 runs, setting the tone for many memorable performances  at the Oval. Among the highlights: Len Hutton’s 364 in 1938, still the highest Test score by an England batsman; Viv Richards’s double century and Michael Holding’s 14 wickets for the West Indies before an ecstatic crowd in 1976; England’s Ashes-clinching match in 2005, when a skunk-haired Kevin Pietersen thrashed the Australian attack.

But just five years later, in 2010, the Oval and its host club Surrey were in a bad way. For the first time since 1986, the first day of the annual Oval Test was not a sell-out, and attendances for county games were down. Finances were so stretched that Surrey made a dozen administrative staff redundant, and there was talk of insolvency. The club, which is owned by its 10,000 members and is a tenant of the Duchy of Cornwall, was “very close to a substantial crisis”, Paul Sheldon, then chief executive, said at the time.

Today that seems far away. On 27 July, the Oval hosted its 100th Test, the third match of the series between England and South Africa. The first day was sold out. And Surrey are now the richest first-class county, with £12m of reserves. In 2019, work will begin on a redevelopment scheme that will increase the Oval’s capacity from 25,000 to 40,000, making it the biggest cricket ground in England. (Lord’s, the Oval’s more illustrious rival, can seat 28,000 people.)

“We are in a good place,” said Richard Gould, the current chief executive, one recent afternoon in his grandstand office overlooking the pitch, where a big group of local schoolchildren ran around in the sun.

How did the Oval regain its shape? Gould, whose father Bobby played football for Arsenal and was manager of Wimbledon when the team won the FA Cup in 1988, lists several factors. The first is a greater focus on non-cricketing revenue, taking advantage of the club’s historic facilities. In 2011, when Gould joined Surrey after stints at Bristol City football and Somerset cricket clubs, revenue from corporate events and conferences was £1.3m. This year the projected income is £4.6m.

The second factor is the surge in popularity of the T20 competition played by the 18 first class counties in England and Wales. Unlike Tests, which last for five days, a T20 Blast match takes just three hours. The frenetic format has attracted many people to games who have never previously followed cricket. Surrey, which like Lord’s-based Middlesex have the advantage of being in London, have been especially successful in marketing its home games. Advance sell-outs are common. Surrey reckon they will account for one in six T20 tickets bought in the UK this season, with gate receipts of £4m, four times more than in 2010.

Whereas Test and even one-day international spectators tend to be regulars – and male – Gould estimates that up to 70 per cent of those who attend T20 games at the Oval are first-timers. Women, and children under 16, typically constitute a quarter of the crowd, a higher percentage than at football and rugby matches and a healthy trend for the game and the club.

The strong domestic T20 sales encouraged the Oval’s management to focus more on the county than on the national team. Until a few years ago, Surrey never seriously marketed its own merchandise, unlike professional football clubs, which have done so successfully for decades.

“When I came here, everything around the ground was focused on England,” Gould said. “We needed to put our team first. In the past, county cricket did not make you money. With T20, there’s a commercial business case.”

To raise its profile and pull in the crowds, Surrey have signed some of the biggest international stars in recent years, including Australia’s Ricky Ponting, South Africa’s Hashim Amla, Sri Lanka’s Kumar Sangakkara and Kevin Pietersen, who is now mainly a T20 franchise player. For the players, as with the counties, it’s where the money is.

The challenge for Surrey is to ensure that the new fans drawn to the Oval in recent years keep coming. In common with many businesses today, customer data is crucial. The club has 375,000 names on its marketing database, of which 160,000 are Surrey supporters. But since the average T20 purchaser buys six tickets, many people who attend games at the Oval remain unknown to the club. One way Surrey are trying to identify them is through a service that allows one person to book tickets for a group of friends, who then each pay the club directly. Another method is through offering free, fast Wi-Fi at the ground, which anyone can use as long as they register their email address.

For all the focus on T20, Gould is keen to stress that England internationals, especially Test matches, are a crucial part of the Oval’s future – even if the business model may have to be tweaked.

“We always want to be one of the main Test venues. The problem we have is: will countries still put aside enough time to come to play Tests here? In many countries domestic T20 now takes precedence over international cricket. It may be that we may have to start to pay countries to play at the Oval.” 

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue