Joivan Wade and Lenny Henry at the Hackney Empire in 2014. Photo: Tristan Fewings/Getty Images
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Lenny Henry: There is only one certain way to smash the black glass ceiling in television

The television industry is 94 per cent white and, like some bad washing detergent commercial, it seems to be getting whiter all the time.

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Last year I joined Patrick Younge, Richard Curtis, Paul Greengrass and others in signing an open letter to ITV, the BBC, Channel 4, Channel 5 and Sky. It demanded that broadcasters sign up to one very specific means of increasing diversity in the British media. That change was to ring-fence money for BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) productions: shows that meet certain criteria for black and Asian representation both in front of and behind the camera. It could include everything from top-end dramas and science programmes to Panorama.

We did this for two reasons. First, ­because the problem is serious. The television industry is 94 per cent white and, like some bad washing detergent commercial, it seems to be getting whiter all the time. In February this year Broadcast magazine revealed that the number of BAME people leaving the BBC was at an all-time high. But this is far from just a BBC problem – the corporation is often just more open with its figures. Between 2006 and 2012 the media industry as a whole lost 2,000 BAME people, although it grew by 4,000 overall. For me that’s 2,000 glass ceilings that just proved too hard for black and Asian people to live with.

The second reason I signed a letter calling for the change is, to misquote Beyoncé, “If you like it then you should have put a ring-fence on it.” When the industry really likes something and wants to make sure it works, it ring-fences money for it.

When Ofcom, the industry watchdog, wanted Channel 4 to make more programmes from Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, it told the broadcaster to ring-fence money specifically for programme spend in the nations and regions. The same is true for the BBC; a spectacular 50 per cent of all BBC network programmes are now made outside London.

Ring-fencing also works for specific genres. The BBC ring-fences money for children’s programmes, for example. All I’m asking is to have the same rights as Peppa Pig, dammit. If ethnic-minority programmes were given the same status as children’s TV, classics such as Goodness Gracious Me and Desmond’s wouldn’t just be fond memories. Instead, the broadcasters would invest in making their successors work. I dream of the day when we have an ongoing comedy series that renews its cast every two years and that seeks out the best black and Asian comic performers, a Real McCoy meets Saturday Night Live.

And the focus should not just be on comedy. There is a glaring need for black and Asian people in high-end TV drama (both in front of and behind the camera). All too often broadcasters take the safe option – ­using the same cast and scriptwriters over and over again, with BAME talent hardly getting a look-in.

Before I get too carried away with this fantasy world of high-end dramas with BAME people producing and starring in them – as well as comedies that do not disappear in a puff of smoke after one outing – it is worth asking what the broadcasters themselves have been doing to address the problem. Well, the BBC has announced several new training schemes: a fast track for six management leaders and six trainee commissioners. Hopefully these 12 people will begin to break the glass ceiling in senior management. The BBC’s director of television, Danny Cohen, has also announced a development fund for programmes with an ethnic-minority focus.

Meanwhile, Channel 4 has introduced a “two-tick” scheme to increase diversity. Under the scheme, every programme has to be able to tick certain diversity boxes for on-screen and off-screen representation in order to qualify for Channel 4 money. This might be great but it is too early to be able to judge it. The concern is that the criteria are so broad (covering gender, class, race, sexuality and disability) that it is hard to think of a programme in production at the moment that would not already qualify under this system, or could qualify after only very minor tweaking. This was apparent when Channel 4’s deputy chief creative officer, Ralph Lee, appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Media Show and was asked how many programmes already passed the new diversity criteria. He was unable to answer.

Oh, and what happened to the open letter we sent last year, I hear you ask? So far we’ve heard nothing back.

The broadcasters have raised concerns informally, in whispers, about whether ring-fencing will ghettoise black programmes and black people working in the industry. It is a concern not shared by the senior BAME people who signed the letter. Or they whisper that ring-fencing money for BAME productions is illegal. Well, I went to the leading discrimination lawyer in the country to get her legal advice on exactly that question – and it is not.

I honestly believe that broadcasters want to solve the problem of the lack of BAME people in the television industry. But I also think they should listen far more closely to the solutions being proposed by the BAME people actually working in the industry. All the people I talk to think ring-fenced money would be a good idea.

Lenny Henry is currently filming “Danny and the Human Zoo”, a BBC1 drama based on his upbringing

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This article first appeared in the 27 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Saying the Unsayable

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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear