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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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser