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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Will playing a farting corpse allow Daniel Radcliffe to finally shake off his Hogwarts associations?

Radcliffe is dead good in Swiss Army Man – meaning he is both good, and dead. Plus: Deepwater Horizon.

Actors who try to shake off a clean-cut ­image risk looking gimmicky or insincere – think of Julie Andrews going topless in SOB, or Christopher Reeve kissing Michael Caine in Deathtrap. Daniel Radcliffe has tried to put serious distance between himself and Hogwarts in his choice of adult roles, which have included Allen Ginsberg (in Kill Your Darlings) and an FBI agent going undercover as a white supremacist (Imperium), but it is with the macabre new comedy Swiss Army Man that he stands the best chance of success. He’s good in the film. Dead good. He has to be: he’s playing a flatulent corpse in a moderate state of putrefaction. If ever there was a film that you were glad wasn’t made in Odorama, this is it.

The body washes up on an island at the very moment a shipwrecked young man, Hank (Paul Dano), is attempting to hang himself. He scampers over to the corpse, which he nicknames Manny, and realises he could use its abundant gases to propel himself across the ocean. Once they reach another shore and hide out in the woods, Hank discovers all sorts of uses for his new friend. Cranked open, the mouth dispenses endless quantities of water. The teeth are sharp enough to shave with. A spear, pushed deep into Manny’s gullet, can be fired by pressing down on his back, thereby turning him into an effective hunting weapon.

On paper, this litany of weirdness reads like a transparent attempt to manufacture a cult film, if that term still has any currency now that every movie can claim to have a devoted online following. The surprising thing about Swiss Army Man is that it contains a robust emotional centre beneath the morbid tomfoolery. It’s really a buddy movie in which one of the buddies happens to have expired. That doesn’t stop Manny being a surprisingly lively companion. He talks back at his new friend (“Shall I just go back to being dead?” he huffs during an argument), though any bodily movements are controlled by Hank, using a pulley system that transforms Manny into a marionette.

The gist of the film is not hard to grasp. Only by teaching Manny all the things he has forgotten about life and love can the depressed Hank reconnect with his own hope and humanity. This tutelage is glorious: improbably ambitious DIY models, costumes and sets (including a bus constructed from branches and bracken) are put to use in play-acting scenes that recall Michel Gondry at his most inspired. If only the screenplay – by the directors, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert – didn’t hammer home its meanings laboriously. Manny’s unembarrassed farting becomes a metaphor for all the flaws and failings we need to accept about one another: “Maybe we’re all just ugly and it takes just one person to be OK with that.” And maybe screenwriters could stop spelling out what audiences can understand perfectly well on their own.

What keeps the film focused is the tenderness of the acting. Dano is a daredevil prone to vanishing inside his own eccentricity, while Radcliffe has so few distinguishing features as an actor that he sometimes seems not to be there at all. In Swiss Army Man they meet halfway. Dano is gentler than ever, Radcliffe agreeably deranged. Like all good relationships, it’s a compromise. They make a lovely couple.

What to say about Deepwater Horizon? It’s no disaster as a disaster movie. Focusing on the hows and whys of the most catastrophic accident in US oil drilling history, when an explosion consumed an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, it doesn’t stint on blaming BP. Yet it sticks so faithfully to the conventions of the genre – earthy blue-collar hero (Mark Wahlberg), worried wife fretting at home (Kate Hudson), negligent company man (John Malkovich) – that familiarity overrides suspense and outrage.

The effects are boringly spectacular, which is perhaps why the most chilling moment is a tiny detail: a crazed seagull, wings drenched in oil, flapping madly on the deck long before the fires start. As a harbinger of doom, it’s only mildly more disturbing than Malkovich’s strangulated accent. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories