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

Trumbo still
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What the modern-day relaxation of border controls between TV and cinema means for actors

It’s ironic that a man who got his breakthrough in a TV series with cinematic ambitions should now be the star of a movie, Trumbo, which resembles television at its most unadventurous.

Speak to many film professionals today and you will hear the same cry: Give me a series! It’s not only the security of a long-term contract. There is also the attractiveness of high-calibre writing and the relative liberty of working for an AMC or an HBO, a Netflix or an Amazon, compared to a movie studio.

Directors such as Todd Haynes (who made Mildred Pierce for HBO during a seven-year hiatus from cinema that ended last year with Carol) and Steven Soderbergh (who has defected permanently to television and is currently in negotiations for a possible third round of his Cinemax series The Knick starring Clive Owen) both speak of the creative freedoms afforded them in the TV world.

Soderbergh is currently lining up a new HBO show, Mosaic, which will star Sharon Stone and Garrett Hedlund. It’s been described as an interactive, “choose your own adventure” experience that allows viewers to follow different narrative paths, presumably in the manner of the once-popular children’s books: “You find a sword. If you pick it up and slay the dragon, turn to page 48. If you, like, can’t be bothered or whatever, turn to page 65.”

The boundary between TV and film performers was once rigidly patrolled, with television the training ground for cinema; once an actor moved up to the major league, there would be ignominy in returning to the practice yard. It’s a truism to say this is no longer the case.

The traffic of familiar faces flows freely back and forth without snobbery or preconceptions. And though there are still actors who can be TV A-listers while remaining unknown in the film world – Sarah Lancashire (Happy Valley) and Suranne Jones (Scott & Bailey), both former residents of Coronation Street, spring to mind – it is more common now for a performer’s star value to be bankable across the TV/cinema divide.

A case in point is Bryan Cranston, who was a reliable and recognisable TV actor for many years, often in a comic capacity (Seinfeld, Malcolm in the Middle), before he became an outright star for playing an accidental crystal-meth kingpin in Breaking Bad. In Cranston’s case, his TV success must have helped push Trumbo into production, a new film in which he plays the screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (Gun Crazy, Roman Holiday, The Brave One), who continued writing under other names after being blacklisted for being a Communist.

Like some of the other movies that have addressed the same dark period in Hollywood’s history (Guilty By Suspicion, One of the Hollywood Ten), Trumbo is all conscience and no panache. Cranston doesn’t discredit himself in the lead – he is studied, level-headed and workmanlike, and he has one wordless and especially powerful scene, when he is humiliated during a body search before being admitted to his prison cell.

But it’s ironic that a man who got his breakthrough in a TV series with cinematic ambitions should now be the star of a movie that resembles television at its most unadventurous. Sure, he got a Best Actor Oscar nomination. But that figures. Hollywood adores him (rightly so) but it also loves atoning for its sins in drearily respectable dramas like Trumbo.

My favourite example of the richness that can come from the modern-day relaxation of border controls between TV and cinema is the case of Alec Baldwin. Here is an actor whose career has been at various points promising, fascinating and mysteriously self-sabotaging. But Tina Fey’s fiendishly inspired NBC sitcom 30 Rock has been his salvation. Having only caught occasional episodes of it over the years, I am currently picking my way through every minute of it and marvelling at the interplay between Baldwin’s real-life persona and career and that of his character, Jack Donaghy.

When this sort of thing is done badly, it can capsize a scene and even an entire movie – the new superhero comedy Deadpool, which features Ryan Reynolds in character cracking jokes about Ryan Reynolds, is a particularly grisly example. But 30 Rock gets the balance right in a way that creates a dazzling comic frisson.

There are numerous references to Baldwin’s filmography but the boldest overlap yet occurs in the 100th episode when Donaghy launches into a warning against the dangers of movie stars appearing on television. What it amounts to is a précis of Baldwin’s own career:

“Do TV and no one will ever take you seriously again. It doesn’t matter how big a movie star you are, even if you had the kind of career where you walked away from a blockbuster franchise or worked with Meryl Streep or Anthony Hopkins, made important movies about things like civil rights or Pearl Harbour, stole films with supporting roles and then turned around and blew them away on Broadway. None of that will matter once you do television. You could win every award in sight. Be the biggest thing on the small screen [but] you want to hit rock bottom again? Go on network television.”

The joke, of course, is that 30 Rock didn’t sink him – it saved him. Bryan Cranston is a fine actor whose career won’t be waylaid by a few dull choices. But it would be encouraging to see the goodwill he built up from Breaking Bad (or from being great in poor movies such as Argo) being parlayed into movies that took chances or played with the form in some way, as shows like 30 Rock and Breaking Bad have been able to do.

Dalton Trumbo was a firecracker of a writer; it’s a shame that the movie that now bears his name lacks any of the sizzle he brought to the screen.

Trumbo is on release.

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.