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Undercover is not the first prime time British TV drama with two black leads

And it overlooks UK television's very real diversity problem to say it is.

This week, various media outlets have reported the fact that Undercover, a BBC One drama due this April and starring Sophie Okonedo and Adrian Lester, would be the first British television drama to feature two black actors in leading roles.

Diversity for its own sake, diversity in and of itself, is inherently a good thing and it should be celebrated, at least while we aren’t engaging in despairing glances as to why it has taken so long. It is, for example, important that Helen, a trans character in Russell T Davies’ Channel 4 tryptic of Cucumber/Banana/Tofu was played by a trans woman, the comedian and actor Bethany Black.

I want my children to grow up in a world where they are visible on TV in a variety of contexts and setting. Not to be reduced, as my grandparents were, to watching It Ain’t Half Hot Mum and Mind Your Language because they were places you routinely saw Indians speaking on telly.

There’s a problem, however, with treating Undercover as a milestone, and it’s that this “fact” is not even remotely true. It’s out by decades. Where do you want to start? Perhaps with Mrs Patterson (BBC TV, 20:30, 17 June 1956) starring Eartha Kitt, Neville Crabbe, Evelyn Dove? Or maybe with The Green Pastures (BBC TV, 20:00, 14 September 1958), which had an all-black cast. Of 63.

I’m here restricting myself to productions that I’ve seen with my own eyes and that I can remember off of the top of my head. There are numerous other examples from even the era of just two television channels, each transmitting for only few hours a night. One of particular interest is The Big Pride (1961), not only starring Johnny Sekka and William Marshall, but written by the Jamaican novelist Sylvia Warner and her then husband, the Guyanese poet and academic Jan Carew.

This history doesn’t mean, of course, that British television is – or ever has been – an easy place for black actors, or actors from other ethnic minorities, to find leading roles. Or roles where their ethnicity is not regarded by the piece they are in as an integral part of their character. It equally obviously does not mean there is not more work to do in making television more diverse, or that those doing such work should not be celebrated. But it does mean there is a line of UK TV dramas with multiple black leads stretching from at least the 1950s.

Slightly later, particularly notably, are the play Black Christmas (directed by Stephen Frears) from 1977, with Norman Beaton and Carmen Munroe, and the series Empire Road (1978) also with Beaton and Munroe, as well as Corinne Skinner-Carter, Joseph Marcell and others. Again, these are not isolated examples. Beaton is no longer with us, but Skinner-Carter, Marcell and Munroe are still working, with Marcell playing King Lear at Shakespeare’s Globe and on tour and Munroe excelling as Brecht’s Mother Courage. Corinne Skinner-Carter was also, for a time, in EastEnders.

I am not, personally, temperamentally drawn to soap opera, but to pretend that they are not drama series, are not on in prime time and that many, particularly EastEnders, have not had several black characters among its leads at any given time is ludicrous. More recently, Misfits (2009-13) was a prime time drama series. So was Babyfather (2001-02).

Recent one-off dramas with multiple black leads include the rightly acclaimed Murdered by my Boyfriend (2014). The 2013 series of Luther, in which Idris Elba’s principal antagonist is played by Nikki Amuka-Bird, must surely count no matter how narrowly one defines “a primetime drama with more than one black lead”?

These examples are not provided to say that they together constitute “enough representation” (whatever that could possibly mean), because they don’t. Nor are they meant to denigrate Undercover, nor its two quite brilliant leading actors.

What they are for is to point out that, when something like “the first British TV drama with two black leads” is said, people believe it. More, believing it simultaneously gives people comfort in “progress” – when we have not moved as far as we should have in 50 years – and, far worse, it casually and shamefully erases the work of pioneers like those mentioned above, or others, such as the great Earl Cameron or the extraordinary Nadia Cattouse.

Those discussing diversity on British television should not forget the struggles and triumphs of the past in their rush and excitement to celebrate the present. To do so is a distortion that, in the end, only serves to flatter ourselves. 

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Counting the ways: what Virgin and Other Stories teaches us about want

April Ayers Lawson’s debut collection is both forensic and mysterious.

The title story of April Ayers Lawson’s debut collection, which won the Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize for Fiction in 2011, begins with a man staring at a woman’s breasts. The breasts belong to Rachel, a recent survivor of breast cancer and a wealthy donor to the hospital where Jake works. His attraction to Rachel grows in tandem with his suspicions about his wife, Sheila, who was a virgin when they married. Jake “thought . . . that she couldn’t wait to lose her virginity to him”. It didn’t turn out like that. Sheila was first horrified by, and then indifferent to, sex. But why does she smile at strange men in the street? Why does she come home so late from orchestra practice? The story ends on the brink of infidelity – but the infidelity is Jake’s own.

“Virgin” is a fitting introduction to the animating question of Lawson’s fiction: who feels what and for whom? The narrator of the second story lists the similarities between her and the two women with whom, at a summer party, she sits in a hammock. “All three of us were divorced or about to be legally so. All three of us were artists . . . All three of us were attractive but insecure and attracted to each other,” she begins. A couple of pages later, this accounting becomes more like a maths puzzle that seems to promise, if only it could be solved, a complete account of each woman and her relation to the others. “Two of us were pale with freckles. Two of us had dark hair and green eyes . . . One of us didn’t talk to her mother and one of our fathers had left and one of our sets of parents had not divorced. . . Two of us had at some point had agoraphobia and all of us had problems with depression . . .” It goes on.

Reading the five stories of Virgin and Other Stories, trying to catch the echoes that bounce between them, I caught myself performing the same move. One story is fewer than ten pages and one more than 60. Two are narrated in the first person and one in a mix of first and third. Two have teenage protagonists and two have young, married protagonists. Two protagonists steal works from a public library. Two stories mention Zelda Fitzgerald. Four contain women who have experienced sexual abuse, or experience it in the course of the story. Four are set partly or wholly in the American South. All five feature characters struggling with powerful and inconvenient desire.

Evangelical Christianity skirts the edges of Lawson’s stories. Her characters are seldom devout but they are raised in an atmosphere of fanatical devotion. The 16-year-old Conner narrates the collection’s funniest story, “The Negative Effects of Homeschooling”. “I saw women only at church,” he says. “Though . . . we went to a progressive church, our women looked the opposite of progressive to me: big glasses and no make-up, long skirts and cropped haircuts. You couldn’t imagine any of them posing naked.” He has “hard-ons ten or 12 times a day”, pores over Andrew Wyeth’s Helga Pictures, is furious about his mother’s intense friendship with a transgender woman and obsesses over a pretty, aloof girl from church. In another story, the 13-year-old Gretchen is fascinated by her piano teacher’s sick brother. Surrounded by people talking in religious platitudes, the two teenagers lack a language for their complicated feelings, re-narrating them as love.

The collection’s last and longest story, “Vulnerability”, suggests that this lasts beyond adolescence. The brutal, joyless sex that takes place near the story’s end is all the more disturbing because of the long, complicated sentences of the 60 preceding pages, in which the narrator tries to make sense of her interactions with two men. By turns she desires them, feels nothing for them and wants them to desire her. Yet brutal though the sex is, its aftermath brings a moment of peace that makes the reader wonder whether she should reconsider her interpretation of what came before. Lawson’s stories, at once forensic and mysterious, show how insistent our wants can be and how hard they are to understand.

Hannah Rosefield is a writer and a doctoral candidate in English at Harvard University.

Virgin and Other Stories by April Ayers Lawson is published by Granta Books, (192pp, £12.99​)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge