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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. 

Screenshot of Black Mirror's Fifteen Million Merits.
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How likely are the plots of each Black Mirror episode to happen?

As the third series is on its way, how realistic is each instalment so far of the techno-dystopian drama? We rate the plausibility of every episode.

What if horses could vote? What if wars were fought using Snapchat? What if eggs were cyber?

Just some of the questions that presumably won’t be answered in the new series of Charlie Brooker’s dystopian anthology series Black Mirror, somewhere between The Twilight Zone with an app and The Thick Of It on acid.

A typical instalment takes an aspect of modern technology, politics, or life in general and pushes it a few steps into the future – but just how plausible has each episode been so far?

Series 1 (2011)

Episode 1: The National Anthem

Premise: A member of the Royal Family is kidnapped and will only be released unharmed if the Prime Minister agrees to have sexual intercourse with a pig on live television.

Instead of predicting the future, Black Mirror’s first episode unwittingly managed to foreshadow an allegation about the past: Charlie Brooker says at the time he was unaware of the story surrounding David Cameron and a pig-based activity that occurred at Oxford university. But there’s absolutely no evidence that the Cameron story is true, and real political kidnappings tend to have rather more prosaic goals. On the other hand, it’s hard to say that something akin to the events portrayed could NEVER happen.

Plausibility rating: 2 out of 5

Episode 2: Fifteen Million Merits

Premise: Sometime in the future, most of the population is forced to earn money by pedalling bikes to generate electricity, while constantly surrounded by unskippable adverts. The only hope of escape is winning an X-Factor-style game show.

In 2012, a Brazilian prison announced an innovative method of combating overcrowding. Prisoners were given the option to spend some of their time on electricity-producing bikes; for every 16 hours they spent on the bike, a day would be knocked off their sentence.

The first step to bicycle-dystopia? Probably not. The amount of electricity a human body can produce through pedalling (or any other way, for that matter) is pretty negligible, especially when you take account of the cost of the food you’d have to eat to have enough energy to pedal all day. Maybe the bike thing is a sort of metaphor. Who can say?

Plausibility rating: 0 out of 5

Episode 3: The Entire History of You

Premise: Everyone has a device implanted in their heads that records everything that happens to them and allows them to replay those recordings at will.

Google Glasses with a built-in camera didn’t work out, because no one wanted to walk around looking like a creepy berk. But the less visibly creepy version is coming; Samsung patented “smart” contact lenses with a built-in camera earlier this year.

And there are already social networks and even specialised apps that are packaging up slices of our online past and yelling them at us regardless of whether we even want them: Four years ago you took this video of a duck! Remember when you became Facebook friends with that guy from your old work who got fired for stealing paper? Look at this photo of the very last time you experienced true happiness!

Plausibility rating: 5 out of 5

Series 2 (2013)

Episode 1: Be Right Back

Premise: A new service is created that enables an artificial “resurrection” of the dead via their social media posts and email. You can even connect it to a robot, which you can then kiss.

Last year, Eugenia Kuyda, an AI entrepreneur, was grieving for her best friend and hit upon the idea of feeding his old text messages into one of her company’s neural network-based chat bots, so that she and others could, in a way, continue to talk to him. Reaction to this was, unsurprisingly, mixed – this very episode was cited by those who were disturbed by the tribute. Even the robot bit might not be that far off, if that bloke who made the creepy Scarlett Johansson android has anything to say about it.

Plausibility rating: 4 out of 5

Episode 2: White Bear

Premise: A combination of mind-wiping technology and an elaborately staged series of fake events are used to punish criminals by repeatedly giving them an experience that will make them feel like their own victims did.

There is some evidence that it could be possible to selectively erase memories using a combination of drugs and other therapies, but would this ever be used as part of a bizarre criminal punishment? Well, this kind of “fit the crime” penalty is not totally unheard of – judges in America have been to known to force slum landlords to live in their own rental properties, for example. But, as presented here, it seems a bit elaborate and expensive to work at any kind of scale.

Plausibility rating: 1 out of 5

Episode 3: The Waldo Moment

Premise: A cartoon bear stands as an MP.

This just couldn’t happen, without major and deeply unlikely changes to UK election law. Possibly the closest literal parallel in the UK was when Hartlepool FC’s mascot H'Angus the Monkey stood for, and was elected, mayor – although the bloke inside, Stuart Drummond, ran under his own name and immediately disassociated himself from the H’Angus brand to become a serious and fairly popular mayor.

There are no other parallels with grotesque politicians who may as well be cartoon characters getting close to high political office. None.

Plausibility rating: 0 out of 5

Christmas special (2015)

Episode: White Christmas

Premise 1: Everyone has a device implanted in their eyes that gives them constant internet access. One application of this is to secretly get live dating/pick-up artistry advice.

As with “The Entire History of You”, there’s nothing particularly unfeasible about the underlying technology here. There’s already an app called Relationup that offers live chat with “relationship advisers” who can help you get through a date; another called Jyst claims to have solved the problem by allowing users to get romantic advice from a community of anonymous users. Or you could, you know, just smile and ask them about themselves.

Plausibility rating: 4 out of 5

Premise 2: Human personalities can be copied into electronic devices. These copies then have their spirits crushed and are forced to become the ultimate personalised version of Siri, running your life to your exact tastes.

The Blue Brain Project research group last year announced they’d modelled a small bit of rat brain as a stepping stone to a full simulation of the human brain, so, we’re getting there.

But even if it is theoretically possible, using an entire human personality to make sure your toast is always the right shade of brown seems like overkill. What about the risk of leaving your life in the hands of a severely traumatised version of yourself? What if that bathwater at “just the right” temperature turns out to be scalding hot because the digital you didn’t crack in quite the right way?

Plausibility rating: 1 out of 5

Premise 3: There’s a real-life equivalent of a social media block: once blocked, you can’t see or hear the person who has blocked you. This can also be used as a criminal punishment and people classed as sex offenders are automatically blocked by everyone.

Again, the technology involved is not outrageous. But even if you have not worried about the direct effect of such a powerful form of social isolation on the mental health of criminals, letting them wander around freely in this state is likely to have fairly unfortunate consequences, sooner or later. It’s almost as if it’s just a powerful image to end a TV drama on, rather than a feasible policy suggestion.

Plausibility rating: 2 out of 5

Series 3 of Black Mirror is out on Friday 21 October on Netflix.