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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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Edinburgh in the time of Harry Potter - growing up in a city that became famous for a book

At first, JK Rowling was considered a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. 

In an Edinburgh playground, circa 1998, I found myself excluded from one of the world’s first Harry Potter cliques. My best friend Sophie had a copy of a book with a title which seemed indecipherable to me, but she insisted it was so good she couldn’t possibly let me read it. Instead, she and the other owner of a book huddled together in corners of our concrete, high-walled playground. I was not invited.

Exclusion worked. Somehow I procured a copy of this book, rather sceptically read the praise on the cover, and spent the next day avoiding all company in order to finish it. After my initiation into the small-but-growing clique, I read the second book, still in hardback.

Edinburgh at that time was something of a backwater. Although it still had the same atmospheric skyline, with the castle dominating the city, the Scottish Parliament was yet to open, and the Scottish banks were still hatching their global domination plans. The most famous author of the moment was Irvine Welsh, whose book Trainspotting chronicled a heroin epidemic.

In this city, JK Rowling was still considered to be a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. She gave talks in the Edinburgh Book Festival, a string of tents in the posh West End Charlotte Square. By the time I saw her (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, hardback edition, 1999), she had graduated from the tepee to the big tent reserved for authors like Jacqueline Wilson and Michael Rosen. At the end we queued up for the book signing, and she told me she liked my purple dungarees.

At that time, there were no films, and what the characters should look and sound like was a constant playground debate. Another member of the Harry Potter clique I spoke to, Sally*, remembers how excited she was that “she did the same voice for Hagrid that my mum did when she was reading it to me”.

About the same time, a rumour spread around school so incredible it took a while to establish it was true. JK Rowling was moving to the street where some of our Harry Potter clique lived. We started taking detours for the privilege of scurrying past the grand Victorian house on the corner, with its mail box and security keypad. The mail box in particular became a focus of our imagination. Sophie and I laboured away on a Harry Potter board game which – we fervently believed – would one day be ready to post.

Gradually, though, it was not just ten-year-olds peeping through the gate. The adults had read Harry Potter by now. Journalists were caught raking through the bins.

Sally recalls the change. “It was exciting [after she first moved in], but as it was just after the first book it wasn’t as much of a big deal as it soon became,” she recalls. “Then it just felt a little bizarre that people would go on tours to try and get a glimpse of her house.

“It just felt like an ordinary area of town with ordinary people and it made me realise the price that comes with fame.”

Edinburgh, too, began to change. As teenagers (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, 2003) we liked to gather at the Elephant House cafe, on the bohemian George IV Bridge. We knew it was one of the cafes JK Rowling had written in, but we also liked its round wooden tables, and its bagels, and the fact you got one of the hundreds of miniature elephants that decorated the café if your bagel was late. It became harder and harder to get a seat.

We scoffed at the tourists. Still, we were proud that Harry Potter had put our city on the map. “As I grew older, it was fun to think of her writing the books in local cafes and just being an ordinary person living in Edinburgh with a great imagination,” Sally says. As for me, it was my trump card during long summers spent with bored Canadian teenagers, who had not heard and did not care about anything else relating to my teenage life in Scotland.

The last in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was published in July 2007, a month after I left high school. Not long after that, I left Edinburgh as well. The financial crash the following year stunned the city, and exiled graduates like me. I fell out the habit of reading fiction for fun. JK Rowling moved to a house on the outskirts of Edinburgh, ringed by 50 foot hedges. The Scottish independence referendum divided my friends and family. On Twitter, Rowling, firmly pro-union, was a target for cybernats.

Then, two years ago, I discovered there is another Harry Potter city – Porto. As in Edinburgh, medieval passageways wind past stacked old houses, and the sea is never far away. JK Rowling lived here between 1991 and 1993, during her short-lived marriage, and drafted the first three chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. In the university district, students wear black, ragged gowns, and the fantastical wooden carvings of the Livraria Lello bookshop is tipped to be the inspiration for some of the aesthetic Rowling applies to the books.

I don’t know whether it did or not. But it made me realise that no city can possess an author, and not only because she could afford to any part of the globe at whim. Standing in the bookshop and watching the students drift by, I could imagine myself in some corner of the Harry Potter world. And simultaneously, perhaps, some tourists queueing for a table at the Elephant House were doing the same.

*Name has been changed

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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