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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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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit