Show Hide image

Metropolis now

Before the financial crisis, New York and London walked hand in hand as “the two greatest cities in

It is a warm May morning in London and Boris Johnson has just wandered into his mayoral press conference. He is surrounded by press officers, who appear to double as nannies. They lead him around and record his interviews with journalists, wary, perhaps, of his tendency to make gaffes. We are in the middle of a global recession, and Johnson is launching his economic development strategy for London. But despite the seriousness of the subject, there is a sense that the daily performance of being mayor - of shuttling around the city, opening things, riding trains and pontificating - is one long, wonderfully elaborate joke. A joke, crucially, that Johnson is in control of; the myth that he is a bumbling fool brilliantly disguises his political ambition. He plays the hapless clown, and has audiences following his every word, waiting for the punchline. As he takes to the stage, the crowd starts to laugh before he has spoken, like an audience at a comedy gig, expecting hilarity.

A few weeks later, in New York City, Michael Bloomberg walks into the room. We are in the basement of the Tweed Courthouse on Broadway - now home to the city's department of education. Mayor Bloomberg is flanked by security men and, as he enters, the band of noisy New York journalists falls silent, like an obedient class of schoolchildren. Bloomberg, the richest man in New York, with a personal fortune valued at $17.5bn, has a hushing effect. But he dismisses his intimidating wealth by saying: "I think the real answer is that if you have a good message, people are going to be responsive . . . It's not money, it's whether or not you have something of substance to say."

In London, Mayor Johnson's message begins, as always, with a joke: "I came here, of course, on my bicycle. I do that because unless you're completely insane, or devious, or a Liberal Democrat, there's no way you can fiddle your bike expenses." The audience erupts. He then extols the virtues of London's diversity - the prowess displayed in medical science, law and the creative industries. But it is a few days after the MPs' expenses scandal broke, and that's all anyone wants to talk about.

“I never claimed for a bath plug," Johnson says. "I never claimed for a moat." No longer an MP, he is able to distance himself from the news coming out of Westminster. "I find myself rather amazed by the whole thing."

Johnson stood down as the Conservative MP for Henley after he won the mayoral contest against Ken Livingstone in May 2008. The decision to run for mayor was, he said at the time, simple: "the opportunity is too great and the prize too wonderful to miss . . . the chance to represent London and speak for Londoners". Livingstone suggests that his motivations were more complex. "For Boris, this is just eight years he's got to get through without anything going wrong . . . It's always been about Boris: he's got his agenda, which is to be back in parliament in the middle of the next decade and succeed Cameron as prime minister."

At their respective press conferences, the two mayors fielded questions on an array of topics, but both were principally concerned with their city's economy. The recession, and the near-ruin of the global financial system, has clearly had a huge impact on London and New York. Wall Street and the Square Mile were the epicentres of the earthquake. Only months earlier, the two cities had seemed invincible. In May 2008, Bloomberg wrote: "We are - and here, please forgive the modesty of a New Yorker - the two greatest cities in the world . . . no two cities combine such staggeringly rich and diverse economic and cultural opportunities as New York and London."

Since the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September last year, the mayors have been forced to become defenders of their cities, fighting to restore their global pre-eminence. The question is how. Finance made London and New York great, but reliance on the banks also made them vulnerable when the system defaulted. In both cities, politics and money have always intertwined - a closeness that is played out in their geography. New York's City Hall, a grand, neoclassical building, is a short walk up Broadway from Wall Street. In London, the glassy barrel of City Hall squats on the south bank of the Thames, across the river from London's financial centre. From his office on the sixth floor, the mayor can see the gleaming towers of commerce - the old NatWest building, the Broadgate Tower, the Gherkin.

It isn't the first time that London and New York have been the settings for economic calamity. The Great Depression, provoked by the New York stock market crash in October 1929, led to soaring levels of unemployment in both cities (reaching 13.5 per cent in London by the early 1930s and 50 per cent in Harlem in 1932). In the 1970s, after years of strikes and civil unrest, New York was close to being bankrupt. A million people left the city to live in the gentler suburbs. London plunged in parallel, with unemployment reaching 400,000 in 1976. Mounds of rubbish filled the streets of both cities as refuse collectors went on strike.

Then, during the 1980s, the Thatcher-Reagan era of free-market fundamentalism, the cities changed again. According to the British historian Dominic Sandbrook, "You had the simultaneous growth of extreme wealth and extreme poverty", exemplified by "the grotesque contrast of Trump Tower going up in one part of Manhattan and people living out of cardboard boxes just a couple of streets away". Nowhere was this contrast more apparent, Sandbrook says, than in London and New York.

Tony Blair's government, elected in May 1997, wooed the City with even more fervour than the Thatcherites. London and New York grew exponentially, mostly as a result of the burgeoning success of their financial services. From 1999 to 2009, New York's financial services industry was responsible for roughly a quarter of the $1trn output of the regional economy, and generated 20 per cent of state income-tax revenues. Meanwhile, London's financial services grew to employ half a million people in the capital alone, contributing 11 per cent of the UK's total income tax. Financial institutions multiplied - the number of hedge funds, concentrated in London and New York, grew from 610 in 1990 to 9,462 in 2006.

By early 2007, the two cities had transformed into hubs of intense wealth, home to the growing ranks of multimillionaire financiers. Property prices had become grotesquely inflated: in London, luxury properties were selling at £18,000 a square metre; in New York, at £11,000 a square metre. The cities had responded relatively well to the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 and 7 July 2005. Their rivalry flourished, inflamed by the competition to host the 2012 Olympics. In March 2007, New York magazine depicted London and New York as figures wearing boxing gloves, battling it out for the global crown. Now, after the debilitating events of the past year, the terms of the battle are different. It will be up to the mayors to lead their cities in the race to recovery.

On 15 September 2008, the day that Lehman Brothers collapsed, Michael Bloomberg had been in office for six and a half years; Boris Johnson for just over four months. Bloomberg should have been coming to the end of his mayoral reign this year, but in October 2008 he amended New York's term limits law to allow him to run for a third term. The ballot is on 3 November.

The amendment was an audacious act of manoeuvring and Bloomberg is keen to ensure its success. He has spent $36m of his own money on his campaign so far this year. Asked in May if he felt his wealth in effect killed off the opposition, he said: "I don't know why it drowns out any honest debate . . . I'm spending my own money, so I'm not beholden to anybody." He has a point. Part of Bloomberg's appeal is the sense that he is self-made, able to pay himself a nominal $1 a year for the honour of doing the mayor's job. It also means he can distance himself from lobbyists and interest groups, focusing more on the pragmatic elements of the mayor's job than the political. Ken Livingstone, mayor of London from 2000 to 2008, worked closely with Bloomberg for six years. "He's only interested in what works. He's not an ideologist at all," he told me.

Johnson and Bloomberg first met as mayors on 9 May 2008 in London, a few days after Johnson had taken over at City Hall. Bloomberg presented Johnson with a Tiffany box containing a crystal apple; Johnson gave Bloomberg a shirt with the Tube map printed on it. Their styles are as different as their backgrounds. Johnson, although born in New York in 1964, with Turkish and German ancestry, comes across as aristocratically British, having been educated at Eton and Oxford. Bloomberg's beginnings were more modest. Born in 1942, he grew up in a Boston suburb in a middle-class Jewish family. He won a place to study electrical engineering at Johns Hopkins University, and paid his way by working as a parking attendant during the summers. In 1981, forced out of his bank job at Salomon Brothers after a merger, he started a financial information service, Bloomberg LP. He was "too pig-headed to go look" for a job, he has said, and thought it would be "fun to be an entrepreneur . . . I have an ego that tells me anything is possible if you work hard." The company now operates in 161 countries, has 275,000 subscribers and employs 10,000 people worldwide.

Where Bloomberg made his name and fortune from shrewd business, Johnson lasted a week at a management consultancy firm, LEK Consulting, before becoming a journalist at the Times, where he was sacked within a year for falsifying a quotation. After retreating to a local paper in Wolverhampton, he moved to the Daily Telegraph in 1987 and in 1999 became editor of the Spectator - a role he combined, sometimes erratically, with being an MP. Now, he writes a weekly column for the Telegraph, for which he is paid £250,000 a year (an amount he has described as "chicken feed"). Unlike Bloomberg, he has little chance of running a self-funded campaign for re-election; his original campaign was supported by hedge-fund managers and property developers.

For all their differences, the mayors are similarly upbeat about their recession-hit cities. In May, Bloomberg insisted that New York is “doing much better than people understand"; while Johnson said that parts of London's economy "are in credit-crunch denial". Both have engaged in "hamburger" economics - Johnson suggesting that, because of the weak pound, "hamburgers are cheaper in London than almost anywhere else on earth", and Bloomberg observing that people are ordering steaks again after slipping to burgers during the crunch. Both men try hard to sound as if they are in tune with the daily life of their cities. But they are also trying to sell. The mayors have to perform like political travel agents - relentlessly marketing the importance and vibrancy of the places they represent.

They also have to keep a sharp eye on each other. "We always say we're the financial capital of the world. London says that, too," Bloomberg said. "What we've got to do is worry about ourselves."

Johnson simply insisted: "We'll win!" But he was also happy to disparage his rival city: "I'm not going to draw invidious comparisons with New York's crime rate, but I merely point out that you have far less chance of being murdered on the streets of London than you do in New York." What both cities fear is a repeat of what happened in the 1970s: the mass exodus of a high-earning population, forced out by unemployment, leaving the cities to fester amid growing crime and poverty.

When it comes to policy, however, the cities appear to be going in very different directions. Two months after his economic strategy launch, Johnson was performing again, at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. He had gathered hundreds of business people and was
regaling them with jokes. But he was also sending out a message - namely, that a new EU draft directive on Alternative Investment Fund Management would gravely damage the private equity and hedge-fund industries in London (the directive seeks to limit the level of debt that these funds and firms can take on).

To those present, it was something of a revelation to hear a political leader explicitly defend firms that had become emblematic of an age of dangerous excess. Bob Wigley, former chairman of Merrill Lynch in Europe, said: "I think this is, in my memory, the first time the Mayor of London has taken a real, proactive interest in City affairs and the promotion of the City. That's a very important step."

Johnson made his allegiance to the City clear from the start of his term. As Anthony Browne, Johnson's director of policy, told me: "Boris doesn't need any prompting to defend financial services. He's not doing this out of any political convenience. In fact, if anything, it's politically inconvenient at this time, defending bankers."

A week after Lehman's collapsed, Johnson wrote a newspaper column defending the banks. The mayor acknowledged that some had been guilty of greed, but accused those critical of bankers as being propagators of "neo-socialist claptrap". He mentioned the "edge" London had gained over New York because of limited regulation. When I suggested to him that stricter regulation might be a necessary response to the crisis, he looked bemused. "You're saying regulation might be a good thing, and high tax might be a good thing and all the rest of it. You've got to be very, very careful that you don't try to solve the last problem by exacerbating or creating the next one. And that's very often what regulation does."

In January this year, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Johnson conceded that he had approached Bloomberg with an idea to form "an alliance against ill-thought [out] regulation". He was turned down. Yet it hasn't dampened his enthusiasm. Taxation and regulation may be under the control of central government, but Johnson sees it as his duty to lobby for London and to challenge government.

“You can jolly well make a fuss about it," he told me. "Nobody else is. Maybe the New Statesman can! Come on, Staggers! Come on, stick up for the people, for energy and enterprise!" And, quickly, we are joking again.

In New York, a more nuanced message emerged. I visited the deputy mayor, Robert Lieber, who is in charge of the city's economic development. "We're looking at other industries," he said. Straight-talking and energetic (he claimed never to use an alarm clock), Lieber worked at Lehman Brothers ("it was a great industry, a great firm; it's a tragedy what happened") before joining Bloomberg's team in 2007. He said he was determined to reduce New York's dependency on the financial sector: "I think the great thing about New York is that, while we're considered . . . a financial centre in the world, we do in fact have a diversified economy already."

Like Johnson, Lieber talked about tourism, fashion, medicine and academia - the city's various talents. But then he mentioned catching "the green bug". He estimates that through regulation and investment in green industries - construction, engineering, architecture - as many as 20,000 jobs will be created over the next few years. It is all part of a plan to make New York more liveable. “Crime rates are down to all-time low levels, [and] the streets are cleaner than they've ever been . . . We're making huge capital investments to improve schools so that people can choose to raise their families here, as opposed to moving out of the city."

Johnson, by contrast, is behind on the matter of greening his city. Browne admitted to me that "other cities have been making waves on this before us". As mayor, Johnson has launched tree-planting and cycling initiatives and, most recently, an initiative to boost local energy schemes through London boroughs. On 14 October, he said that he wanted "to position London as the world's leading low-carbon economy". Yet, before running for office, he was openly sceptical of the dangers of climate change. In 2006, he poked fun at the "growing world creed of global warming" - a position
he had to contradict in a speech to the Environment Agency in November 2008, when he described himself as "someone who used to write caustic articles about the religion of climate change". As Jenny Jones, a London Assembly member for the Green Party, said: "Climate change is a bit of a new idea for this mayor - he hasn't yet grasped how urgent it is."

Jones describes Johnson's record on green issues in office as "utterly shabby . . . I think he has rolled back the green agenda in London by probably a decade in some of the decisions that he's made." She is most concerned about transport - such as the decision to abandon the congestion charge expansion and the recent announcement that Tube and rail fares would rise again. But she also points out that he has lost ground on green industries. "Johnson took over an administration that was actually doing quite a lot. We were a world leader on adaptation and mitigation of climate change. He's just not picked up the reins on this. He doesn't get it."

Livingstone agrees, describing Johnson's lax approach to the environment as a "catastrophic mistake for our long-term economic interests". The former mayor worked with Bloomberg to set up the C40, a mechanism that brought together the leaders of the world's largest cities to tackle climate change. The first meeting took place in London in 2005, followed by another in New York in 2007. As the driving force behind the initiative, London held the chair. But that changed when Johnson became mayor. Of the 40 cities involved, only two (New York and London) were prepared to vote for him - the others had "read his writings", Livingstone explained to me. Johnson was quickly demoted to "honorary vice-chair", with the mayor of Toronto taking over the leadership. It was a terrible loss, Livingstone believes, both of status and of London's competitive advantage.

Johnson now says his administration is making progress on the environment. One plan is to create a "green enterprise district" in the Thames Gateway. But there seem to be inconsistencies. A concurrent idea is to build a new airport in the Thames Estuary. I asked his policy director how comfortably the green enterprise district would sit beside a new airport, imagining meetings on low-carbon technologies as planes power overhead (killing millions of birds in the process, campaigners claim). Browne scratched his stomach. "It's accepting reality that aviation is an environmental detriment, but it's almost certainly going to carry on increasing," he said. "We'd much prefer that it doesn't carry on increasing inside a west London suburb where lots of people live." A west London suburb - covering Richmond, Twickenham, Hammersmith and Fulham on the way to Heathrow - where a lot of Johnson's most vocal Tory voters live.

Exactly a year after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, Bloomberg and Johnson met again in New York. They gave a talk at Columbia University: "New York and London: Heading Back to the Top". There was the usual hilarity - Bloomberg gave Johnson a revenge gift of a hat, umbrella and tie
decorated with the New York subway map. Johnson taunted Bloomberg yet again about losing the Olympics. But he also took the opportunity to warn once more of the dangers of over-regulation, "however great our rage at the bankers may be". The purpose of the meeting was to present a united front ("We are in this together," said Bloomberg) but, in reality, the cities seem to be pulling apart.

One consequence of the financial crisis is the opportunity it offered London and New York to reinvent themselves. Their leaders could seek to re-create the booming, finance-dependent cities of the past decade, or imagine a new kind of city shaped by different priorities. Johnson has publicly made his choice, taking his strongest stand so far (apart from his war on bendy buses) in defence of hedge funds. His administration attempts to absolve the industry.

“It had nothing to do with them," Browne said, even though, for many, the collapse of three Paribas funds in August 2007 and Bear Stearns in March 2008 signalled the start of the financial crisis. In his Tory party conference speech on 5 October, Johnson, ever loyal, once again attacked the "banker bashers" who sought to undermine the City of London.

Bloomberg and Lieber seem to be on a more progressive path. After all, as Lieber said, they want to diversify so they are not as dependent on financial services. They believe that their city can grow in a new way, and it can remain a world leader through reinvention. Johnson, on the other hand, would prefer London to revert to its former so-called glory - a city with less regulation and a new airport. Given the past, it seems a strange kind of future.

Sophie Elmhirst is a contributing writer at the New Statesman

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 26 October 2009 issue of the New Statesman, New York / London

Martin O’Neil for New Statesman
Show Hide image

Why the British addiction to period drama is driving away our best black and Asian actors

There is a diversity crisis in British TV and film as, increasingly, stars are decamping to America to make their career there.

Back in April, a six-part drama called Undercover premiered on BBC1. Perhaps you were one of the five million people who watched it: the story was audacious and continent-hopping, enfolding a narrative about a man on death row in the United States with an all-too-believable tale of a Metropolitan Police officer who marries a woman he is meant to be keeping under surveillance.

The reason the programme attracted so much attention, however, was not what it was about, but whom. Starring Sophie Okonedo and Adrian Lester, Undercover was widely reported as the first mainstream British television drama with black actors in the lead roles. This wasn’t true: as James Cooray Smith wrote on the New Statesman website, that milestone was passed in June 1956 by Mrs Patterson, a BBC adaptation of a Broadway play starring Eartha Kitt.

Yet Undercover was still a breakthrough. Smith, casting his mind back over more than six decades of British television, could not think of more than a handful of other examples. Writing in the Observer, Chitra Ramaswamy expressed her feelings with quiet devastation: “In 2016, it is an outrage that it’s a big deal to see a successful, affluent, complicated black family sit at a ­dinner table eating pasta.” Think about that. In 2016 in Britain, a country where more than nine million people describe themselves as non-white, it is news that a black, middle-class family should not only feature in a prime-time BBC drama but be at its heart. Undercover exposed how white most British television is.

Actors of colour have appeared on British film and TV screens for decades, and they have been visible on British stages for centuries – yet they have been shunted into the margins with depressing regularity. In January the actor Idris Elba urged British MPs to take the matter seriously. “Although there’s a lot of reality TV,” he argued, “TV hasn’t caught up with reality.”

In February, there was renewed uproar over the lack of racial diversity in Hollywood at the 88th Academy Awards, and the infuriated hashtag #OscarsSoWhite blossomed again on social media. A month later, Lenny Henry argued that black and minority ethnic (BAME) talent was being “ghettoised”. The term could hardly be more charged. Speaking at the London premiere of Mira Nair’s film Queen of Katwe, the actor David Oyelowo said: “What we need now is for a change to come. I think the talk is done.”

There has been some change. In March, the Royal Shakespeare Company opened a production of Hamlet starring Paapa Essiedu, an actor of Ghanaian heritage raised in London. It was the first time that a black performer had taken the role for the company. A new set of BBC diversity targets both on- and off-screen was unveiled in April. Noma Dumezweni is playing Hermione in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in the West End, and in October the BFI launched Black Star, a nationwide season celebrating black talent in film and TV. But what does the picture really look like, in late 2016? And what, if anything, needs to change?

The first challenge is that many in the film and TV industry find it difficult to talk about the subject. Researching this article, I lost count of the number of people who demurred to go on the record, or of actors who seemed eager to speak but were then dissuaded. Fatigue might be partly to blame – it’s exhausting to be asked repeatedly about diversity because you didn’t go to Harrow and your skin isn’t white – but I got the sense that there’s more going on.

One man who passionately believes this is the screenwriter Trix Worrell, the creator of the pioneering Channel 4 sitcom Desmond’s, which brought an African-Caribbean barbershop in south-east ­London to Middle England’s living rooms in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

“TV is very difficult to break into. There’s a protectionism there,” he says with a shrug, when we meet for coffee on the seafront in Hastings, where he now lives. “People are nervous about rocking the boat.”

Though cheerful about most of the things we discuss, Worrell admits to feeling a roiling anger when it comes to this particular matter. Does he think that diversity has improved since he was pitching Desmond’s, three decades ago? “No. I say that with absolute certainty and surety.”

It is hard to underestimate the influence that Desmond’s had. The series ran for 71 episodes and at its peak it had five million viewers, remarkable for a sitcom. Starring the veteran actor Norman Beaton alongside a largely British-Guyanese cast, it made that community visible in a way that has not been rivalled in Britain in the 22 years since it came off air. It did so with the deftest of touches, addressing problems of interracial relationships and tensions within the black community through warm comedy.

“Up to that point, black people were ­never seen on TV,” Worrell recalls. “The only time we appeared in any media was in the red tops – muggings, vice. The idea was to show a black family who were just like any other.” Yet it seems that, apart from the spin-off comedy series Porkpie, occasioned by Beaton’s sudden death in 1994, Channel 4 has regarded the idea of portraying a normal black family in a sitcom as too great a gamble in the years since, despite an increase in the number of non-white roles in its other drama output.

Worrell smiles, but it is clear that the ­matter isn’t a joke. “The thing that’s said among black people is that there’ll only be one black sitcom every ten years.”

***

When I phone Paapa Essiedu while he’s on a lunch break from Hamlet, I am prepared to get a more positive perspective. Just 26, Essiedu has had a spectacular and seemingly unimpeded rise. A graduate of the prestigious Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, he joined the RSC in 2012 and then hopped to the National Theatre in Sam Mendes’s King Lear, before returning to Stratford. The Telegraph greeted his debut as Hamlet with the notice that every actor dreams of: “A new star is born”.

But Essiedu seems ready to implode with frustration. “It’s ridiculous,” he says. “This stuff has been here for decades and decades: we’re lying to ourselves if we think there’s been a lack of awareness until now. Lots of people are talking and talking, but we need action.” Has he experienced racism directly? “Put it this way: quite often, I’ve been in a room where everyone else is white.”

A major issue, he says, is the apparently unshakeable addiction of British TV and film to corsets-and-cleavage period drama, which has left many BAME actors locked out of the audition room. The BBC is in the middle of a run of literary spin-offs, from War and Peace to The Moonstone. Over on ITV, we have had Victoria and the invincible Downton Abbey.

It still feels as though much of British drama is stuck in an airbrushed version of the country’s past. Though partly set in contemporary Egypt, BBC1’s adaptation of The Night Manager by John le Carré had only a handful of non-white actors in significant roles. Allowing for exceptions such as the BBC’s version of Andrea Levy’s Windrush-era novel Small Island, broadcast in 2009, you could be forgiven for thinking, had you never visited Britain, that people of only one skin colour live in this country. That the largely white drama series are successful on the export market only helps to extend the cycle.

“Producers say, ‘Oh, we commission stuff that people want to watch,’” Essiedu tells me. “But it’s such a narrow version of history – middle-to-upper-class Caucasian men, generally. Period drama can be from anywhere in the world: Africa, Asia. Where are those stories?”

Drama is just a sliver of broadcasting output, but other genres aren’t much better. Journalists from ethnic-minority backgrounds have made steady progress in television newsrooms – but not fast enough, Channel 4’s Krishnan Guru-Murthy has ­argued; there is a glaring absence, however, when it comes to lifestyle and entertainment TV. The recent success of the intrepid youth TV star Reggie Yates notwithstanding, it is difficult to ignore or account for the dearth of BAME presenters in documentaries and “serious” factual programming; and no major current British chat show has a permanent anchor who isn’t white.

Adil Ray’s BBC1 comedy Citizen Khan, which focuses on the escapades of the overbearing Muslim patriarch Mr Khan and his family in the Sparkhill area of Birmingham, is a rare exception. It has just returned for a fifth season. A worthy successor to Desmond’s in its tongue-in-cheek approach to potentially inflammatory issues (the 2014 Christmas special featured the birth of Mr Khan’s grandson, Mohammad, on Christmas Day) the programme also resembles its forebear in a more depressing way: it appears to be one of a kind.

When I ask Ray why he thinks this is, he selects his words carefully. “It’s not prejudice exactly,” he says, “but in the TV business, there are a lot of formulas. If you’re doing curry, get an Asian person. If it’s hip-hop, someone who’s black. If you’re doing a walk in the countryside, or drinking tea in the Cotswolds . . .” He leaves the sentence hanging.

What appears on screen is only the visible part of the problem. Actors get cast in roles only if writers write them; projects get made only if commissioners commission them. TV and film are notoriously incestuous and competitive industries. Careers are unstable. Knowing someone who knows someone is often – too often – the only way of getting work.

According to figures produced this year by Creative Skillset, many media companies fail dismally when it comes to representation. Just 24 per cent of those in senior roles in cable or satellite firms are female; 4 per cent of employees in positions in senior terrestrial broadcast are BAME; and, if the numbers are to be believed, there are no BAME people at all working on the senior production side of independent film companies. The figures aren’t entirely robust – they rely on organisations filling in forms and returning them – but if they’re anywhere near the truth they make for grim reading.

The BBC’s statistics are more encouraging (according to the latest figures, BAME people make up 13.4 per cent of staff overall and hold 9.2 per cent of leadership roles) but don’t include freelancers, an area in which it is reasonable to suppose that, without quotas to fill, representation will be worse. In September, the media regulator Ofcom put broadcasters on notice that they could face “harder-edged” regulation if they did not improve diversity.

Chi Onwurah, the MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, who has been vocal about these matters in parliament, says that the BBC has a special duty to up its game. “It’s not doing enough,” she tells me. “If it was, there wouldn’t be a problem. It was very interesting watching the [European Union] referendum; all the efforts broadcasters have gone to to make sure there was balance. If they went to half that effort for BAME, gender and disability, it would be a different world.”

The BBC is keen to show that it is paying attention. Last year, it appointed Tunde Ogungbesan as its new head of “diversity, inclusion and succession”, and in April his team announced eye-catching targets: gender parity across every part of the corporation; 8 per cent of staff disabled; 8 per cent of staff lesbian, gay or trans; 15 per cent of staff from BAME backgrounds. Those numbers will be replicated on screen, lead roles included, and are roughly equivalent to averages for the overall population of Britain.

Yet the idea that established BBC presenters will go quietly seems optimistic. Take the ruckus that the comedian Jon Holmes recently raised when his contract with The Now Show (Radio 4) wasn’t renewed. Holmes asked in the Mail on Sunday: “Should I, as a white man . . . be fired from my job because I am a white man?”

Ogungbesan – a former head of diversity for Shell – has a businesslike attitude to the challenges he faces, which are, he concedes, considerable. “We’ve got four years to do this, and we know there’s a hell of a lot of work to do.” That is why his team has given itself a deadline. “Hopefully, when we hit those targets in 2020, we’ll be the most diverse broadcaster in the UK.”

How does he respond to Onwurah’s suggestion that the BBC is skilled at announcing targets but less good at making change happen? “We’re publishing our results,” he says. “You’ll be able to hold us to it.”

And what if the targets aren’t met? Ogun­gbesan laughs, for perhaps a touch too long. He will not consider the possibility. “I’m like a boxer. I refuse to look at it.”

***

If British TV and film don’t get their act together soon, there may be no one left to cast. Increasingly, black and Asian stars are decamping to America to make their career there. Among those who have joined the brain drain are Archie Panjabi and Cush Jumbo (The Good Wife), David Oyelowo (Selma) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave). Idris Elba, who brooded brilliantly in BBC1’s crime procedural Luther, would likely never have been cast in a big British series if he hadn’t already made a name in the United States with The Wire. Before she appeared in Undercover, Sophie Okonedo said in an interview that the scripts she was offered from the US far outnumbered those from the UK.

Visiting Los Angeles recently, I tracked down Parminder Nagra, who made her name in Bend It Like Beckham before being spotted by a producer for the long-running medical drama ER. In 2003 she was offered the role of the Anglo-American doctor Neela Rasgotra, which she played until the series ended in 2009. A big part in the NBC crime drama The Blacklist followed, along with other film and TV work.

She never intended to move, she says, laughing ruefully, when we meet at a café in a well-to-do suburb of LA populated by movie folk. She has worked occasionally elsewhere but, 13 years on, she is still on the west coast. “The jobs I’ve got, like most actors, haven’t come about in a conventional way. It’s generally because someone is open-minded enough to look at you.”

Although she is careful to make it clear that the US is far from a utopia in terms of how it portrays race, sexuality or gender on screen – she tells a gruesome tale of a white writer who sent her his attempt at an “Asian” character – Nagra senses that things are more open in the US. “It’s a bigger pond here, because of the sheer size of the country,” she says. “There are writers of colour in the UK, but what happens is that you’ve only got one or two people at the top who are making decisions about the taste of the country . . . Those people are white.”

The landscape is certainly more open in the US. Leaving aside the allegations about Bill Cosby, NBC’s Cosby Show (1984-92) was a force for good, with its focus on a middle-class African-American family and with the numerous ethnically diverse shows it made possible: A Different World, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, In Living Color, Scandal (the last was commissioned by the influential black writer-producer Shonda Rhimes). Back in the early 1980s, the gentle NBC sitcom Gimme a Break! – starring Nell Carter – explored issues of racism, too.

US cable and online subscription ­services are even more courageous. Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black has an ethnically kaleidoscopic cast and plotlines that vault across almost every conceivable question of gender, sexuality, body image and politics. Where it has apparently taken the BBC until 2016 to realise that families can be both black and upper middle class, ABC in the US was years ahead: in 2014 it commissioned Black-ish, which offers a subtle portrait of an advertising executive who frets that he is losing touch with both his Obama-era kids and his inner-city origins.

Nagra nods. “There still are a lot of issues here, but if you’re an actor of colour, there is more work. All those British period dramas are really well done, but there’s a yearning there: ‘Can I please just see somebody like me on TV?’”

The reason all this matters is that TV, theatre and film have a duty to show us not merely who we are, but who we can become. In Undercover, Okonedo becomes Britain’s first black, female director of public prosecutions: this may seem unlikely, given the state of the UK’s judiciary, yet seeing it on TV helps to shift perceptions. No one would argue that Okonedo’s co-star Dennis Haysbert got Barack Obama into the White House by playing a black president of the United States in 24, but perhaps it made such a world marginally more imaginable.

The time is overdue for British TV to abandon its fetish for bodices and show us what our nation actually looks like, in all its variety – and to be more imaginative about the kind of history it presents. Colour-blind casting is mainstream in theatre. Actors of various heritages appear in Pinter or Chekhov and no one raises an eyebrow.

Anthropologists argue that race and gender are forms of performance, sets of shared codes, rather than something intrinsic to who we are. Is it so difficult to imagine a Jane Austen production with performers of black or Asian heritage? Is that any harder to believe than the thousand impossibilities we witness every day in TV drama?

I ask Essiedu if he is optimistic. Yes, he says forcefully. “I have to be. Optimism is the only way we initiate change.”

When I put the same question to Nagra, she pauses to think. “I remember being asked about this when I started ER, and I was a bit tired of the issue even then. Yet here we still are.” Her expression is wry. “So ask me in ten years’ time.”

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: out of exile