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Profile: Joss Garman

Joss Garman joined the environmental movement at 14. He has since been arrested over 20 times and wa

Early years

Born in 1985 in Mid-Wales, Joss Garman was one of four boys. His parents work in the emergency services equipment industry and his father is the inventor of the world’s first bath lift. With parents who are nature lovers, as well as members of Greenpeace it seemed only logical that Garman would cultivate a passion for the great outdoors. “I was surrounded by beauty and wildlife,” Garman told newstatesman.com. “I was really into Gerald Durrell books and I had my own menagerie with snakes and spiders.”

“But I guess my political awakening came when I was 14 years old. I read an article by the curator of Entomology at Oxford, George McGavin, about a beetle species. He basically argued that if a handful of these beetles were destroyed it could damage a whole ecosystem.” Moved, the young teenager set about finding ways in which he could help the environment around him. He wrote to Greenpeace to ask if he could volunteer for them. On discovering that there was no local branch of the organization in his area, Garman took on the task of setting one up.

Before attending Hereford Sixth Form College he was at the local comprehensive, something Garman is keen to get on the record as he says many paint him as an ex-public school boy. It was while at the college that he became involved in direct action.

Activism

He spent his sixth form years running the branch of Greenpeace he set up and standing outside supermarkets with the CND, campaigning against the Wylfa power station, as well as handing out leaflets against GM crops.

It was at 16 that Garman was first arrested. He had broken into Fairford US air base in order, according to some sources, to damage American bombers heading for the war in Iraq. Garman’s parents were members of Greenpeace and while they had not been activists being supportive of their son came easily, despite the many arrests that were to follow. “I was always slightly nervous obviously but I was definitely prepared to do it.”

Another protest against the Iraq war was an organised day of civil disobedience. “I organised a mass walkout at our school and all surrounding schools in Hereford joined in.” Not much later Garman found himself in the back of a police van in 2004, after he was caught getting onto a runway at USAF Fairford in Gloucestershire. At this time Garman was volunteering with Trident Ploughshares, a part of the international nuclear disarmament movement. A number of volunteers were attempting to stop bombers going off to Iraq. All charges against the 17 year old Garman later dropped.

What of other campaigns? “As a campaign of mass education, it would be difficult to think of Make Poverty History as anything other than very successful. It got newspapers from The Sun to The Guardian involved and raised awareness of the plight of the majority of the world. But in terms of tangible campaign successes, it was clearly massively disappointing and I think even the leaders of that campaign would agree with that.” Another frustration was the lack of priority given to climate change by the development community during the campaign. “On the other hand, Christian Aid, WDM and increasingly Oxfam are joining up to make it one of their top issues what with all of them working to stop the plans for the first new coal-fired plant in decades at Kingsnorth.”

Garman doesn’t think though that direct action is an isolated type of campaigning and shouldn’t be seen as such. “The reason why the campaign against GM crops was so successful was that it combined mass communication, lobbying and education with peaceful direct action - a pattern that’s been repeated with the campaign to stop airport expansion.”

Plane Stupid

After finishing his A-levels at 17 Garman took a year out. He went to London to volunteer for Greenpeace and at the time worked on the EU legislation regarding GM crops. He then went to Chile for six months to visit family; his grandfather was Chilean. Visiting South America again the following year was to be the last time he’d board a plane. He then came back to attend the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London where he read politics. He graduated last year with a 2:1 after doing his dissertation on the Stern Review.

While a teenager volunteering with Greenpeace, Garman met Graham Thompson and then at a student party on the night of Bush’s re-election they met Richard George. They went on to found Plane Stupid in 2005. As a network of activists targeting the aviation industry, Garman believes that Plane Stupid fundamentally changed the debate. “Marginal seats in London will be won or lost on the Heathrow issue,” he says, “Boris Johnson would have committed political suicide if he’d backed the third runway.”

The main aim of the organisation’s work was to highlight the issue of short haul flights. They saw it as the single fastest growing threat to the climate. According to Garman, almost half of all journeys taken in Europe are less than 500km, one fifth of the flights from Heathrow are short haul. “If they got rid of those flights there would definitely be no need for a third runway, they would have so much free space.”

The group first came to prominence when they gate crashed an aviation industry conference releasing balloons with rape alarms attached. Then in 2006 they broke into East Midlands airport in order to stage a sit in on a runway.

“It is only now that the aviation industry is facing taxes, they have been subsidised by the government to the tune of £10 billion a year! No one travels to Glasgow by train because that will cost you £150, but £10 for a flight. The government is effectively encouraging people to take the more polluting option.” Does the busy Garman manage to get away without the use of planes? “I leave London as often as possible, most weekends. I’ve just spent a few weeks camping in the Outer Hebrides.” How did he get there? “I took a train and then a ferry. It was just fantastic.

“We have until 2015 to get our levels of carbon emissions down” says Garman, “We need an entire transformation of our economy to suit a low carbon lifestyle. It’s a scientific thing, not an ideology.” For those in the movement, 2015 is the point of no return.

“I met Gordon Brown at the Labour Party Conference last year and asked him to reject a third runway because it’s not compatible with Britain cutting emissions. He said, "You've got a big job mate." This has not deterred Garman and the group has definitely made an impact on the public and government’s approach to the issue. Appearances on Newsnight and columns in major broadsheets and magazines have left Garman a very busy 24 year old. “Newsnight was one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever done,” he explains.

Kingsnorth

Recently, Garman has been involved with the defence of the six Greenpeace activists on trial for the damage they caused to a chimney at the Kingsnorth coal-fired power station in November 2007. The action was taken after it’s owners EON announced plans to build an even bigger plant next door. Four members of the defence had spent nine hours scaling the chimney with the intention of painting “Gordon, bin it!” on the side. They only managed “Gordon” before an injunction was brought against them. “There were about 30 of us. We just walked straight in a back gate. We hit all the emergency stop buttons and I chained myself to a conveyor belt. In shutting down the plant for only one day we were stopping the equivalent of 30 developing countries worth of pollution.”

It turned out to be a landmark case in the battle against climate change and the actions of the activists were found to be legally justified as they were in fact preventing greater damage to property and people around the world.

At the trial Professor Hansen, a director of NASA who is believed by many to be the world’s leading scientist in the fight against climate change, gave evidence for the activists. “Then we had a leader of the Inuit people speak on our behalf as well. He came to tell the court about how the effects of plants such as this were affecting his way of life.”

Coal is the main focus for Garman at the moment and with the government soon to be making decisions on coal fire stations, the job of Greenpeace is to build up on the opposition that is already out there and broaden it.

Movement

With his work Garman says at least he can witness the changes he is making and there is also the variety, “One day I’m shutting down a plant and then the next day I’m putting on a suit and meeting advisors to government.” It is not always easy though, he was recently refused entry to any of the party conferences, along with fellow Greenpeace activist Anita Goldsmith. With a smile on his face he says that he would only have been there to lobby MPs and stage some debates, “It’s hardly surprising when you look at my record that they wouldn’t allow me in.”

As a shot of energy into the environmental movement Garman is not deterred by any difficulties he may encounter, like Brown’s remark on the runway question. According to Poyry, (the global consulting and engineering firm) if the government hit the existing renewables and efficiency targets there’d be no need for new coal plants. “No one has contested the figures of Poyry. I think the government could definitely hit the targets. I mean, look at Germany. They generated so much green electricity, they have a quarter of a million people employed in the renewable energy industry.”

When asked if he thinks people are apathetic to the climate change issue Garman says no, rather, they are disillusioned. “There is a massive gap between the government and the public when it comes to the environment. They are interested and they are worried.” He doesn’t think marching is the way to make a difference though. It made no difference to the Iraq war. “I see my role to force politicians make changes.” With his track record of constant activism over nearly 10 years it’s no wonder he was once nick-named the ‘turbo-activist’ by fellow Greenpeace volunteers.

Who does he admire in the environmental movement today? “It’s the grass root activists in the movement. They inject an urgency and passion that can’t be ignored. Then there’s also Al Gore. He is one of the most successful campaigners of our time. He’s transformed US public opinion.” Garman feels that the turn around that has occurred in America puts the British government to shame. “There is more action from the backwards, Southern conservative states of North America than there is from Brown” Garman despairs. “We’ve had the suffragettes and civil rights, we need another movement.”

Martin O’Neil for New Statesman
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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