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The death of a dream

Andrew Brown has won the Orwell Prize for Fishing in Utopia, a memoir of life in Sweden. Here he tal

Sweden has become globally symbolic of the welfare state: high taxes, social policies for equality, sexual education and liberation. Part of that symbolic status was a peculiar national and collective narcissism: one way or another, most Swedes, and not only intellectuals or cultural critics, were preoccupied with trying to understand the social-democratic model and culture in which we lived. And no wonder. What happened between 1932 and 1976, the 44 years of unbroken Social Democratic Party rule, was, in the end, so unusual, and so revolutionary.

Andrew Brown’s book Fishing in Utopia (Granta) has won the Orwell Prize for political writing this year. It is an autobiographical account of living in Sweden in the late 1970s. Andrew, the child of diplomats and the product of private schooling, was, he says, entirely convinced at the time that Sweden represented the inevitable future. Nevertheless, going to live in Social Democratic Sweden and getting a manual job in a small pallet-making factory in the provinces was not a common journey for men of his background. Think of Bruce Chatwin in Sudan, or Rory Stewart in Afghanistan: those are the natural, and healing, stamping grounds for British travel writers.

Andrew’s journey is all the more exotic precisely because it is so understated, and takes him to a destination that is wrenchingly dull and lonely: “square, with shops set into the shabby concrete round two sides. There was a Konsum, a shoe shop, a florist, and an employment exchange.” “Faced with all this sterile silence my hair grew ragged and my beard grew melancholy; when I walked to the shops, some of the children would call after me, ‘Jesus’.”

Fishing became Andrew’s salvation, a relief from the repressively respectable silence in the poor little settlement where he lived. “I had no idea,” he says, “as, I would say, most people living in Stockholm would have no idea, of what life in the provinces was actually like. Fantastic rigidity, deep, backbone respectability. That was an enormous shock to me.”

Fishing is described in his book as not only meditative, but also faintly mystical, as though all the spiritual urges in Sweden are really pagan, located in the rivers and forest lakes, the skies and the rocks. Andrew (genuinely) wanted to understand the fish (some of the best parts of the book really are about fishing), but he also wanted to understand the Swedes, and the Swedish project, Folkhemmet, the Social Democratic term for the nation as the “home of the people”.

The Social Democrats remained in power for 44 years, between 1932 and 1976. Their policies included high taxes, centralised wage agreements, union power (linked to the party), employment security, safety in the workplace, support for women, environmental protection and third-way neutrality. They built a million new flats, to defeat, once and for all, rural poverty. The cottages of the rural poor were abandoned or became the second homes of the comfortably off, and general affluence and equality succeeded poverty and hierarchy.

They were genuinely interested in creating a fairer society, and, in many ways, did so, but they also created a society of conformity and concrete, state surveillance (the clandestine monitoring of communists was to become a national scandal) and joyless, mediocre schools. Maj Sjövall and Per Wahlöö wrote bleak and dystopian bestselling thrillers, the murderers always capitalists, distanced from ordinary people and ordinary decency. People shuffled forward in endless queues at Systembolaget, the state-monopoly alcohol outlet. The blacklisted alcoholics sat outside, soliciting people to buy them vodka. Rock bands sang about materialism and alienation, prostitution and addiction.

One of the pivots of the liberal critique of Social Democratic Sweden was the idea that the state took excessive numbers of children into care, and that at least a part of the state constituted, in effect, a repressive machinery where individual rights were potentially sacrificed to powerful social norms. The story of children taken into care was internationalised, unwittingly, by Andrew, who was by then working as a journalist: his story about one particular case bounced from a piece in the Daily Mail (mothers weeping, soulless bureaucrats), to Private Eye (jokes about Sweden), to Der Spiegel (“Swedish children’s Gulag”, an investigation based on six cases). Later, Andrew returned to the original case and concluded that the state had been right to take this particular boy, “Child A”, into care, and that the mother was in fact a psychopathic fantasist who posed a real danger to the child.

But consider this: Sweden in the 1980s seriously considered forcible quarantine for HIV-positive people. Between 1935 and 1976 about 60,000 Swedes – all poor – were victims of coerced sterilisation: travellers, the mentally subnormal, girls considered promiscuous, petty thieves and vagrants. That, too, was ultimately part of the Folkhemmet project.

In the mid-1980s the banking sector was extensively deregulated in Sweden, which led to a period of rapid credit expansion, followed by a spectacular bust in 1990. After that, everything changed. Crime statistics, particularly rape, have gone up, and immigrant alienation is palpable in some areas. “The very strong sense I was getting in Gothenburg recently,” Andrew says, “was that the central government is forcing policies on the regions that they don’t want, in particular polices about asylum-seekers, and that the nationalists will get seats in the next election, which is very frightening. The thing that really frightens me is that it would lead to a more violent politics – street battles between immigrant youths, anti-fascist action and pro-nationalists. Once politics gets turned into an affair for teenage gangs it’s hard to drag it back from that.”

It is not impossible. While Sweden generally is thought of as a peaceful society, there have been episodes of violence. In February 1986, Olof Palme, the prime minister, was shot dead on the street as he was walking home from the cinema with his wife. In 2003, Anna Lindh, the minister for foreign affairs, was stabbed to death at NK, Sweden’s equivalent of Harrods. Like Olof Palme, she was not protected by bodyguards at the time of her attack.

In 1989, neo-Nazis murdered a trade union activist and two policemen, in separate incidents. The same year, neo-Nazi car bombs blinded a policeman and almost killed a journalist. The three founders of the far-right organisation NRA committed an armed bank robbery in 1999. They wounded two policemen and then shot them dead at close range, in what became known as the “Malexander murders”. And these were no innocents: one of them had already been indicted for war crimes in Bosnia, one of the many amateur mercenaries drawn to those killing fields.

In a bizarre twist, it turned out that one of the others, Tony Olsson, had been given permission from prison to take part in a rehearsal for a play, entitled 7:3, by one of Sweden’s most famous playwrights, Lars Norén, about the neo-Nazi movement. The name derives from a paragraph in the prison code about prisoners likely to attempt escape; Olsson duly did escape from the theatre, and went on to commit robbery and murder. The “actors” in the play were actual neo-Nazis, given neo-Nazi lines. It was put on at the National Theatre.

It is hard to imagine a similar scenario in Britain. Nor would one expect neo-Nazis to complain on national TV about the lack of rehabilitation facilities for Nazis. Only in Sweden is the political belief system so normative that people on the extreme right themselves believe that they are acting out individual pathologies.

The northern European path of peace, openness and minimal security led, ultimately, to the death of one prime minister, one foreign minister and two policemen, with many others wounded. Unlike in Germany, Denmark and Italy, the terrorists of Sweden were from the right, not the left. That meant that they had no real connections with groups like the Baader-Meinhof Gang and the IRA, or with Palestinian groups. They were linked only to other neo-Nazis, crazy white-power zealots from Germany, Russia and the Anglo-Saxon world.

I talk to Andrew about the shock of the Palme murder. “In a way,” he says, “I was more shocked by the quite stupefying incompetence of the police afterwards.” The police investigation initially focused almost exclusively on the Kurds, and included the illegal surveillance of Kurdish immigrants. It is almost certain that the PKK had nothing to do with it, and that the real culprit was Christer Pettersson, a drug addict with a history of violence who was convicted of the murder, though later released on a technicality.

Many eminent people in Sweden, however, believe that the murder was planned by apartheid South Africa. Eugene de Kock, the policeman in charge of the infamous Vlakplaas, where dozens of anti-apartheid activists were tortured and killed, has publicly stated that Craig Williamson, a South African spy who had special links to Sweden, did it. And it may well be so. The struggle against apartheid was one of Palme’s causes, and Sweden donated millions of dollars to the ANC via the International University Exchange Fund (infiltrated by Williamson) and other channels. Though we may never know for sure.

“The Social Democrats now,” Andrew says, “have a reputation as extremely boring technocrats, but they did understand politics as theatre. It was perhaps when the theatre went out of it that it went wrong.” Or perhaps it went wrong – or right – when the opposition finally got its act together and formed a viable coalition. When you look back at Swedish elections since 1932, it is striking how even the results are. The Social Democrats won every election from 1932 to 1976, comfortably fluctuating between 40 and 54 per cent of the votes. In 1976, their share of the vote decreased by less than 1 per cent, but the new liberal-conservative coalition broke the hegemony.

I recently found stuffed in my bookcase an old edition of Palme’s speeches and articles from 1968 to 1974. They are not, on the whole, a pleasure to read. His speech to the party congress in 1969, for example, is 20 pages long, stilted and intense. His address to the Social Democratic Youth Organisation in 1972 is 15 pages long. He must have bored the party into submission. And yet his speeches about the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, or the American bombing of Hanoi, are genuinely moving.

The cultural history of Sweden is always written with reference to Folkhemmet, and popular notions of Sweden are permanently steeped in ideas of sexual liberation, equality and affluence, with a dash of dystopian gloom added by crime writers such as Stieg Larsson or Henning Mankell. Perhaps now the time has come to write something based on other terms of reference, though what that would be, I have no idea. Fishing might be a good place to start.

Sigrid Rausing is the publisher of Granta

This article first appeared in the 29 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Escape

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