Show Hide image

Profile: Rory Stewart

One of 25 hand picked for the Foreign Office fast track, Rory Stewart quit after five years to go wa

Early life

Stewart was born in Hong Kong in 1973. His father Brian, a military man had fought on the beaches of Normandy and then became a diplomat, while his mother Sally, is an academic and economist. He has two older half sisters and one younger sister.

At eight he came to the UK where he was educated at Eton and Oxford, with a stint in the Black Watch in between.

While in his third year Stewart was ‘half talked into’ applying for the Foreign Office (FC0) by his mother. Despite his reluctance he was one of 25 hand picked to join the coveted FCO career fast track.

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

It was September 1995 when Stewart started working at the FO in London. For the first time, he says, he felt like he was actually doing something. “I was living in London,in my own flat, getting to walk across St James’ park in the mornings, going to work in a beautiful building.”

Despite flying around to different embassies and feeling the job was a joy he was starting to get tired. Exhausted from chasing girls, partying and, of course, working, his next move, two years later, was Indonesia.

“Suddenly I was in a suburb on East Java and living with a family, learning Indonesian. Everything about growing up in Malaysia came flooding back to me. I felt fitter, brighter and happier.”

After a couple of months he was put into the embassy in Jakarta, running the economic section. It was shortly after his start that the Asian financial crisis of 1997 hit. “It was very exciting and not too dissimilar to what is happening here now. The experience taught me that experts don’t always know what’s going on.”

Despite everyone saying the economy was going so well, Stewart says he was one of the pessimistic people who predicted the depth of that crisis. “Everyone’s predictions go out of the window. And I believe we’re still there.”

After two years, Stewart was then posted to Montenegro in the wake of the Kosovo campaign. This time he wasn’t a member of a large team but on his own.

“I definitely had one of those moments, where you take a step back and look at what you’re doing and think ‘this is ridiculous!' I was sent as the British representative and I was only 26."

It was prestigious, interesting and his closest boss was in London.

Was he taken seriously though being so young? “I might have had more luck if I was older but at the time I wasn’t conscious of my age being a problem. Everyone was very polite and obviously people did want to be seen to be working with Britain.”

Stewart sees both Indonesia and Montenegro as unusual postings. “They were surreal and almost comical, I had to give the impression obviously that this was all totally natural.”

Walking and books

Once his time in Montenegro was up, Stewart decided to leave. He'd been with the FCO for five years. It was at this point that he began the walk that would lead to his critically acclaimed book, The Places in Between. He had previously taken a two week walk while in Indonesia to Irian Jaya with two friends. This time around it was to last 20 months and he was to be alone for most of it.

Stewart has claimed that he didn’t feel he was cut out for a standard FCO posting and so wanted to just try something new. Stewart says walking is his way to free his mind, to contemplate and learn. Initially Stewart planned to walk around the world, however, plans change and in the late summer of 2000 he headed East from the Turkish-Iranian border.

He began moving across Iran with ‘protection’ but after three months of both suspicion and hospitality he couldn’t get his visa renewed and so moved on to the next country.

It was a journey fraught with difficulties though. He was barred from entering Afghanistan, then Pakistani officials prevented him from entering Baluchistan. He then trekked from Pakistan to India, adopting a local look (a turban, salwar kameez, turban and walking stick) in order to make life easier. Then on to Nepal.

It was by January 2002 that he began his trek across Afghanistan. It was to take him six weeks. The US troops had just invaded and had toppled the Taliban. “I watched how communities worked, how villages interacted with one another. I learnt their customs, rules and codes.” It came to be an invaluable understanding of societies suffering in the aftermath of conflict.

Iraq

In 2003 the invasion of Iraq was about to take place and, supporting the decision, Stewart was keen to get out there and help in any way he could.

He constantly sent emails but was getting no response. “I decided to get a taxi from Jordan to Baghdad, just me and the taxi driver.” He arrived in Baghdad and immediately reported to the Director of Operations who was pleased to see the eager volunteer told him to go home and await instruction.

“I wasn’t completely convinced that anything would come of it.” But it did and in August 2003 Stewart found himself the deputy governor of Maysan province in Southern Iraq, with a population of 850,000 people. He was not yet 30.

“When I returned I basically tried to apply what I’d learnt on my walk. I had learnt how they spoke of government, learnt what power means.” His 20 month trek had put him in an invaluable position. “Knowledge and sensitivity is important in these situations. You’re in someone else’s country and you are there to help. This is something you need to keep reaffirming. You are here temporarily and that it’s their country but also that you have value and importance to them. You need to stress that you both have access to power and resources. And you need to have faith in people, you need to convince people that they have the capacity to change their own life.”

For Stewart, personal relationships were very important. Each governor had a different approach, some completely unlike Stewart’s. “One friend was very legalistic in his approach. He would say ‘this is my budget, this is the paper work, less personal politics’, I think if dealing with a society where state and government have collapsed and you’re working in rural areas then you’re not likely to get far by emphasising an institution and process when what they’ve seen of that has horrified them.”

They were two tough postings; jobs that involved fending off an insurgency, negotiating hostage situations and tribal vendettas but he was aided by the knowledge gained from his walk and his ability to speak Dari and Farsi, no one was better equipped.

Having supported the invasion Stewart now believes that we should leave Iraq as soon as possible.

“As time went on it was clear that Iraq was the wrong war. It was impossible; we weren’t going to make any progress.” A three day siege on his compound, led by a friend, was example of this. As the mortars fell, how did this make him feel? “I think I realised that this was a war, it’s not a personal act, it’s not that he didn’t like me, he just didn’t like the occupation. I still think he was a charming man.”

Afghanistan

In 2006 Stewart found himself back in Afghanistan. He set up the Turquoise Mountain Foundation to work on the regeneration of the historic commercial centre of Kabul, as well as providing jobs.

One of its first tasks was to clear the city of 900 cubic metres of rubbish. Since then the Foundation has gone from one employee to 350. “I spent a long time negotiating with the community to convince them that this was a worthwhile idea; then I had to get the Afghan Government on board.” In this time they have also established the country’s first higher education Institute for Afghan Arts and Architecture, with the backing of President Karzai.

The hardest part of the job now is the money that needs to be raised. Lots of it. “This year I’ve had to raise US$22m. Lives and jobs depend on me. There is a great sense of responsibility. At the moment I’m trying to raise $2m and the winter is coming - in a city on the edge of becoming a war zone. In one month I’ve spent $550,000 on repairing 60 buildings.” Stewart hopes that it will all be complete by 2010.

What about Barack Obama’s supposed ideas for Afghanistan? “I’m very excited by Barack. People I know that work with him think he’s a good guy.” His views on Afghanistan are ones that Stewart would like to change though. “It’s a replica of the Bush administration at the moment; it’s the wrong way to look at things. Our relationship shouldn’t be electro shock therapy, there should be more patience.”

Future

Moving away slightly from cultural restoration Stewart is due to take on the role of Professor at Harvard University in January 2009. He will be a professor of human rights – teaching and running an academic faculty as the Director of Harvard Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. What about the Foundation? “I’ll remain executive chairman and Harvard have been good enough to pay for me to keep going out there.”

Is there time to relax? “I don’t get as much time as I’d like. Seeing family is important.” His parents are now in their 80s and settled at the family home in Crieff, Scotland. “Three weeks ago I went to northern Spain from New York. I had eight days free and I went along the Pilgrims route from Astorga to Compostella doing about 25 miles a day. It was the most wonderful opportunity to refresh my mind and have clear thoughts.” For the first time in three years he didn’t pick up a phone or an email.

Not only is there a new job in academia but also the movies. Hollywood has started to speak Stewart’s name and after Brad Pitt bought the rights to his life, Orlando Bloom is due to portray the young ‘adventurer’. Jokingly he says he’d really like Judi Dench to play him.

From diplomat to walker to governor to founder now the inspiration for a movie – it's quite a career for someone who is just 35.

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