Football, amnesia and England

In a departure from his usual commentary on philosophy and politics Martin O'Neill focuses on the sl

Football's a funny old game. But one of its most peculiar elements is the way it seems able to generate fuzzy thinking and brittle, short-lived emotional responses.

Many football fans (and journalists) think about the game in a strange, polarized way that sees only triumph or disaster with the England team by turns hailed as world-beaters, then derided as disgraceful incompetents.

The past couple of weeks have been a vintage of sloppy logic and wishful thinking about our national game.

The sloppy logic can be seen in the overly-rapid diagnosis of disaster, whilst the wishful thinking is evident in ideas for how the lot of the England team can be improved.

Until the Israeli victory over Russia on Saturday evening, it had looked as if England would fail to qualify for the Euro 2008 finals.

This putative disaster generated a spasm of soul-searching, with the government, in the person of Sport secretary James Purnell, entering into negotiations with the Premier League over how the terrible decline of the English team could be reversed.

The main ideas in play seemed to be broadly protectionist: the introduction of quotas to limit the number of foreign players plying their trade with Premier League clubs. Liverpool’s captain, Steven Gerrard, threw his weight behind such a quota system, whilst the Guardian’s headline: 'Brown’s mission: British players for British clubs' gave a good sense of the government’s equally protectionist instincts on this matter.

Talk of British players for British clubs was a knee-jerk reaction to the perceived disaster of the England team sinking to a new low. But the detection of disaster was unsupported by the facts.

Instead, the doom-mongers’ position was attributable to the combination of a strange sense of entitlement, amnesia about the past, and unrealistic expectations about the future.

It was true that England had not been at their best during their qualifying campaign, especially in an insipid 0-0 draw with lowly Macedonia at Old Trafford back in October 2006, when the English players were booed and jeered off the pitch. But other than this, they had played reasonably well.

Their qualifying group contained both Russia and Croatia (the latter having been World Cup semi-finalists in 1998) and so it could only have been wishful thinking that assumed qualification was inevitable or was there for England as a matter of right.

The level of amnesia about football is quite astonishing. It’s not the only subject where people are drawn to posit some mythical golden age, but it is nevertheless striking to see the way that people assume that things somehow used to be much better than they are now.

Yet, since 1968 England have got to the last four of the European Championship only once, and that was in 1996 when England were hosts and played all their matches at Wembley. Moreover England did not qualify for the tournament’s final stages at all in 1972, 1976 or 1984, and had ignominious first-round exits in 1988, 1992 and 2000. English ‘underperformance’ is nothing new.

When we have the real past (rather than an imagined past) in view, the call to limit the number of foreign players in the Premier League for the sake of the national team becomes difficult to understand.

If anyone has the belief that the influx of foreigners into the Premier League has ended a history of great success, then they are not doing a very good job of tracking the facts.

England has not won the World Cup since 1966 and many forget they failed even to qualify for the final stages of the World Cup in 1974 or 1978, at a time when the old First Division was almost entirely British players.

Indeed, between their appearances at the 1970 World Cup in Mexico and the 1980 European Championships in Italy, England failed to qualify for the final stages of any major competition. Some golden age!

Steven Gerrard meanwhile may call for quotas on foreign players, presumably out of a misplaced sense of patriotism, but he should recall that, when he won the Champions League, beating A. C. Milan in the 2005 Final, he did so in a Liverpool team that fielded (including substitutes) a Pole, two Czechs, a Finn, an Australian, a Norwegian, a Frenchman, a German, an Australian, an Irishman, a Malian and two Spaniards.

One can only speculate whether Gerrard would be in possession of a Champions League winners medal if the quotas that he advocates had been in operation.

One can only imagine the effect on the England team if it was composed of players who did not have to fight for their places at their clubs against the best in the world, but who were instead gifted places in their clubs’ starting line-ups by virtue of the positive discrimination of a quota system.

After all, the current team is composed of players who play every week for teams composed of full internationals from all over the world and few would argue the standard of international football is anywhere near as high as the standard of club football played in the Champions League.

To advocate a system of ‘national preference’ or some kind of quota system is, in effect, to advocate dragging the standard of club football down.

Broader questions about football go largely unaddressed, but are worth investigating. It might be useful, indeed, if we gave some further thought to how and why football might be a valuable activity at all.

Here are two suggestions. Firstly, when played at the highest level, football can have an intrinsic value as a form of human excellence that merges athletic prowess with imagination, skill and grace. It can, in short, and on some rare occasions, be a joy to behold. Secondly, football can provide a source of shared identification, and thereby serve as the basis for forms of cohesion and solidarity. It can be a catalyst for valuable forms of community, as well as being beautiful (sometimes!) to behold.

The idea of quotas is terrible in light of both of these sorts of values. With regards to the intrinsic beauty and excellence of football when played well, the Premiership serves well as it stands.

The current Manchester United or Arsenal teams, for example, often manage a level of fluent, dynamic and inventive football that is far beyond the abilities of the England team, or any other national team. If we value football for its aesthetic qualities, then watching Arsenal players like Fàbregas, Denilson, Rosicky, Hleb, Adebayor and Van Persie is pretty much as good as it gets.

Interestingly, though, the idea of limiting foreign players also does badly with regard to the promotion of shared identification and solidarity, at least when these values are understood in an expansive rather than a narrow way.

Although quotas would, in reality, be unlikely to help the national team, their advocates want to promote the England team’s chances, presumably because that would give fans something to be proud of and worth identifying with.

But the world where the fortunes of the national team are of overwhelming significance for football fans is now both vanished and unattractive.

Premiership teams, with their multinational rosters of players, provide the perfect focus for the creation of shared identities within pluralist and cosmopolitan societies. Complex personal histories and cultural differences can sit uneasily alongside support for national teams, but anyone can be a supporter of (say) Arsenal. Indeed in a city like London, with a massive multiplicity of ethnic backgrounds, support for such a team can be a valuable and unifying.

Moreover, the popularity of the Premiership throughout the world means that it provides a source of shared experiences and common interest in some unexpected places.

One can find passionate Gunners fans from New York to East Africa (there are, for example, Arsenal Supporters’ Clubs in Albania, Serbia, Sudan and Zambia).

There’s something rather hopeful and heart-warming in the idea of Togolese Arsenal supporters cheering on a goal from a Spanish or Belarussian player (or vice versa).

This kind of internationalism is a feature of football at its best, but it only exists where there exists football that is worth watching. The transglobal devotees of the Premiership would, no doubt, lose much of their enthusiasm if they were condemned to watching an exclusively English Premiership. It is no offence to the latter to suggest that any rational soul would rather watch Cesc Fàbregas than Phil Neville.

But thanks to the Israelis’ defeat of Russia, of course, the chance for qualification again rests in England’s own hands.

The imagined disaster of non-qualification can still be averted, and if it is averted many of the siren voices crying for quotas and 'British players for British clubs will subside.

England now need only a draw against Croatia (who have already qualified) at Wembley on Wednesday if they are to progress to the finals of Euro 2008. (And if they can’t manage a home draw against Croatia, one wonders what purpose would have been served by their going to Euro 2008.)

If they manage this feat, then expect England to again be trumpeted as one of the favourites for next year’s tournament.

If they fail, then we can expect a dull and silly debate about how the foreigners are holding back the onward march of England.

Martin O’Neill is a political philosopher, based at the Centre for Political Theory in the Department of Politics at the University of Manchester. He has previously taught at Cambridge and Harvard, and is writing a book on Corporations and Social Justice.
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