Michael Rosen on the East London street where his father lived. Photo: Sophia Schorr-Kon/New Statesman
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Michael Rosen: Confessions of an accidental communist

The author on his childhood, his parents' life in the East End and where he parted from Christopher Hitchens in talking about his identity.

My parents were what the Nazis called Jewish Communists. I think it’s what in some circumstances they called themselves but it always feels different when someone who doesn’t like you calls you that. I had the same problem when I opened Christopher Hitchens’s memoir Hitch-22 and found him, too, calling me that when writing about our time together at Oxford University. I must say, there were echoes of McCarthyism in there, not least in my note to Hitchens reminding him of something he knew full well; that I was not a member of the party and never had been. If he wanted to call my dead father a Stalinist, I suppose that was his prerogative but Hitchens also knew that my father, Harold, had left the CP some ten years before Hitchens and I were non-Communist comrades in 1968, on the barricades of some very old university buildings, at the big anti-Vietnam war demo in Grosvenor Square and at an anti-racist sit-in on the floor of a hairdresser’s that refused to cut black people’s hair.

I tell this story because of the awkwardness and sensitivity here. I am the child of two people who joined the Young Communist League around 1935, when they were 16. They were both the grandchildren of eastern European Jewish families that migrated to France, Britain and the US from places that I find listed on censuses as Russified Poland or Austria but that we now call Poland and Bukovina. The trades they brought with them were mostly in how we cover our bodies: hats, caps, suits, dresses, boots and shoes – though one of them seems to have tried to sell dairy goods and another tried a bit of glazing.

Playing table tennis at the YCL HQ in White­chapel doesn’t pose much of a problem in my mind in terms of how my father found his way there, but I must admit I can only guess when it comes to my mother. My father’s Zeyde (grandfather) seems to have been some kind of Jewish socialist who berated the leader of the Social Democratic Federation, H M Hyndman, who in his eyes was guilty of two crimes: being anti-Semitic and leading socialist workers into the trenches in the First World War. I think that this sweatshop worker, Joseph Hyams, whose ­English was too shaky for him to read the Daily Worker to himself – my father aged ten would read it to him – must have had links in his life to the university of the eastern Jewish left: the Bund. Founded in Vilna (now Vilnius) in 1897, this league of Jewish workers was an outward-looking, secular, militant organisation trying to overcome low wages and discrimination. As Jews spread westwards, they brought with them branches of the Bund and its fraternal ­organisation the Arbeter Ring – the Workers’ Circle or, in the US, Workmen’s Circle.

My father didn’t know his own father. Morris Rosen was too busy organising the Boot and Shoe Workers Union in Brockton, Massachusetts, and, indeed, speaking at their national congress in 1921 in St Louis. I have the transcript. Morris wanted the union to congratulate the Bolsheviks on their revolution. He and my father’s mother, Rose, and their five children lived in a “row house” in Brockton but they split in 1922, Rose taking her three American-born children with her and leaving the two British-born boys with Morris.

The legend in the family, which I have never been able to confirm, is that Morris stood for the Socialist Party of America in the 1928 elections for the Pennsylvania senate and won more local votes than the SPA’s presidential candidate, Norman Thomas. I have a picture of him with his brother and their family at what looks like a Seder night (first night of Passover) from some time in the 1940s. His nephew told me that Morris wore nice clothes – he had five suits that he kept in a trunk – but when he turned up in his convertible he didn’t give his sister-in-law a ride. I don’t know how that figures, given that everyone said he was blacklisted in every boot and shoe factory on the eastern seaboard.

Morris and his brother Max and Max’s wife (who didn’t ever get that ride in the convertible) are buried in the Jewish Workmen’s Circle Cemetery in Melrose, Boston. The letters “AB” for Arbeter Ring are engraved on their stones; each has his branch number engraved there, too.

Back in London, Rose joined the Communist Party. I notice on the census she is listed variously as a milliner or secretary but my father’s story was that she couldn’t work as she had been paralysed by polio. Indeed, he has written of the time Rose and he went begging to various boards for boots, only for him to be told that, as Rose was still married, the boy wasn’t entitled. In 2012, I hear that story in my head every time the Old Etonian talks of the “big society”. People like my parents worked hard to rid themselves of begging boards of guardians to release a pair of boots to children in poverty.

I remember Rose when she was old and not very coherent but it was clear that she was someone whom people wanted to see. My father
described their house behind the London Hospital, on Whitechapel Road, as somewhere that seamen from Russia and Jamaica would come but also how she seemed to know some posh Communists, such as the bohemian Beatrice Hastings, once the model for Modigliani.

My mother talked of herself and her background in disparaging terms, as if her parents were trapped in some kind of superstitious 19th-century place. Certainly, her mother seemed to me, as a child, permanently worried, permanently complaining, inward-looking, but her father was an amiable, more open person, worn down by work in a boys’ cap factory. He would take me to Hackney Downs for walks where he met up with men in suits talking in Yiddish to each other. I’m almost certain these were his friends from the Workers’ Circle and once my mother said, in her CP voice, that when she was a girl he would go to “Trotskyist meetings”. I suspect it was the party line on Bundists.

So, my parents as teenagers met up by a table-tennis table at the YCL. My father got there via his Zeyde’s and his mother’s radicalism. My mother, I think, got there through the company she kept at Central Foundation Girls’ School in Spital Square, where her group of very close friends included a woman who would later lead the huge East End rent strike of the late 1930s, Bertha Sokoloff. My father talked of this group with awe and respect as readers, writers, politically sophisticated people who, he thought, put him and his friend Moishe Kaufman to shame.

In the crucible of the East End, my parents engaged simultaneously and passionately with collecting for the Spanish Republicans, telling the world of the dangers of German Nazism, defending themselves against Oswald Mosley’s fascist Blackshirts, Shakespeare, Picasso, W H Au­den, Christopher Isherwood, rent strikes, elec­tions and more. My mother left school and went to work as a secretary at the Daily Worker, where she came across CP journalists and organisers such as Sam Russell, who in an earlier life was called Mannassah Lesser, William Rust and, at a distance, Harry Pollitt. (As “Pollitt”, he led the Communist Party for more than 20 years.) My father stayed on at school but moved out of the East End Davenant Foundation School, whose arch still sits on the White­cha­pel Road, and went to what used to be called the Polytechnic, or “the Poly”, on Regent’s Street.

He often described this as a cultural and political shock, sitting side by side in school for the first time with boys who were not Jewish, who came from places on the Metropolitan Line with names such as Preston Park and Harrow. He would have been horrified if he had known then that that was where he and my mother would bring up my brother and me, ten years later.

The 1930s had a particular hold over us. It was both a mythic place and a mythic time in our house as our parents traced and retraced the leafleting, the public speaking, the fascists on street corners, the camping holidays, the competing pulls on their allegiance from Habonim, the Zionist youth group, the Labour Party and the Independent Labour Party. At the heart of these stories was Cable Street, when Jewish and non-Jewish anti-fascists faced down Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts and prevented them marching through the East End. A day which, in comparison to the defeats and terrors of the Second World War (yes: I never thought “we” won a war), was a glorious success and victory.

One irony of the day for them was that they found themselves on the wrong side of the barricades – literally – in a side alley off Cable Street and were only saved from having their heads cracked with a mountie’s baton by a kind stranger pulling them indoors.

In our flat over a shop in Pinner, Middlesex, in the 1950s, these events seemed centuries ago and the place they talked of didn’t exist either. The Jews, they said, had all gone. They all lived in Stoke Newington, Golders Green and Stanmore now, they said, gone on the “North-West Passage”, as they called it.

My parents ran a CP branch from our flat and though, cruelly, I tell it that the branch had only two members, Harold and his wife, Connie, in truth I can remember leaning over the bannister and watching at least ten people coming in. My dad told me that some of them worked in a plane factory on the North Circular.

They campaigned for comprehensive education and equal pay for teachers, which came in in increments over seven years. “Look!” my mother would cry when the increment envelope would arrive. “I’m four-sevenths of your father.” In 1957, they took my brother and me on a teachers’ delegation to East Germany where we were shown the great humanist achievements (or houses) of Frederick the Great, Goethe, Schiller, Bach and Mozart, Lu­ther’s prison, Carl Zeiss optics and the towers of Stalinallee, where my parents bought some posh smoky wine glasses.

They came back ashen-faced from a visit to Buchenwald and my brother snapped away as we were driven past Hitler’s bunker in Berlin, and my mother suddenly announced that she could understand everything that was being said. “Why?” we asked. “Because I was brought up speaking Yiddish,” she said. Even as an 11-year-old I could feel in that comment the tensions running to and fro across Europe and through my mother’s head. That year, they left the Communist Party.

I can remember standing in Trafalgar Square a year earlier to protest against the invasion of Suez when their friend John Flower arrived, tight-lipped and drawn. “The tanks have gone in,” he announced to the Harrow and Muswell Hill CP-ers. I could hear Nye Bevan’s voice rising and falling and saw in my mind British tanks driving past the pyramids. Our hero Nasser was going to die. “Budapest,” said John – “the tanks have gone in.”

I don’t think my parents were too bothered at the time. They had learned that backs-to-the-wall, defend-the-revolution, defend-the-Soviet-Union, anything-they-say-against-us-is-the-bourgeoisie’s-lies way of thinking and talking. They talked of western agents skulking round the streets of Budapest; and when Hungarian refugees came to Britain they scoured the papers for evidence that they were “lumpen” pickpockets and bank robbers.

But in 1957 they did leave, a wrench from my father’s old friends Roy Zemla, Moishe and Rene Kaufman, the Aprahamians, the Cooks, the Craigs, the Kayes, Dorothy Diamond, the Dunnings and many more, even though, some­how, unlike for many others who left, the friendships lasted.

My father’s university colleague Margaret Spencer once told me that she reckoned the reason why they left was that their liberal, child-centred attitudes to education ran into an unbridgeable schism with the party’s education committee. Or it was a schism in their own minds as they explored the thoughts of Dewey, Froebel, A S Neill, Margaret McMillan, Susan Isaacs and the Russells.

We all went on the Aldermaston marches and in the hurly-burly of those few days I would meet up with some of those CP and ex-CP parents and their children, but also with Quakers, Trotskyists, anarchists, anti-imperialists, Spar­tacists. I collected leaflets and pored over them back home, like young children study the Beano. My parents looked at them quizzically and were amused to find that my father’s university hero and our one-time lodger Brian Pearce, once the Stalinist hammer of the Trots, was now the Trot hammer of the Stalinists and was carrying a placard saying “Nationalise the Arms Industry”, while their old pal Francis was carrying one saying “Atoms for Peace”.

I was shown people such as the Communist former East End MP Phil Piratin; the Labour politicians Anthony Greenwood, Ian Mikardo and Fenner Brockway; this or that survivor of Dachau or Auschwitz; and such heroes of the anti-colonial struggle as the Indian nationalist Krishna Menon. Of course, we all waited for Bertrand Russell to speak.

By the late 1960s, I was immersed in what people were calling the New Left. The view that I felt most at home with was “Neither Washington nor Moscow” and one of its most articulate exponents was Christopher Hitchens. Holidays back from university often meant chats from midnight to three in the morning, discussions, memories and storytelling with my father. I would tell him about a sit-in; he would tell me about sitting in the University College London canteen in 1939. I would tell him about a Maoist. He would tell me about one of his students who had told him that he was part of the problem.

When I was arrested at Grosvenor Square, during the anti-Vietnam war demonstration outside the US embassy in March 1968, and kept in cells until four in the morning without charge, it was my father and my brother who were outside waiting to run me home from the police station on Savile Row.
Once, Adam, the son of their old CP friends the Westobys, sat on their front-room floor and berated them for having joined the CP and stayed in the CP. By this time, I think he was in the Trotskyist fragment the Workers’ Socialist League – the WSL or “Weasels”, as some of their ex-comrades called them. My mother, who usually left these kinds of conversations to my father, suddenly flipped and shouted at him, “Adam, who do you think was defending Jews in the East End? The Labour Party? The ILP? The synagogues? Where else could we go?” I seem to remember Adam didn’t answer. I suspect that this was not because he didn’t have an answer but because of some kind of residual respect for people who had struggled to understand, fight back and go beyond their tribe to find some kind of universalism.

In opposing the CP as much as he opposed the right and most of the left, Adam knew that his particular group was no nearer to locking horns with the bourgeoisie over the matter of who owns the means of production.

My parents were Jews. Neither of them ever denied it. They both learned how to deal with a posh, sneering kind of anti-Semitism from people who worked in rooms called “studies”. They both tried to understand and explain what had happened to their relatives in Poland and France who seemed to have disappeared without a trace simply because they were, like them, Jews. I never really had conversations with my mother about being a Jew before she died in 1976, cut off intentionally from her living relatives. My father brooded on what he wanted to keep from his family’s Jewishness and loved the memory of their multilingualism, their jokes, their stories. He regretted that they hadn’t at least done Seder nights and Hanukkah. He relished teaching me the Yiddish he knew.

Politically, he found a home in the company of the French marxisants Bourdieu, Barthes, Foucault, Gen­ette, Macherey and Althusser, along with some of the American radicals, Jameson and Bruner. He seemed saddened by how drawn he was to Russian thinkers such as Chukovsky, Bakhtin, Voloshinov, Vygotsky and Luria and to Russian writers such as Babel, because it meant confronting the lost hopes of his youth. From the 1970s onwards, he never denied that it had been a disaster.

People arrive in the left for many different reasons. I remember having a strong feeling at university that there was a difference between people like Hitchens and people like me and it was something to do with culture. I admired him because he seemed to have arrived at this pure leftness, pure Marxism by dint of intel­lectual effort. I arrived at it because I hadn’t, I thought, worked very hard to do anything else. I would say now that we all bring with us who we are and where we come from, even if we ­react against them.

In a way, I did a bit of both: brought with me the stories and meanings from my family but also a reaction against its allegiance to the God that failed. When I saw that phrase “Jewish Communist” in Hitchens’s book, I thought, no, that doesn’t say who I was. I asked him to change it for the paperback. He did.

The poet and broadcaster Michael Rosen is the author of the memoirs “Carrying the Elephant” and “This Is Not My Nose” (both Penguin)

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Who speaks for British Jews?

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