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Settlers or squatters?

The politics of demolition and construction in East Jerusalem have always been fraught. Now Israeli

On a bright, sunny morning in early December, I stood on the stone ramparts of the Beit Hatzofeh lookout tower in the heart of the tourist attraction that calls itself the “City of David”, and counted off the touchstones of the three great monotheistic religions: the dome of al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount, or Haram al-Sharif, rose above the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem, 100 metres to the north; the Western Wall – the holiest shrine in Judaism, “where the divine presence always rests” – lay hidden beneath it, no more than five minutes’ walk away. To the east, the Valley of Jehosophat, where, it is said, humanity will assemble on the Day of Judgement, ran past the Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives towards the location of the Garden of Gethsemane and the tomb of the Virgin Mary.

Despite these overlapping spiritual topographies, no one disputes ownership of the Temple Mount – save for a small minority of Jewish fanatics who would like to demolish the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque and rebuild Solomon’s Temple in their place. But what is disputed, as the Israeli flags fluttering in the breeze around Beit Hatzofeh confirm, is ownership of the Palestinian village of Silwan, which pours down the hillside below the southern walls of the Old City and rises again on the far side of the biblical Valley of Kidron.

Silwan lies in the heart of Arab East Jerusalem. It is home to approximately 40,000 Palestinians, and 300 Jews, who exert a disproportionate influence on life in the village. Their activities are co-ordinated by a group called El-Ad – an acronym derived from the Hebrew phrase for “to the City of David”. Far from operating on the fringes of the law, like many of the organisations that establish outposts in the West Bank, it enjoys the backing of several institutions of the Israeli state. And since 2002, it has controlled Silwan’s most important asset: the archaeological site it calls the City of David.

Biblical chronology suggests that King David – the first ruler of the united kingdom of Israel – conquered Jerusalem in 1000BC and made it his capital. Though most reputable authorities regard David as a folkloric figure, El-Ad takes it for granted that he lived somewhere among the stone-clad walkways and winding streets of the historic city centre. “It’s the true Jerusalem: it is where David walked and Solomon walked,” says Tzi Goldwag, a settler who works as a guide on the site. Goldwag believes that the City of David must remain in Israeli hands: “It’s like the Western Wall – it’s a symbol, a part of our history, and no normal people would give up the cradle of their history.”

El-Ad also supports other settler organisations which are trying to increase the Israeli presence in Palestinian areas of inner Jerusalem, such as Sheikh Jarrah, in an attempt to encircle the Old City. Meanwhile, the Israeli ministry of housing and construction is developing three further Jewish neighbourhoods with the aim of driving a wedge between East Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

The new prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, and his ultra-nationalist foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, are also said to have agreed a plan for 3,000 homes in the area known as E1, the last patch of open land between East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

In the conventional formulation, the question of what will happen to Jerusalem is a “final-status issue”, to be resolved once the outline of a peace agreement has been achieved. However, groups such as El-Ad are already shaping the debate about the city’s future in decisive ways: as a member of its administration told a Haaretz journalist in 2006, El-Ad wants to “create an irreversible situation in the holy basin around the Old City”, excluding the possibility that it might one day become part of an independent Palestinian state. Already, its website claims that the area is now a “thriving Jewish community”, as if the vast majority of its population did not exist. “It’s like there’s no one living here,” observes Jawad Siyam, a local community organiser. “In Silwan, 300 settlers are more important than 40,000 Palestinians.”

The most important weapon in El-Ad’s pursuit of the “residential revitalisation” of Silwan has been a piece of legislation called the Absentee Property Act (APA). Originally passed in 1950, it states that the property of anyone who lived outside the borders of Israel during the Arab-Israeli War of 1948-49 would pass to the Israeli Custodian for Absentee Property, without compensation. It was designed to allow the kibbutzim to cultivate land in Palestinian villages abandoned or destroyed in the fighting, and to prevent refugees from reclaiming land in the new state of Israel. The law was extended to East Jerusalem after the Six Day War, though it wasn’t applied until the early 1990s, when the housing department was being run by Ariel Sharon. In 1991, all the Palestinian holdings that met the provisions of the APA were transferred to the Jewish National Fund (JNF). Shortly thereafter, the JNF leased all the land in its possession in Silwan to El-Ad, without offering it to tender as it normally would.

An official board of inquiry concluded that Sharon’s policies in East Jerusalem were “tainted by systematic and blatant illegality”. El-Ad insists it wasn’t criticised in the ruling, though many locals attest to the tricks the organisation has employed to acquire property.

Refusing to sell their houses is one of the few ways the local population can resist El-Ad’s influence, although not everyone observes the unofficial ban. In 2006, two brothers from the Abu al-Hawa family sold El-Ad a house in At-Tur, a village above the Mount of Olives, facing the Temple Mount, for $925,000; one of them was later murdered in Jordan.

Jawad Siyam’s brother Nihad denies that those who choose to accept El-Ad’s money are threatened with violence, but he does admit that they are ostracised and most end up leaving the village.

Jawad and Nihad grew up under the Israeli occupation. As children, they felt they had “room to live”, but now, they say, the settlers control every aspect of life in the village. They are even changing the name of the road that runs from the walls of the Old City past the entrance to the City of David: the Palestinians call it Wadi Hilweh Street, but to the settlers it is Maalot Ir David, or King David’s Ascent. Throughout the winter, the brothers were part of a small group of Palestinian men who sat on plastic chairs halfway down Wadi Hilweh Street, beneath a banner that said, “Occupation by Construction”. They were protesting against a plan to re-pave the road, re-lay sewage and water pipes, and build parking lots, on the grounds that it was being done without their consent, and that it placed the interests of tourists above those of residents. In March, the district court upheld their request to delay the work.

The previous month, residents in Silwan had noticed that the main road had begun to subside and cracks had begun to appear in the walls of their houses. They discovered that El-Ad had subcontracted the Israeli Antiquities Association to excavate a tunnel that runs from the walls of the Old City to the Valley of Kidron. Daniel Seidemann of Ir Amim, an Israeli organisation that campaigns for a “stable and equitable” Jerusalem, believes that the settlers aim to connect it with the Hasmonean Tunnel beneath the Temple Mount, and another section of tunnel in the north of the Old City: “They want to be able to enter the Old City near Damascus Gate, traverse it without encountering a single Palestinian, emerge at the Western Wall, saunter across the plaza, re-enter the burrow and exit at Silwan.”

El-Ad’s interest in archaeology began by accident in 1995, when it was planning to build a new visitor centre above the Gihon Spring. A “salvage excavation” was required, to establish the site’s archaeological potential. It was expected to last a couple of weeks, but archaeologists discovered the remains of a Bronze Age compound; the work is still going on today. Since then, El-Ad has spent millions of dollars on archaeology, and the excavations it has funded have added to knowledge of the area. Yet there remains great unease about its pedigree as a curator of antiquities. In 1994, for example, a writ was issued against it for “knowingly damaging antiquities”.

For the past two years, El-Ad has been funding a major excavation in the Givati parking lot, opposite the gates of the City of David. In November 2008, Peace Now and the residents of Silwan claimed that the work was being done without proper permits, and accused El-Ad of sinking foundations for a building housing an events hall, commercial centre, motel and parking lot. Raphael Greenberg, an academic who runs a group called Alternative Archaeology, says El-Ad has a “vested interest in the site – they live here, and they combine archaeology and construction”. Architecture, he argues, has become just another way of dispossessing the marginalised inhabitants of Silwan. Jawad Siyam agrees: “We know that this area is full of history. We’re supposed to be proud of it, but, we’re afraid of it, because it’s used against us. The stones are more important than human beings.”

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the suburb of Bustan – a densely packed collection of favela-style buildings clustering in the bottom of the Valley of Kidron. Black water towers stand sentry on every roof and spidery power lines run through the pageantry of laundry hung out to dry in the sunshine. Spots of bright purple bougainvillea are interspersed among the satellite dishes. There are no pavements on the narrow streets, and children play on the rubble-strewn patches of empty land between houses. Greenberg says the area is of no interest to archaeologists, yet the municipality wants to clear the houses to make way for an “archaeological park” called the Valley of the Garden of the Kings. “They say King David had a park here 3,000 years ago,” says Fakhri Abu Diab, chair of the local residents’ association. “But if he was here then, what about us now?”

Abu Diab says the residents of Bustan have nowhere else to go, and if his story is typical, it is hardly surprising that their houses have spread to fill the bottom of the valley. He was born in 1964, one of nine children, each of whom had at least five children of his or her own, and by the time he decided to build his own house, his extended family numbered 65 people. He is an accountant, and he took an evening job at a restaurant and worked for six years to save the money for his house. It cost $350,000, and it stands on the edge of a patch of wasteland.

Two years ago, the municipality threatened to demolish all the houses, and Abu Diab’s committee led a campaign to save them. “We went to the court and the diplomats, we wrote to the UN, and we told the municipality that we won’t leave our houses – I said, ‘I’m not going to make my wife and children sleep in the street: if you want to demolish it, you’ll demolish it with us inside it.’” International pressure delayed clearance of the suburb, but on 5 November last year, the municipality demolished two houses, provoking protests that the police and army quelled with tear gas and live ammunition.

One of those two houses used to stand on the corner of the empty plot in front of Abu Diab’s house, and as we surveyed the wreckage late one Sunday evening, we heard one of his friends calling us from the houses that rise up the hillside on the far side of the valley. We went to meet him, almost getting lost in a dense network of alleys along the way.

Taweel Walid – a small man with neatly brushed dark hair, dressed in a dark blue coat – was sitting on the sofa, hands folded in his lap. For 27 years he had lived in Bustan in a house he had helped his father build. Three weeks earlier, he had hired a bulldozer and a sledgehammer and reduced it to rubble – if he hadn’t, the municipality would have done it for him and charged him 60,000 shekels (£9,500) for the privilege.

The physical and mental consequences have been severe. Walid produced a doctor’s report detailing a range of post-traumatic symptoms, as well as a long list of pills prescribed to address them. “He doesn’t feel good,” Abu Diab said, unnecessarily. “He has problems with his heart.”

“Self-demolition”, as it is known, saves the municipality time and money and allows it to omit a house from the list of properties it has demolished. The subterfuge is only partly successful; when Walid’s six-year-old son appeared from the family’s private room, Abu Diab asked him who had demolished his home. His answer did not need translating: “Yehudi.”

In March this year, the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, visited Israel, and criticised Israeli demolitions of Palestinian homes in Silwan: “Clearly this kind of activity is unhelpful,” she said. The mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat, responded by saying that the houses had been built illegally. Barkat was elected mayor last November, succeeding the Ultra-Orthodox Uli Lupolianski, who had been in office for the previous

five years. None of Israel’s major political parties put up a candidate – Jerusalem is increasingly poor, and the city’s large Ultra-Orthodox population, many of whom do not work, is an unattractive proposition for most politicians. Barkat, who is a millionaire businessmen and secular, won’t pander to Ultra-Orthodox Jews as Lupolianski did, but his policies will appeal to the religious right in at least one respect: like Bibi Netan­yahu, who was meeting President Barack Obama in Jerusalem this past week, he opposes dividing the city as part of any peace agreement with the Palestinians, and has promised to build extensively in occupied East Jerusalem.

Most Palestinians boycotted the election, because they believe that voting would constitute de facto recognition of Israel’s sovereignity over the whole city, and on the day Barkat assumed office, Abu Diab organised a protest outside City Hall. The intention was to start at 11am, but when I arrived there was no one there – the municipality was demolishing another house in Silwan and the local community leaders had gathered at the site, on a road parallel to Wadi Hilweh. The police and army had sealed all approaches to the house, but Jawad Siyam and some of the family members were watching the demolition from the far side of the valley on a side road that led to the gates of an Orthodox monastery.

The head of the family, Uraby Ismail Shqer, aged 64, had lived in the house for 55 years. He shared the top floor with his wife, two of his children, and his 84-year-old mother, who had been taken to hospital when the police arrived at 8.30 in the morning. Another 17 members of the family lived on the floors below. His father had built the house, and he said they would not leave. If the house was destroyed, they would put up a tent and live on the land outside.

According to Jimmy Johnson of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, who was also in the small crowd, most of the houses built in East Jerusalem in the past 42 years are likely to be in contravention of planning and zoning laws, and approximately 10,000 of them have been issued with demolition orders. The municipality demolishes 150 a year, and there is no way of knowing when a crew might arrive. The police had looked at the house the previous night, but they hadn’t warned the family that they planned to return. Johnson called it a “half-assed operation”, designed to derail the demonstration and remind the citizens of Silwan where power lies. It certainly didn’t seem very well planned. A red truck with a cherry-picker platform was parked on the narrow road beneath a house built into the steep face of the hill, and a group of men was at work on the top floor, demolishing its concrete walls with hammers and hand tools. Showers of rubble poured off the roof, clattered on the red hood of the truck and tumbled down the hillside, joining the screes of stones and litter running between the olive trees.

Later, I walked back to the Old City. Looking up at Silwan from the bottom of Wadi Hilweh Street, I could see the satellite dishes and black water towers on the roofs of Palestinian houses, and the Israeli flags flying above the newly refurbished settlements. As I climbed the cobbled street towards the Meyuhas house where Tzi Goldwag lives, the whine of a reversing car rose from the floor of the valley. A Palestinian labourer was working on the semi-circular patio in the newly planted garden at the back of another renovated house, and there were signs pointing to the Pool of Shiloach, and CCTV cameras monitoring the street. The armed guard sitting on the roof of Tzi Goldwag’s house was further proof that I had entered settler territory.

The contrast with the dirt and congestion in the valley below was marked, but the residents of Bustan remain surprisingly resilient. On my first evening there, I had met another of Abu Diab’s homeless neighbours. Abu Samed Said was a straight-backed great-grandfather, dressed in a green jacket and grey trousers. His dress and bearing were those of a retired British colonel, and his attitude emulated the mythical forbearance of his country’s colonial governors. He had built a house on land fifty yards away from Abu Diab’s, and the municipality had demolished it in 1994. He rebuilt it, and the municipality demolished it again in 2003. A month ago, it had been demolished a third time, but Abu Samed was planning to build again as soon as he could raise the money.

Rebuilding the house was not just a practical necessity, but also a kind of spiritual observance from which he drew a paradoxical affirmation: “When they destroy your house one time and you sleep, God will send you to the fire. But build one time, and another time, and he will always help you.” l

Edward Platt is a contributing writer of the New Statesman. Two of his pieces for the NS on the Israel-Palestine conflict are in the shortlist for this year’s Amnesty International Media Awards. For an archive go to: www.newstatesman.com

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