No laughing matter


A more cynical person would wonder at Lenny Henry scuttling to sanctuary at the Priory just as he airs his debut in serious drama. Maritally sorted comic becomes actor wrestling with demons, as if celebrity career development had to be accompanied by life changes for the rebranding to be completely successful. Or perhaps I'm just lost in the vaporous matrix where reality tickles fiction under the chin and art finally melts into gossip.

Henry has in any case been chummy rather than actually funny for some time, with his reassuringly pinchable apple cheeks and goofy smile. When we first see him as the head teacher Ian George in Hope and Glory (BBC1, Tuesdays), he's hiding in the loo before addressing a conference, but the programme soon recovers from this attack of the cutes. Despite his nicotine habit and torpid private life, George is the head's head, dynamic and inspirational. He's sent to inspect the lamentably failing, bitterly named Hope School, and here an understated Henry shines. An elegiac piano drops limpid tears as he wanders through a seething mass of lippy kids and querulous teachers, shabby corridors and spiralling staircases, as silent and blankly compassionate as the recording angels in Wings of Desire. Although the plushly swagged corridors of power beckon, George cannot resist these unregarded marks of woe and abandons Elysian advancement to take up the standard of shabby humanity as the new head of Hope.

As the title suggests, Lucy Gannon's is a state-of-Britain series, an inquiry into how the mother of the free treats her children. New Labour may sound the mantra of "education, education, education", but Gannon is not in the extolling business. Indignation sharpens her characters and sorrow rounds them in the Dickensian manner. Her bold girls with plenty of chat and lost boys in bluebottle specs pine for want of encouragement; the departing head teacher screams contemptuous farewells like a curse: "You've come from the gutter and the gutter's where you're happiest! Jail fodder! Guttersnipes! Dole cheats!"

The music room at Hope School is a sepulchre to blighted potential, a mausoleum where aspiration is interred. A phantom orchestra of Lottery-funded instruments sits silent under plastic, their strings stilled, their tongues tied because no music teacher will venture into the benighted school. Before long, you suspect, sweet harmony will rise from the discordant education black spot. Already the series sides with musical distinction. Instead of second-guessing youthful tunes and getting it cringeingly wrong, Hope and Glory goes classical, mostly Mozart. The overture from Le Nozze di Figaro accompanies the opening shots: like the irrepressible Figaro, George is amusing but also a beacon of democracy, willing to buck if not transform the system. As he sits at his laptop, mulling over a report condemning Hope to the scrap heap, we hear "Voi che sapete", Cherubino's aria of nascent adoration. Cherubino is the coltish page in Figaro, truffling through puberty: this is the voice of adolescence, but adolescence made strange, beautiful and exceptional.

Big Bad World (ITV, Sundays) has a different soundscape - roll over Mozart and send in the Swanee whistle, which cuckoos through the credits and alerts us to cuddly quirkiness. Like Henry, Ardal O'Hanlon goes straight, after playing wide-eyed and gormless Dougal, the millstone round Father Ted's neck. Trying to broaden his persona as adorable but hapless, O'Hanlon assays a character himself burdened by adorable haplessness. Despite Eamon's button-eyed charm, the women he flirts with forget him by the next phone call and his pals humorously despair of getting shot of him.

The series buckles under prime-time duties. Bright set, dim jokes, pastel script. Characters wheedle their tots into good schools, deal with office politics and batty parents, but merely squash their noses against reality. Only their Catholicism complicates the mix. O'Hanlon's Father Dougal had an endearingly confused relationship to his religion ("God, I've heard about those cults, Ted. People dressing up in black and saying Our Lord's going to come back and save us all") but as Eamon his views are more defined: "The Catholic church is pure evil. It's as simple as that." If, as Cardinal Hume's obituarists suggest, his achievement was to nudge British Catholicism from pariah status towards the unremarkable, the subdued nag of assimilation is worth exploring. Future episodes may dabble their fingers in identity politics or merely provide some farcical by-play with communion wafers.

Giddy as a mountain goat, the first episode springs on to a higher plain of implausibility when the chums conspire to put a smile on Eamon's moping todger. He is packed off to a high-class hooker, played by the luminous Lithuanian film star (Burnt by the Sun) Ingeborga Dapkunaite. Like most sex workers, she is all heart and no cellulite, with radiant charm and conscience, a credit to any dinner party. Falling for Eamon, she ushers him from working boudoir to her real bedroom, which is crammed with books, so she's clearly as reflective as she is dazzling. She makes most wet dreams look like documentaries. Sadly the relationship founders on Eamon's unquenchable chivalry. O'Hanlon remains a loveable schmuck, and only fleeting moments when his bitterness looms into the camera suggest that he's rattling the bars.

Andrew Billen is away

This article first appeared in the 28 June 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Buy your home and kill a job

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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.