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How Blackpool became a “dumping ground” for the socially excluded

Beyond the fun of Blackpool Tower and Pleasure Beach is one of England's most deprived communities.

Photo: Felix Clay/Eyevine/Redux

By late autumn, only the shop signs along Blackpool’s tired seafront are defiantly cheerful, with their promises of “family amusements” and “happy dayz” of discount rock and cheap cabaret. Every year on 10 November, Blackpool’s nightly illuminations are switched off, marking the end of the holiday season, and around 2,500 people become unemployed overnight. Cheap air travel has been slowly killing the local tourism trade for decades but no one has come up with an alternative to halt the town’s decline. 

Two hundred metres inland from the promenade, pebble-dash terraces that were once guest houses and B&Bs have been converted into bedsits renting for around £65 a week and attracting a new kind of visitor. Blackpool has become a town where “you can turn up with a bin bag and £150, and you can get a flat,” says Simon Blackburn, leader of Blackpool Council. 

We meet in his office in Bay House, a shelter for homeless young people at the end of a street full of run-down bedsits. Here in South Shore, a two-bedroom house is currently on sale for £40,000. Low property prices and fond memories of childhood holidays do attract newcomers, but, says Blackburn, “one of the main reasons someone comes here is because something’s gone wrong in their life”. He describes how he himself turned up in Blackpool well over a decade ago with just a sports bag and £170. 

He was lucky. He first found a job working on Blackpool Pleasure Beach and a year later enrolled at the University of Central Lancashire, before eventually training as a social worker. As well as heading up Blackpool Council, he manages the Bay House shelter. “I earn 50k and that makes me a Blackpool millionaire,” he says, as Bentley, his eightweek-old puppy, attacks my shoelaces. 

In a report released earlier this year, the Centre for Social Justice described British seaside towns such as Blackpool as “dumping grounds for people facing problems such as unemployment, social exclusion and substance abuse”. Few new arrivals can expect to find a job and the town’s cheap rental market makes it easy for residents to slip between the cracks of public health and child protection programmes. 

“When the social worker or school nurse comes, or the health visitor starts being persistent and begins wanting to see your child, you can move a few streets away, with another 150 quid and another bin bag, and get another flat, and then another. We end up chasing people,” Blackburn tells me. He says he wanted to meet at Bay House, rather than in the rather grand town hall, so that I can see at first hand the social problems this is creating. He leads me out of his office to meet some of the hostel’s residents.

“Everyone who comes here, all they see is the prom but as soon as you come one street in, you see this,” says Hayden gesturing vaguely at Bay House’s common room and the deserted street outside. Hayden, who is 18, moved into the shelter a year ago after his father tried to kill him. His parents had moved to Blackpool from Birmingham several years earlier to evade child protection officers who wanted to place him in care. 

Hayden’s fiancée, Clare, whom he met at Bay House, also arrived at the shelter after fleeing violence at home. Together, they are trying to rebuild their lives but it’s a permanent struggle. Clare’s benefits have been cut because of a bureaucratic slip-up at her local further education college; they are living off a joint budget of £58 a week while they grapple with the paperwork. Both are enrolled in education and hoping for work but if they accept a job at minimum wage, with limited hours – the best they can wish for – their housing benefit will be cut and they will have to leave Bay House. “You just want to curl up in a ball and cry, because you feel like you’re in a never-ending circle,” Clare says. 

Even harder than the daily grind of poverty is the everyday violence. “After 8pm, I don’t even dare walk to the end of the road,” Clare says. A few weeks ago she was held at knifepoint after men broke into her bedroom. On another occasion, a friend came into her room threatening to slit his girlfriend’s throat. “We thought he was just high and taking the mick, but we found out two weeks’ later that he actually did it.” One of the residents of Bay House was murdered at the end of the street last year and, five minutes’ walk away, Clare’s childhood friend Sasha Marsden was stabbed 58 times and set on fire in January 2013 by a local barman, David Minto. Minto had arranged a meeting with Sasha under the false pretence of offering her part-time work. In July he was sentenced to a minimum of 35 years in jail.

When I ask Hayden how often he’s felt that his life was at risk, he splutters at the stupidity of the question. “I honestly can’t answer that. You know if you’re someone who’s from a nice home and everything, and you are like, ‘Oh this happened once’ or ‘These two situations’? For me, every single day there’s the potential of me losing my life.”  

Rates of violent crime, sexual assault and domestic violence in Blackpool exceed national averages, in part because of the high rates of drug and alcohol abuse in the city: Blackpool has the highest number of alcohol-related deaths and the second highest incidence of opiate and crack cocaine use in Britain. Hayden and Clare’s parents were addicted to drugs, which Clare believes is a symptom of the lack of work or hope that affects Blackpool’s most deprived communities. She says her mother’s neighbours “are all involved in drink and drugs. Because they are on benefits and don’t have anything else to do all day.” 

Substance abuse and high rates of mental illness – Blackpool has the country’s highest male suicide rate – have in turn contributed to the worst levels of family breakdown in the country. One in 67 children in Blackpool is in care, the highest in England. 

Blackpool Council is trying to tackle these urgent welfare needs while also aggressively having to cut its budget. By the next election, its budget will be half what it was in 2009/10. “The one and only advantage of what the government is doing to us, which quite frankly is fucking us over, is that they are not being prescriptive,” Blackburn says. His council is taking advantage of this freedom with a bold change of tack. It is calculating that overhauling Blackpool’s housing stock will have a knock-on effect on individual wellbeing, public health, unemployment and anti-social behaviour – in Blackburn’s words, “You have to drain the swamp within which the problem exists” – and so the council is focusing its limited resources on property.

The five council-run tower blocks in the deprived Queen’s Park estate are being pulled down – two have been demolished this year – and will be replaced by 198 family homes and apartments in low-rise buildings. Across Blackpool, council housing is being repurposed so that one-bed flats are converted to family properties. And, in March 2012, a selective licensing scheme came into effect in the South Shore area. Under the scheme, all landlords in the area have to apply for a licence, which costs £670 per house, flat or bedsit, with additional fees applied to houses in multiple occupation (HMOs) – usually ex-guest houses converted into five or more bedsits. Licensed landlords all have to agree to certain standards on property management. The scheme is self-financing. Proceeds from licences are used to fund a housing enforcement team and a transience team, who can refer tenants on to social services and public health providers.

Councillor Gillian Campbell is responsible for the selective licensing scheme and often accompanies housing enforcement officers on their visits. “Some of the places we’ve come across have been absolutely awful. You wouldn’t let a rat live in them. It’s been disgusting and quite heartbreaking as well, because some people are used to it, they don’t think they deserve better,” she tells me. Some of the houses she’s visited have had no heating or warm water, or indeed no plumbing or water at all. The team has seen collapsed ceilings, dangerous damp, exposed wiring and people living with dead and decomposing animals. 

At one point, after carefully checking whether I’ve eaten, Campbell whips out a photo of a corner bath filled to the rim with urine, faeces and loo roll. She tells me that a week ago she visited a flat where an elderly man had for years been using a cupboard in the hall as a toilet. Although the council is paying for a carer, no carer has been visiting him. However, the landlady does come each week to collect the rent, despite a smell so strong “it hurts your eyes”. Campbell says that when she confronted her, the landlady argued that “it’s up to him how he chooses to live”. 

Some landlords are “making their money off human suffering and misery, and we won’t tolerate that any longer”, says Campbell, who at points in our conversation appears close to tears. Having herself struggled with mental health problems as a single mother living in a noisy, dangerous Edinburgh tower block, she says she’s painfully aware of how bad housing can affect people. She’s optimistic, however, that the scheme, which now covers 1,800 properties, is making a difference: “The residents are happy, the businesses are happy, the place feels almost cleaner and a bit brighter.” 

But not everyone is convinced by the benefits of selective licensing, not least private landlords. Paul Bander is a board member of the Fylde Coast Landlords Forum, and owns a dozen properties in Blackpool. He says that forcing landlords to pay for licences is “heavy handed” and a “fee-grabbing exercise” for the council (the council insists that all of the money raised is recycled back into the scheme). “The vast majority of landlords are nice, law-abiding citizens; we pay our taxes and we provide a very useful social need because the public sector doesn’t provide enough housing,” he adds. He argues it’s not landlords’ fault when their tenants trash their properties. “The council loves blaming landlords, when the reality is they haven’t invested in Blackpool for the past 10-15 years,” he says. Both parties would agree that the relationship between landlords and the council is strained at best. 

At Streetlife, a homeless shelter providing emergency short-term accommodation to young people, its chief executive Jane Hugo also voices concerns about the council. By demolishing one-bedroom flats in high-rises and clamping down on dishevelled bedsits, the council is reducing the amount of housing available to young people. Under-35s receive a lower level of housing benefit, and are more likely to be living on their own, so they cannot afford higher-quality properties. She believes that cracking down on sub-standard rental properties is a good thing, but alternative accommodation for young people forced to rent at the bottom of the market isn’t being found fast enough.

At the same time, an amendment to council rules is creating extra pressures for young people in desperate need of accommodation. Since September, those seeking to access housing services have to prove that they have lived in the city for at least three years. For young people who have spent time sleeping on friends’ sofas, or moving from flat to flat and working cash in hand, providing the necessary evidence can be difficult. And while young people are trying to gather the paperwork they need, Streetlife is not allowed to house them. Unless the council changes its rules, Streetlife will no longer be financially viable: Hugo says her charity needs 75 per cent occupancy to survive but since September they have struggled to fill half the beds each night. 

At Streetlife I meet Connor, a 24-year-old who had dropped in to the centre for some subsidised egg on toast. He had been sleeping on a friend’s sofa for the past few nights but a week earlier he’d slept on the pavement just outside the homeless shelter, knowing there were empty beds inside. “I curled up in a ball under a blanket. I even put my head underneath, just to stay warm,” he says. 

Connor was placed in care in Blackpool when he was 12, and stayed there until he was 18. Six years ago, he moved in with his girlfriend in Thornton, a few miles from Blackpool. In the past four months, his mother died, his girlfriend suffered a miscarriage and then they split up. He is heartbroken – “She was my soulmate,” he says – but his more immediate concern is whether he’ll have to sleep rough again tonight. When I leave him he’s preparing to call up the council to see if they’ve come to any decision about his case or if he’ll sleep out in the cold. “We support the idea of a local connection, we can’t help everybody, but we would prefer it if people are treated with a little bit more dignity and compassion,” says Hugo, who is now lobbying for the council to change its laws. “The doors are being slammed everywhere young people turn.” 

Even if Blackpool is able to regenerate its housing stock and if this leads to improvements in the city’s poor health and high levels of social breakdown, this will take years to make a difference. For young people, hardest hit by Blackpool’s social and economic decline, this is little consolation. 

“A lot of this is about hope . . . Kids in here [Bay House], how do you tell them not to smoke, or to get up and go to college?” says Simon Blackburn at one point during our conversation. He says it’s difficult to keep them optimistic about the future when the best they can hope for is “a seasonal job in McDonald’s or on the Pleasure Beach”. It’s also about young people’s horizons; and their sense of belonging to their town when they are socially and economically excluded. Blackburn tells the story of how this summer, some of the women at Bay House had laid out towels in the grit and the oil outside the neighbouring garage to sunbathe. He had to persuade them to walk the few hundred metres to sunbathe on the beach – the possibility hadn’t occurred to them. 

Hayden and Clare are teenagers yet they sound resigned to being part of a lost generation; their ambitions are centred on bringing up children with better life chances than they ever had. Once they have completed their movingly modest “five-step plan”, which culminates in buying a flat, Clare wants to become a mother and foster parent, to help children like themselves who “never got any love or attention”. 

“I want to give them a good life, where they have clothes and don’t have to worry about when they will be fed, and I want to help them with their homework or if they want to go to university,” she says. And for her, that means one thing. “I want out of Blackpool.”

Sophie McBain is a New Statesman staff writer. Some names have been changed to protect identities.

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

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