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Fishing with dynamite: the big competition myth

Is it time to relinquish fantasies of winning in exchange for the greater prize of shared progress?

Illustration by Sonia Roy/Colagene.com

The cure for banks? Ed Miliband advocates more competition. Need to improve education? Nick Clegg urges more competition between students, between teachers, between schools. The solution to fuel poverty? David Cameron places his faith in competition between the energy companies. From TV talent contests and school rankings to the Olympics and rich lists, our religious faith in competition has promised fabulous efficiencies, miraculous economies and dazzling innovation. Instead we find ourselves gasping for air in a sea of corruption, dysfunction, environmental degradation, waste and inequality. Might there be a connection?

When I interviewed bankers for my 2011 book Wilful Blindness, the brutal pragmatism of a competitive industry was spelled out. “Sub-prime was about ripping off poor people,” one told me. “But we have to employ a sales force. And there was no way we could hire, let alone retain a single good salesperson without letting them sell these high-commission products.

“What were we supposed to do? Sit on our principles and watch as every salesperson walked out the door?”

The financial crisis proved so catastrophic because so many were selling the same toxic products. Classic economic theory may argue that competition is productive because it generates a diverse range of goods and services that benefit consumers and, by extension, society – but in this instance (and many others) it signally failed to do so. Belief in the theory underpins Cameron’s and Miliband’s touching faith that competition, and being more easily able to switch between banks or energy providers, will somehow liberate consumers from price-gouging. In fact, it seems more likely that it will just encourage companies to copy each other’s dodgy innovations at a faster rate. Competition frequently fails to deliver its theoretical promises. Intense competition inside and between institutions generates dysfunction, corruption, waste and the unwinding of the social fabric.

In organisations, competition for permanent jobs, bonuses and promotions can erode trust. Many companies formalise this through forced ranking, a system in which employees are assessed and rewarded for their position within a standard distribution. The top 10 per cent are winners, the bottom 10 are losers and are encouraged to move out, and those in the middle are (at least temporarily) safe. At Enron, this was known as “rank and yank”, at Intel “Focal” and at Microsoft “stack ranking”. The system is a crude form of social Darwinism, inspired by the hope that a need to survive will promote great work. In fact, it has just the opposite effect: people sabotage each other, appearing to be courteous while keeping back just enough information so that colleague-competitors can’t excel. Pleasers and politicians thrive, gaming a system that no one takes responsibility for; if you’re a winner, the system works for you – and if you’re a loser, it’s not your problem. Microsoft recently announced that it was abandoning the system but most large corporations still use it, and then wonder at their inability to innovate.

Competition can’t deliver the creativity these managers need because it specifically disables collaboration. If I’m being judged in comparison with my peers, why would I help them? That these executives are the products of competitive education systems only exacerbates the problem: they bring with them a lifetime of being trained to compete for class rankings, prizes and places. In the United States, where class rankings are still common, parents advise their children not to help one another, on the grounds that doing so may jeopardise their winning the top spot. Here in the UK, primary school teachers observe “competitive friending”: parents’ attempts to ensure that their kids make the right friends to enable acceptance in the right social networks.

In both the UK and the US, the emphasis on competition and ranking encapsulates the same message: everyone is a rival. This does little to teach the subtle habits of collaboration but much to focus any child’s mind on results. If grades are all that matters at school does it matter how you get them? The past decade has brought an explosion in cheating, plagiarism and the use of drugs to enhance exam performance. At the Institute for Global Ethics, the late Rushworth Kidder estimated that, by the time they reached college, 75 per cent of students had cheated – which is why many universities now run students’ essays through Turnitin software to check that they haven’t been copied or stolen.

In the world of science, a well-honed competitive mindset has produced what many leading researchers are calling a crisis: a culture in which the open exchange of ideas, data and theories has all but stopped. Crick and Watson may have considered themselves to be in a race – but their success hinged on the shared insights, data and debates of colleagues. They would find today’s labs very different: in 1966, 50 per cent of scientists said they felt safe talking about their research, but by 1998 that number had fallen to just 14. Science is a necessarily accretive process but from Harvard and Washington to London and Berlin, ambitious scientists wanting to be superstars share with no one. Rivalry and the fear of being scooped stop them from pitching in.

Progress for a scientist is measured in publications, citations and research awards – and as the competition for both has increased, so have fraud, plagiarism and what scientists call “normal misbehaviour”: secrecy, sabotage, data slicing and culling. At the University of Washington, Ferric Fang has grown particularly concerned about the increasing numbers of scientific papers that have to be retracted because they are rushed into print too fast, with inaccurate, incomplete or fabricated data. The number of articles published in the past decade has increased just 44 per cent but retractions of scientific papers have increased tenfold – and most scientists believe this represents the tip of the iceberg.

The cost of this is inestimable; flawed papers lead researchers down dead ends and deflect others from promising avenues. The fraud of the prize-winning physicist Jan Hendrik Schön (who falsely claimed spectacular advances in the field of nanotechnology between 2000 and 2002) cost numerous scientists years of fruitless work and wasted resources.

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The tournament that is modern science has produced what scientists call “the Matthew effect”, according to which the well-funded scientists (winners) get more funding and those with little (losers) get less. This might be a great way to run a game show but it is an especially poor way of promoting discoveries because picking winners is so difficult. The history of science is replete with cases of stunning breakthroughs made by the least likely of people, from the Augustinian monk Gregor Mendel to the “surfer pothead” Kary Mullis, whose invention of the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) transformed the science of genetics.

The costs of competition in business are sometimes obvious – fraud, corruption, sabotage – but many are more oblique. The measure of a company’s success (or the status of its CEO) is size, and the pursuit of growth is routinely pursued with high-risk strategies whose true cost may be apparent only years later. This is what the legal scholar Lynn Stout calls “fishing with dynamite”.

The quickest way to grow a company is through mergers and acquisitions, an old headline-grabbing favourite of high-profile CEOs even though research shows a failure rate of anywhere between 40 and 80 per cent. Under John Browne, BP grew fast by buying Amoco in 1998, Atlantic Richfield in 1999 and Burmah Castrol in 2000. Theoretically this should have generated economies of scale but it created debt, which ushered in an era of cost-cutting.

Similarly, the quest to make RBS the world’s biggest bank left it with the biggest loss in British corporate history and, in 2012, with a balance sheet the size of the UK’s economic output. Many working at RBS sensed that the acquisition of the Dutch bank ABN Amro in 2007 was driven by Fred Goodwin’s desire to pull off the biggest deal in banking. The quest for scale delivers not just huge risk, but also vast complexity. Supersizing companies always comes at a cost because competitive instincts don’t stop until they fail. To this day, RBS is in a tangle that people working there don’t believe they can fix.

Competition for market share is typically pursued by lowering prices. This race to the bottom might look great to consumers – dresses for £5, cashmere jumpers for £40 – but the costs have to go somewhere and usually they are pushed down to the most vulnerable. We may imagine this is a relatively new phenomenon but it isn’t. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York in 1911 (146 deaths) was echoed a century later by the collapse in 2013 of the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh (which made clothing for brands such as Matalan, Primark and Walmart), in which 1,129 died.

Globalisation didn’t invent the race to the bottom but firms such as Li & Fung accelerate it. Acting as a broker between low-wage factories and the companies that use them, Li & Fung’s “Little John Waynes” scour the world from Vietnam to Bangladesh to sub-Saharan Africa in search of ever cheaper labour. This is no small business – in 2012 Li & Fung earned $20bn – and, in theory, the brokers monitor working conditions. But its suppliers have had several disasters, including a factory fire that killed over a hundred workers.

Whether you’re making clothes, fast food or cheap books, competing purely on price drives down labour costs, producing a casualised workforce whose greater needs are either ignored or met by the state: a form of corporate subsidy that companies rarely acknowledge but happily accept.

The true costs exacted by a harshly competitive culture can be seen in the flood plains of North Carolina, the epicentre of the global meat industry. It isn’t just the ten million hogs (concentrating in just one state waste equivalent to that produced by the entire human population of Canada) which make this region remarkable. Rapid consolidation of family farms threw people off the land with nowhere to go. Industrialisation didn’t bring in money or create jobs but left the predominantly African-American families living off food stamps, stranded in a wasteland dotted with lagoons of animal excrement, afraid to protest the high levels of ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, acetic and butyric acids emanating from the facilities.

As large meat conglomerates moved into eastern Europe, a tradition of silence made consolidation easy: within ten years, 600,000 hog farms in Poland and 90 per cent of Romania’s independent farms had vanished. Horse meat is a sideshow, compared to the damage done to the social fabric of such places.

Economists may call these “perverse outcomes” but they are the predictable outcomes of competition. If we place our faith in it, we shouldn’t be surprised by such antisocial effects. After all, if my win is secured at the cost of your failure, what connects us? In a society that believes in winner-takes-all, how can competition fail to generate increasing levels of inequality?

Competition enlivens routine with drama, but when the stakes are high, so are the costs. The ubiquitous metaphor of our age – sport – demonstrates how destructive competition is, when it comes to playing for the big prizes and huge rewards that professional athletes now pursue. Travis Tygart, the head of the US Anti-Doping Agency, and the man famed for bringing down Lance Armstrong, has long agonised over the increasing rates of doping and corruption that characterise elite sport. His research showed him that although people still valued sport for the lessons of fair play, collaboration, integrity and discipline it could teach, in reality they believed that all that really mattered was winning. “In a climate in which corporate executives fabricate financial records, citizens evade taxes, professional athletes commit felonies . . . cheating and unethical behaviour appear to pay off,” Tygart’s research concluded. “Is our nation well served by a citizenry that learns to prize winning and extrinsic rewards at any cost as the values held most dear?”

It’s a recurring question. How can we create schools, companies and communities characterised less by competition and driven instead by an intrinsic passion for innovation, problem-solving and collaboration? Crowdsourcing companies – Kickstarter, Airbnb, SnapGoods, RelayRides, TechShop and many more – start from the premise that it is pooling, not hoarding resources, that creates opportunity. These businesses are typically celebrated for their technology, but their true daring resides in their reliance on the human desire to work together.

More conventional businesses such as W L Gore and Arup have proved successful and resilient because they focus intently on building social capital – trust, reciprocity and shared values – both within the company and with all the other businesses they work with. This isn’t marginal; it is central to everything they do. W L Gore is known for producing Gore-tex but should be more famous for the way it runs its business; you succeed at Gore because people want to work with you, not because you’ve bested them in a contest.

The structural engineers at Arup have been able to build some of the most challenging structures in the world – the Bird’s Nest stadium in Beijing and the ArcelorMittal Orbit – because the firm nurtures a work environment in which people eagerly share expertise and where hierarchy and status contests are of negligible importance. That these companies are also owned by their employees isn’t the single driver of collaboration but consistent with a mindset that sees shared respect and commitment as the necessary conditions for progress.

The Business Secretary, Vince Cable, and others have been keen to champion employee ownership structures as making a difference to the way companies behave. They are right to do so but wrong to think ownership alone will immunise companies against the ills that competitiveness spreads. We have seen the Co-op mired in scandal and fiasco because its ownership structure proved insufficient to ward off the conventional allure of mergers and acquisitions, the quest for scale for its own sake.

There is a lesson here for nations also. While presidents and prime ministers posture on the world stage, comparing their standing in GDP league tables, it is the smaller countries, such as Finland and Singapore, that prove most agile. They have to be great partners because they don’t have the size or market heft to protect them. They export more, plan further ahead and learn quickly. Knowing they can’t win through dominance, smaller countries have had to develop the capacity internally to be excellent collaborators externally. Not surprisingly, their high-achieving school systems seek success for every child, because they don’t believe they can afford to waste anyone.

Larger nations find it increasingly difficult to adjust to a world in which partnerships, alliances and trust represent the best social and political capital. Britain’s agonised relationship with the European Union demonstrates just how poorly we have developed the ability to contribute the best of our talents to the best of our partners.

If we are to find new ways to live and work together, we need to develop and prize high levels of trust and give-and-take: elements that competition so subtly corrodes. We need to celebrate the individuals and institutions that produce the greatest opportunities for the largest number of contributors. Many companies around the world continue to prove the human capacity for this way of working and measuring collective success.

Yet many politicians, wedded to gladiatorial combat and the rankings mania of opinion polls, have signally lost the capacity to think beyond the narrow confines of a very short race. Our politics are stalled because our problems are complex and our means of addressing them are often crude and rigid.

In the looming face-off between business, governments and society, a competitive mindset can frame the contest, but accepting this could destroy the mental maps that might show the way towards a solution. The problem is a failure not of the imagination, but of courage: the willingness to relinquish fantasies of winning in exchange for the bigger prize of joint achievement and shared progress. l

Margaret Heffernan is the author of “A Bigger Prize: Why Competition Isn’t Everything and How We Do Better” (Simon & Schuster, £14.99)

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Islam tears itself apart

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.”

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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