Photo: Jude Edginton/Camera Press
Show Hide image

The Boris audit: the man who would be king

From the Bullingdon Club to City Hall, Boris Johnson has left his mark. But does he have what it takes to be the next Tory leader? We ask five experts to appraise his life, career and talent

Boris at Oxford

By Mark Field

The Boris phenomenon is nothing new. Three decades ago, when we were both undergraduates at Oxford, he cut an unmistakable dash. There was that ever-present shock of blond hair, of course. And although photographs of the time show a rather slimmer model (I fear that applies to us all . . .) he always seemed sturdily well built.

Boris Johnson’s cheerful charisma has meant that he has always been able to attract camp-followers. Although questions were raised even then about his bumbling buffoonery, his path to the presidency of the Oxford Union was assisted by a coterie of able allies, as was the road to the editorship of the Spectator (“like entrusting a Ming vase to an orang-utan”, as one wag described
it) and to the mayoralty of London. Somehow, buzzing around Boris, there always seem to be many talented men and women, strong at the organisation and administration where he is so weak, just clamouring to be a member of his gang.

At Oxford they were “my stooges”, as he christened them, not unkindly. Whatever scrape he seemed set to be undone by, there always seemed to be help at hand. From Darius Guppy to Toby Young, among countless others, mutual favours have been done and returned over the years – all part of a pattern that began in earnest during those halcyon university days.

He has always been a humorous and engaging orator. Close your eyes listening to Boris today and you could easily be transported back 30 years. That said, if you read a transcript . . . well, it’s pure gibberish.

I am sure it was no great loss to him (nor, in truth, to me) that Boris Johnson and I spent most of our university days in different social circles. His social life in term time revolved around the Oxford party scene – but the bright lights of London were never far away, especially during the vacation. He frequented the Gridiron and, more notoriously, the Bullingdon, clubs that were the mainstays of all-male eating and drinking activity. “The Grid” (chaired in a later undergraduate generation by David Cameron) was a small set of rooms at first-floor level in the centre of Oxford and it ran a little like Pratt’s or the Beefsteak in London’s clubland. It was an invitation-only establishment, predominantly the haunt of former pupils of the major public schools. It also had a legendary (and probably erroneous) reputation in the Oxford Union as possessing a huge block vote, which Boris naturally was well placed to exploit.

Our paths, perhaps predictably, crossed in the world of student politics. Boris won the presidency of the Union, but only at the second time of asking. His first attempt was beset by shambolic disorganisation; he learned to be more organised and on his second run won the prize by one of the largest margins on record. He rarely makes the same mistake twice.

I guess Boris might easily have followed the same path as other similarly well-connected Oxford undergraduates of our generation, into the City of London. Many leading figures in today’s investment banking and hedge-fund world were at Oxford in the mid-1980s – although few might have imagined how lucrative a career this would become. For Boris, however, fame was always the spur. It was clear to us all then that in some way he was heading for a prominent, high-profile role in public life.

Not that it was immediately obvious that he was going to be an MP . . . or a Conser­vative one, at least. Although that era was (with hindsight) the zenith of Thatcherism, a strong attachment to the Conservative Party was rarely a great vote-winner at the Oxford Union. This was compounded by the fact that Boris was at Balliol College, which has long had a left-of-centre reputation. While all leading Union candidates grubbed around for votes within factions of the Oxford University Conservative Association (OUCA), whose supporters were invariably also Oxford Union members, the clear impression many of us had of Boris was that his politics were centre-left with a tinge of environmentalism. I cannot imagine how such a reputation was cultivated . . .

It was only in the early 1990s, when reading his robust Eurosceptic polemics from Brussels in the Daily Telegraph, that I realised where his party political allegiances truly lay. There was always something of the contrarian about him – and even now I wonder whether this may have been a rather deliberate attempt to stand out from the run-of-the-mill Brussels correspondents faithfully reporting the goings-on at the European Commission and Parliament. 

Mark Field is the MP (Conservative) for the Cities of London and Westminster

 

Boris the man

By Sonia Purnell

So, Boris Johnson has broken a solemn promise yet again – only this time not to his long-suffering wife, Marina. He has ratted instead on eight million Londoners, breaking his pledge not to stand as an MP at next May’s general election while continuing to draw a salary as their mayor.

Barring great upsets, the good burghers of Uxbridge and South Ruislip will have to make do from next May with whatever time Johnson has left over after running London, writing a weekly Telegraph column, promo­ting books and hosting radio shows.

It is arguable whether any of Johnson’s many and various paymasters will be awarded a “fair squeeze of the sauce bottle”, as the mayor himself has been known to put it. (Although there will no doubt be plenty of time found in the week for his inexhaustible campaign to become prime minister.)

Johnson has form on part-timing in full-time jobs. Back in 2001 when he first became an MP he allowed voters in Henley to believe that he would give up his then editorship of the Spectator. He told the owners of the Spectator he would not stand as an MP. He swiftly reneged on both undertakings, leaving both parties feeling cheated and short-changed. (A livid Conrad Black, then the Spectator’s owner, called Johnson “ineffably duplicitous”.)

Uxbridge Tories, take note: very few in his old constituency would want him back. Johnson was selected for the plum seat in 2000 after an anonymous smear campaign mortally damaged his two principal opponents. His general flippancy – and flip-flopping on such grave questions as the invasion of Iraq – led to several local party members leaving the Conservative Party altogether, and others spoiling their ballot papers in protest. Many more tired of his growing indifference to constituency issues such as the closure of a hospital.

The president of the Henley Conservative association, the late Maggie Pullen, said she was “devastated” at his selection, and although she found a way to work with him she never truly changed her opinion. As another long-suffering colleague once put it: “The closer you get to Boris Johnson, the less you like him.” Even his one-time local fans were angered by his decision to run for Mayor of London in 2008 without consulting them, while trying also to keep his parliamentary seat. Sound familiar?

In the heady “Sextator” days of Ruinart champagne and chesterfield sofas, Johnson was also busy breaking his marital vows. The reputation he won as a permanently priapic politician was nevertheless popular at the time with the young, the apolitical and the envious. Pictures of him slipping out of the Chelsea flat of the education journalist Anna Fazackerley – his trademark mop poorly disguised under a black beanie – made it all look like something out of a French farce. Only, as we know, the women in these escapades often end up hurt and hounded, and sometimes pregnant.

Even the extraordinary indulgence of voters, let alone Marina, has limits, as has been forcefully pointed out to Johnson by no less a figure than the Tories’ abrasive election guru Lynton Crosby. Any further revelations in that area, Johnson has been instructed, would result in his “f***ing knees” being “cut off”.

Now that he sees Downing Street as finally within his grasp, his lust for power appears to have overcome his lust for impressionable young women with swishy hair and plunging necklines. It is four years since he was last caught in the arms of another woman. It is even longer since that he notoriously tried to deny rumours of his philandering with Petronella Wyatt – whom he twice made pregnant – as an “inverted pyramid of piffle”. But what he said then should still trouble us now. It is acceptable, even desirable, he informed his party leader Michael Howard in 2004, to lie to the press.

More recently, in May 2013, Johnson’s “fitness for public office” was called into question by no less an authority than the Court of Appeal. Ruling that the public had a right to know about his lovechild by an art consultant, the judges decried the “reckless behaviour” he had shown in allowing at least two children to be conceived through various infidelities. Few can recall the “private and professional” character of any serving senior politician being excoriated so openly in a court of law, which ruled that his disregard for the feelings of others was so deep
that it constituted a matter of public interest.

It is this recklessness that frightens the establishment horses – and should frighten us. A John Major-era Conservative minister sums up a view common among his generation as “Johnson must just be stopped”. There are even rumours of a “bottom drawer” of material on Johnson for release by party elders, should he edge even closer to the big black door with “10” on it.

As editor of the Telegraph, Sir Max Hastings did much to further Johnson’s career. He in effect overlooked how Johnson had apparently agreed to help his friend Darius Guppy beat up an inquisitive journalist by supplying his address. He rescued Johnson after he was fired by the Times for making up quotations. He gave him the opportunity to make his name – and ultimately his fortune – by sending him in 1989 to report on the European Union in Brussels.

Johnson’s virulently Eurosceptic reports delighted Margaret Thatcher and spawned a whole style of creative journalism. But their growing detachment from the truth left his credibility shot among his peers (and, eventually, his bosses back in London). James Landale, now the BBC’s deputy political editor, wrote a spoof Hilaire Belloc poem beginning:

Boris told such dreadful lies

It made one gasp and stretch one’s eyes . . .

Since then his unworthy conduct – including trying to weasel his way out of paying up on a lost bet on the outcome of the 2010 election – has convinced Hastings that his trust in his one-time protégé was misplaced. He has since written that if Johnson makes it as prime minister, he will board the first plane out of the country.

Nor is Hastings the only one who has learned to distrust Johnson. In March 2011, the mayor was rebuked by the UK Statistics Authority, the official watchdog, for “damaging public trust” after releasing inaccurate public transport crime statistics. He was also criticised for numbers that “do not appear to stand up to public scrutiny” after repeatedly using questionable figures to support lavish claims of success for an initiative aimed at a youth offenders (which later failed so spectacularly that it was closed down).

In 2012, our prospective prime minister also claimed that most cycling accidents were caused by cyclists’ own law-breaking – an equally false pronouncement that was, eventually, grudgingly withdrawn. Other figures he has released on subjects as diverse as housebuilding and police numbers have proved just as spurious.

Trust in politicians – or the lack of it – has become one of the burning issues of our times. Voters, feeling lied to and let down, yearn to be able to believe in their politicians again. But Johnson, for all his claims to be an authentic alternative, is more the problem than the answer. 

Sonia Purnell is the author of “Just Boris: a Tale of Blond Ambition” (Aurum Press, £8.99). Her new biography of Clementine Churchill will be published next year

 

Boris the Tory

By Andrew Gimson

What kind of a Tory is Boris Johnson? No one has yet provided a satisfactory answer. His enemies veer between dismissing him as a clown and denouncing him as an evil right-winger. Neither has the merit of being true, and taken together they have the drawback of cancelling each other out. Bertie Wooster can’t also be Norman Tebbit.

Part of the trouble is that the question invites an ideological answer, and once you start searching for one of those, you become increasingly lost, and find yourself wandering through a forest of murky concepts, some of which may fit some Tories, but none of which applies to Johnson. None of the think tanks that have exercised such a strong influence on Tory thinking over the past 50 years has left the faintest mark on Johnson. He is not an ideological politician: does not crave the support of some theory that explains everything and can guide him as he devises policy. Nor is he a postmodern figure. It would be more accurate to describe him as premodern.

His imagination was captured as a boy by ancient Greece and still disports itself there, before the dawn of Christian guilt. While I was researching my biography of him, one of his oldest friends assured me that he lives in a world of gods and heroes. These gods watch over him, set him trials, test his courage and resourcefulness, establish whether he, too, has the makings of a hero.

Johnson’s own account of his love affair with the Greek world is more democratic than this. It was given on 4 September in his speech about Pericles to the Legatum Institute in London, which can be seen on YouTube. I have only just watched it, and can report that it is a tour de force. What a brilliant schoolmaster Johnson would have made: conveying his love of his subject in language so lucid and joky that it holds the dimmest listener, but so learned and penetrating that it stimulates the cleverest. He ended: “Let us keep . . . alive . . . that spirit of freedom that Pericles exalted – a spirit of democracy and tolerance and cultural effervescence and mass political participation. That is what we believe in. That is what makes London great. In the Thucydidean phrase, let us keep it as a possession for ever.”

These noble sentiments have the practical advantage of translating into a simple mayoral programme. London, he has been telling us since 2007, when he first decided to run against Ken Livingstone, is the greatest city in the world, and our task is to make it greater. A Labour or Lib Dem voter might be just as tempted as a Tory to endorse that line. Nor is there much that is specifically Tory about Johnson’s more detailed positions: his love of freedom might just as well be termed Liberal, and is certainly shared by many on the left. Johnson has called (like Pericles) for a tolerant immigration policy, and in 2008 he precipitated the resignation of a Metropolitan Police commissioner, Sir Ian Blair, whose response to the killing by a police officer of an unarmed Brazilian had been grotesquely inadequate. The mayor has also called for tolerance of bankers, because they contribute to the prosperity of London. He wishes for the same reason to build an enormous new airport (Pericles completed an enormous new harbour).

The answer to the question of what kind of Tory he is perhaps turns out to be that he is not a Tory at all: that he transcends party boundaries. Towards the end of October, Johnson will bring out a book, The Churchill Factor, about another Tory who never allowed party loyalties to confine his view of the national interest. Winston Churchill spent 20 years as a Liberal before rejoining the Conservative Party, and was happiest leading a wartime coalition that included Labour ministers, as well as various individuals to whom one cannot attach party labels. He expressed his hostility to mere party organisation at the end of his biography of his father, Lord Randolph Churchill, whose career had ended in failure:

There is an England which stretches far beyond the well-drilled masses who are assembled by party machinery . . . an England of wise men who gaze without self-deception at the failings and follies of both political parties . . . It was to that England that Lord Randolph Churchill appealed.

And yet Johnson is quite clearly a Tory. However happy he would be leading a coalition, he is also loyal to his own tribe, and each year at the party conference he manages with a burst of cheerful, pugnacious, magnanimous, disrespectful, scene-stealing oratory to make his audience feel good about being Tory. Many of the rank and file love him.

So the question still arises: what kind of Tory? The best answer I have been able to obtain is from Lord Lexden, the official historian of the Conservative Party: “The Tories always need brilliant adventurers to provide excitement and charm in what has traditionally been a thoroughly dull party created in the image of Sir Robert Peel. Disraeli complained that none of his colleagues knew how to give a decent dinner; he enlivened the consumption of their dreadful fare with his coruscating wit and, until the sniggers became too great, with his outlandish clothes and jewelled fingers. He derived much inspiration from the originator of this vital strain in the Tory tradition: Henry St John, Viscount Bolingbroke – drunken rake, womaniser, inspired writer and riveting speaker – who worked tirelessly exactly 300 years ago to control events on the death of Queen Anne but lost out completely to his equally unscrupulous Whig opponents when the Hanoverians arrived.”

Lexden adds: “There are times when the Tories like to be led by their adventurers – Disraeli himself in the 19th century; Macmillan in the 20th. On the other hand, Lord Randolph Churchill, father of Winston, having mesmerised the party for six years in the 1880s, came to regard himself as indispensable, blundered and was ruthlessly marginalised by the dullards. The long line of Tory adventurers has produced almost without exception clever men equipped for leadership but without any certain prospect of actually attaining it.”

Lexden is right: this is the tradition to which Johnson belongs. He a Tory adventurer. No wonder serious-minded people on both sides of politics cannot bear him and are desperate to find ways of discrediting him. He sometimes attempts, by long periods of sober behaviour, to allay their fears and prove how steady he is. But his attraction is that he is a cavalier, a freebooter, a man ready to fling himself with a cry of “All for one, one for all” into any fight that suddenly seems worth fighting. He may, like Bolingbroke or Lord Randolph Churchill, risk everything and fail. He may, like Disraeli or Winston Churchill, come through being dismissed as ridiculous and climb at last to the top of the greasy pole. We have no idea what will happen next, and that is one reason why he is so watchable. 

Andrew Gimson is the author of “Boris: the Rise of Boris Johnson” (Simon & Schuster, £8.99) and is a contributing editor of ConservativeHome

 

Boris the mayor

By Sadiq Khan

In the end, history judges politicians by their record rather than their words. And in the case of Boris Johnson, we won’t be needing the benefit of hindsight. Boris is a fantastic performer, whether on Have I Got News for You or hanging from a zip wire. His sense of humour and “unique” turn of phrase did much to make the 2012 Olympics the huge success the Games were. But when it comes to his record on London, too little progress has been made in tackling the challenges we face today, let alone preparing for those of the coming decades.

The list of Boris’s failures as mayor is long. He has done nothing to tackle the city’s increasingly desperate housing crisis. During his mayoralty, not a single major transport or infrastructure project has been started to help deal with our ever-burgeoning population. Our air has become significantly more polluted, with no plans to reverse this. He leaves London a city that is more unequal and divided, and in a worse position to meet the challenges of the future than when he found it.

Perhaps the single most notable record of Boris’s six years as mayor has been the huge rise in inequality in the capital. London is home to more millionaires and billionaires than any other city in the world. The number of millionaires has increased by almost 60 per cent since 2008. This is not in itself a bad thing – but, at the same time, poverty has rocketed. An unbelievable one-third of Londoners now live in poverty – and two-thirds of them are in work. On Boris’s watch, London has become a city in which the wealthy have got even wealthier, enjoying the best food, culture and arts in the world, while most Londoners have been left behind, squeezed between falling real wages and fast-rising costs.

An important cause of the rise in inequality is London’s housing crisis. It’s not merely that home ownership is now out of reach for the vast majority of Londoners but, increasingly, so is renting. Housebuilding has fallen to the lowest level since the 1920s. The supply is well short of what we need to keep up with population growth, let alone meet the backlog. The mayor has given developers a free pass on building affordable homes as part of new property schemes – and local authorities are getting a worse deal as a result. He has increased the definition of “affordable” rent to 80 per cent of the market rate: not really affordable at all.

It’s not just the cost of housing that has risen. The cost of a Travelcard for zones one to six has increased by £440 since Boris became mayor. Tube fares have gone up by way above inflation every year. If the increased revenues were being used to build new infrastructure, that would be justifiable, but not a single important infrastructure project has been started. This has been particularly damaging for the poorest Londoners, who have had to move further and further out, due to rising house prices.

London’s population is growing faster than ever; it is poised to increase by the same number as the combined populations of Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast in just over a decade. With our Tube and bus network already operating at capacity, we need new infrastructure to cope. Yet nothing has happened under Boris. Ken Livingstone delivered Crossrail, due to open in 2016, but in six years no progress has been made on Crossrail 2. Plans to build much-needed river crossings in east London have been cancelled, restricting economic development in the poorest part of London and reducing transport capacity across the city. Instead, millions of pounds and six years has been wasted on a series of vanity projects that have done nothing for Londoners: a cable car that no one uses, a new fleet of buses that take fewer passengers but are more expensive, and a garden bridge that isn’t needed.

In many ways, Boris Johnson’s time as mayor shows the limits of a laissez-faire approach to government in the modern world. If you don’t do anything, then simply nothing happens. 

Sadiq Khan MP is the shadow minister for London

 

Boris the writer

By Leo Robson

Taken at face value, Boris Johnson’s prose suggests a fool. Closer inspection reveals a cynic. His journalism, mostly written between the late 1980s and the early 2000s, was designed to make him appear honest and serious about such topics as the racism of the EU, the London housing market, the virtues of tolerance, Bill Clinton, the Balkans. But there came a point, around the turn of the millennium, when honest and serious became the things Johnson least wanted to be, or wanted to appear to be, the distinction getting hazier as time went on. Changes in his prose formed part of a broader programme of manicured buffoonery, “Boris” being an invention of the page as much as the screen.

Before long, he was a specialist in writing sentences such as this: “I know that there will be some who read this page – high, sacerdotal intellects – who feel that the hot seat of Have I Got News For You is not the place for an homme sérieux.” Johnson’s ploy, here as elsewhere, is to hide his own seriousness by mocking other people’s (their “sacerdotal intellects”), while maintaining a pretence of ironically adopting habits – in this case, the use of foreign phrases – to which he is genuinely inclined.

A fear, not exactly of the serious, but of intellectualism, underpins the feigned vagueness behind: “It is, I believe, what Jung would call an archetype . . .” It is phrased in such a way as to suggest that, while we might be able to paraphrase with unabashed confidence the thinking of Plato or Edmund Burke, you never can tell what these modern Continental thinkers are on about. This is a man afraid and ashamed of his own intelligence, desperate to make it something friendlier.

It’s a complicated conflict or con trick, as Johnson is aware, even if awareness is as far as it goes. In his dexterous though hardly inspired satirical novel Seventy-Two Virgins (2004), the American assistant to an MP notes how her boss will give “an intelligent answer” and then “throw it all away with some flip aside”. Her accusation is one of “moral evasiveness . . . she couldn’t help wondering about his IDEALS. His VALUES. His CORE BELIEFS.” Baffled, she wonders: “Just what kind of a Conservative was this guy, anyhow?” Later in the novel, a French diplomat trained in “the ancient art of . . . arguing for whatever side of the case he happened to be on” finds his voice suddenly “taking on the choky timbre of absolute sincerity”. (Typically, the case sincerely made is pro-American.) That Johnson himself never chokes, preferring a weightless fluency, is partly acknowledged in a note appended to his jaunty 1999 interview with the war criminal Željko Ražnatovic, reprinted in Johnson’s anthology Have I Got Views For You: “I feel embarrassed about the tone.” The Boris tone isn’t exactly a product of his political ambition but
it is a product of the same root cause as his political ambition, a need to be loved. If he is at all capable of being embarrassed by the failures of sense and taste committed in this quest, then he is surely a man in great pain.

It’s not often that Johnson experiences the need to apologise for not taking things seriously enough. Most of the time, he gets the balance just as he wants it. He cannot expunge seriousness altogether – a celebrity politician is still a politician – but nor can he let seriousness become so dominant that it squeezes out fun. An interest in the classical world, however geared towards the useful lessons it offers the present day, is something he tries to dilute. It is easily done. You simply drop into the lower register, as in the opening sentence of his schizoid book The Dream of Rome: “No one knows the exact moment when Publius Quinctilius Varus realised what a colossal idiot he had been, but when the barbarians on either side of him started uttering their war cry we must assume that the penny finally dropped.” (The war cry resembles “a roaring noise like a chorus of Rolf Harris didgeridoos”: a Times review described his style as “bright, breezy, populist and pacy”.)

The Rome book, first published in 2006, relies to an extreme degree on casual English, an approach that might be mistaken for a Reith-like educative populism but is really catering to the reader’s presumed view of the past as something in need of thawing. As an exponent of classical values, Johnson, in contrast to, say, T S Eliot, proceeds by putting a little-known fact in close proximity to phrases such as “get cracking”, “a popular fellow”, “What a shindig it was”, “imperial good-time girls”, “jolly cascade of bosoms”, “So-rree, Marcus!”, “letting the side down”, “he blubs because he is not yet a praetor”, “far too fly”. These mannerisms tail off after a hundred pages. Job done.

But colloquial language doesn’t just sweeten the pill. It also disguises it. The Dream of Rome isn’t coddling us into knowledge of the Roman empire, as it might seem, but into understanding why the modern EU, of which Johnson is a devoted enemy, could never achieve such unity. His Life of London, reissued as The Spirit of London after the Olympics, offers a Whiggish account of the sort of London enterprise and innovation that culminated in the happy city – Otto­lenghi provides the bread, Lord Coe the circuses – of which, at the time of publication, Johnson was incumbent mayor, with an election looming. In other words, Boris books are just the sort of campaign manifestos a politician might produce after he has forfeited the right to be taken at face value. They have become the most reliable means of assessing the focus, and size, of his ambitions. The next one’s on Churchill. 

Leo Robson is the NS lead fiction reviewer

This article first appeared in the 24 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The cult of Boris

Martin O’Neil for New Statesman
Show Hide image

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