AN AUDIENCE IN ATHENS, WILLIAM BLAKE/BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
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Revenge of the Greats

Today, few teenagers learn Latin or Greek. But would we understand the world better if we read and studied classics?

On a blustery evening in November, more than 2,000 people flocked to Central Hall in Westminster, London, to watch a debate between Boris Johnson and Mary Beard about classics. The “Greece v Rome” debate was never supposed to have been that big. When the discussion forum ­Intelligence Squared announced the event in March, it planned for 1,000 tickets at £50 each. They sold out in three weeks. Relocating the debate from a smaller auditorium to the large hall at Westminster, the company released a further 1,200 tickets. When these, too, were snapped up three days later, an arrangement was made to stream the event on Curzon Home Cinema.

Forty years ago, the idea that classics would become so embedded in mainstream culture that crowds would turn out for this debate as if it were a pop concert would have been ridiculous. Latin, already unfashionable by the 1960s, was squeezed out of many schools with the introduction of the National Curriculum from 1989. By the early 1990s, classics was commonly being dismissed as a stale and arcane subject, beyond the reach or interest of anyone outside the old public schools or Oxbridge.

Now all that has changed. For classicists, that the Boris v Beard contest was taking place at all was proof that their subject is thriving. The Greeks invented the agon (contest); the Romans prized oratory above almost anything else. Both Beard and Johnson knew they owed a significant debt to the rhetoric of Demosthenes and Cicero.

This was, in fact, the second chance the public had had in recent months to ponder the merits of two extinct cultures. The Bloomsbury Institute staged its own agon to a full house in October, as the writers Harry Mount and Harry Eyres debated the superiority of Greece (Mount) and Rome (Eyres).

The debates followed a season of Greek drama, talks and 12-hour readings of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, hosted by the Almeida Theatre in London, out of which came a West End transfer for Robert Icke’s version of Aeschylus’s Oresteia. Plays inspired by the same tragic trilogy were performed in the past few months at Shakespeare’s Globe and HOME in Manchester. On the Roman side, books by Tom Holland, Robert Harris and Mary Beard have become bestsellers.

The mystery is, why now? That Boris, Beard and others have achieved a platform from which to popularise the ancient world can’t be the only explanation for this revival. Tristram Hunt has a thing for Victorian architecture. So far, there’s no fan club for portes cochères.

Although classics also peaked under the Third Reich, the Nazis championed Rome, Sparta and Greek figurative sculpture because they considered them worthy of emulation, rather than as entertainment. Taken to represent the ideals of human virtue and beauty, Greek statues (white, as the original colour paint did not survive) were placed in stark opposition to modern “degenerate” art, which was purged from German museums and held up to public censure at the notorious exhibition of 1937.

The following year, Hitler purchased an ancient Roman sculpture of a discus-thrower, based on the bronze Discobolus of the Greek sculptor Myron, as a gift to the nation. Urging the German people to visit it at the Glyptothek museum in Munich, Hitler spoke of achieving progress “when we have not only achieved beauty like this, but even, if we can, when we have surpassed it”.

A version of the same sculpture went on display at the British Museum in London this year as part of an exhibition dedicated to the Greek aesthetic. “Defining Beauty” provided a showcase – visited by more than 100,000 people – of Greek and Roman craftsmanship, as well as of contemporary thought about the past. In a broadcast on BBC Radio 3, Edith Hall of King’s College London challenged the curator Ian Jenkins’s decision to display Persians and Africans in a section of the exhibition tagged “Characters and Realism”, rather than “Beauty”. This division, she felt, carried an uncomfortable echo of Aryanism. But was that to impose too modern a view upon it?

There is a growing school of thought that says that classicists have been too binary in their approach to the ancient world. What if it is never about Greece v Rome? What if the dividing line between Greeks and “other” people – Persians, Africans – was not clear enough for us to value “Greek” beauty or “Greek” anything else so exclusively?

In a debate between Greece and Rome, Boris might delight with his wit and intellectual gravitas. Beard, marshalling the techniques that made Cicero and Quintilian famous, might dazzle with her elocutio (rhetorical style) and glitter-flecked cardigan. But if ­either side gives the impression that the competition stops with Greece and Rome – or, indeed, with Greek and Latin – it runs the risk of being distinctly unfashionable.

***

Many of the people at the Boris v Beard debate had come to the subject through English rather than Latin and Greek. It is fair to say that these languages have suffered tremendously in our time, and are only now beginning to flourish again. After five centuries as a mainstay of British classrooms and self-education books, Latin was already falling out of favour in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when some teachers (not to mention pupils) were heard grumbling about the endless hours of grammar. Thomas De Quincey even cursed the text used to teach Latin at Eton for having caused “more human suffering than Nero, Robespierre, or any other enemy of the human race”.

That knowledge of Latin used to be prerequisite for studying at the top universities, including Oxbridge, helped to fuel its elitist image. In her 1933 memoir, Testament of Youth, Vera Brittain described vividly her attempts “to tussle, often lacrimoniously, with mathematics and Latin” in preparation for her examination to read English at Somerville, Oxford. Had she been applying in 1960, she would have been relieved of the strain, because that was the year in which both Oxford and Cambridge dispensed with Latin (or knowledge of it) as an entry requirement for non-classics candidates.

This decision was thoroughly in tune with the revolutionary atmosphere of the 1960s. Latin lessons were still heavily dependent on old-fashioned grammar drills, which had less obvious purpose in the modern world than the more hands-on approach of the vocational subjects. In 1960 it was decided that Latin would no longer be obligatory at O level.

The next great blow to the languages came with the Education Reform Act 1988, when Kenneth Baker was secretary of state for education and science. This law brought in the National Curriculum, which ring-fenced ten “core” and “foundation” subjects to fill much of the weekly timetable in comprehensive schools; Latin was not one of them. The classical subjects had to compete for attention against several other non-core subjects in the few periods left available.

Between 1965, when Harold Wilson was in his first term as prime minister, and 2000, entries for Latin A-level fell from 7,901 to 1,237 and those for classical Greek from 1,322 to fewer than 200, with state schools enduring the most precipitous drop.

“The Greeks had far more words to play with than Latin,” said Boris Johnson during the debate at Central Hall, “including rhaphanido-o [to insert a radish in the anus], which was something involving a vegetable, and they had all those wonderful short words . . . how did the Romans manage without ge [‘well, then’]”?

It is shocking to learn how few now can read those brilliant words of Greek. Across all schools in England last year, there were only 253 entries for classical Greek at A level. Latin is faring better, partly because measures to modernise the subject have been in place for longer. After the crisis of the 1960s, and under the aegis of two new organisations, the Joint Association of Classical Teachers (JACT) and the Cambridge School Classics Project (CSCP), Latin lessons were thoroughly transformed. Pupils began to study Latin using lively textbooks including a series peopled by an affable banker named Quintus Caecilius Iucundus and the various members of his household, who spend their daily lives in triclinio (in the dining room) and in horto (in the garden). There is far less emphasis now on reciting verbs and on prose composition. At the beginning of this decade, I worked for JACT as an executive officer and trustee, and watched as the numbers of pupils taking up Latin rose steadily.

Approximately 50,000 pupils now start to learn the language every year, with the number of non-selective state schools offering the subject even higher than that for independent and selective state schools combined – 553, compared to 515. In the region of 11,500 pupils take the Latin GCSE in England and Wales, and in England last year there were 1,285 entries for Latin A-level. Where it has been harder to recover the numbers is at A level in the state sector.

Most young people in state schools now study classics in quite another way. Indeed, if the new popularity of the ancient world owes something to the number of people exposed to the languages at school, it also owes much to the rise of ancient history and classical civilisation as subjects in their own right. In 2013, 3,580 state-school students took these subjects for A-level – far more than those who opted for Latin or Greek.

The truth is, these pupils often have little choice. To work in the state sector, teachers usually require a qualification such as the PGCE. Currently, owing to a lack of staff able to teach it, the classics PGCE is on offer only at Cambridge, King’s College London and Sussex universities. There are 46 places in total. The number of classics teachers retiring each year often exceeds the number being trained. Part of the appeal of classical civilisation and ancient history is that they can be taught by staff from the English and history departments, because no Latin or Greek is required. The thinking is that some classics is better than none.

Much has been invested in this so-called democratisation of classics. When OCR (the Oxford, Cambridge and RSA exam board) threatened to discontinue ancient history as a stand-alone A-level in 2007, there was a huge protest outside parliament. But it is not quite the coup that it seems. Anyone who wants to go on to teach in a university classics faculty is likely to come unstuck if he or she lacks proficiency in both Latin and Greek. Departments depend on their junior staff and doctoral students for language teaching. As things stand, the next generation of classics scholars is likely to be drawn predominantly from those who have had the opportunity to excel in the languages. The legacy of the Boris v Beard debate may just be the most important thing about it, because a percentage of the ticket proceeds will go to Classics for All, a new charity dedicated to introducing Latin and Greek to comprehensive schools.

***

The drive against elitism in classics education has helped to shape a new acceptance of the importance of the ancient world. There were nothing but murmurs of agreement and support when Boris Johnson praised Greece for having given birth to “people power” – meritocracy, democracy – and Beard attributed to Rome the beginnings of the debate we are still waging over the limits of civil liberty. No less egotistic than Homer’s heroes, we happily impose our lives upon those who came before us, in the hope of affirmation. Studying the Roman Republic is no longer seen as a self-indulgent exercise, but as a means of understanding how precarious political alliances can still be. Archaeological museums pose a fun challenge to the idea of modern progress by displaying Roman colanders, cake-pans and ladles that could come straight out of the Lakeland catalogue.

The Trojan War has lived on as the touchstone of human experience. The Homeric epics continue to draw us back into the debate, not so much between war and peace as between the two parts of the self. Achilles, the most formidable Greek warrior of them all, could place great store by his own sense of worth and the “meritocratic indignation”, as Johnson brilliantly put it, of having to bow to the authority of an inferior man – but when his comrades were falling around him, we now wonder, what sense was there in pursuing glory? The very survival of Homer’s epics is yet testament to the immortality of the fallen. The “catalogue” of men who fought in the Iliad was the equivalent of the modern war memorial.

The ancient sources, so temptingly scanty and malleable to interpretation, appeal as much to military strategists as they do to authors and screenwriters. At the start of the Cold War, the then US secretary of state, George Marshall, read the histories of Herodotus and Thucydides, convinced that the events of the Peloponnesian War and the fall of Athens were worthy of review in those unprecedented times. Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War is still studied at many military academies, including West Point, the Command and Staff College of the US marine corps, and the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis. Recruits at some army and naval colleges are encouraged to study what the text has to say about strategic leadership, garnering support in a protracted war and the impact of biological warfare. The “Melian Dialogue” is considered particularly important, containing as it does the Athenians’ justification for conquering Melos in what was one of the bloodiest conflicts of the late 5th century BC. Whether Thucydides should be taken as an exemplary model is another question entirely.

Also known to have studied Greek military texts are Colin Powell and David Pet­raeus, whose fall from grace in 2012 after the revelation that he had leaked classified information to his mistress has often been couched in Sophoclean terms. It did not go unnoticed at the time that “Petraeus” was the name of a centaur, a half-man, half-horse figure of Greek myth, renowned for his sexual appetite.

Performed in translation, the Greek tragedies of Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides continue to provide a powerful lens through which to examine modern conflicts. In a recent book, the director Bryan Doerries describes his work with Theater of War, a travelling drama collective that performs Sophocles’s most intense explorations of the psychological impact of war, Ajax and Philoctetes, for US soldiers and veterans. In Amman in 2013, a group of female refugees from Syria performed a version of Euripides’s Trojan Women. Here in London, the Almeida Oresteia took its cue from the Iraq War. If the truths of Greek tragedy are often more penetrating than those in the history books, it must be because they prove their strength by emerging so remarkably intact from the emotional, sometimes irrational, situations out of which they are born.

***

The new classical revival is joyous, but it is one grown in no small part out of tragedy. We are in a better position now than we were 50 years ago to understand why there is nothing arbitrary about the links that modern playwrights, novelists, scholars and strategists draw between ancient Melos and modern Syria, or Greece and modern Iraq.

“I’m afraid in many ways the Romans were bastards,” Boris Johnson said, conceding that, for all their valour, the Greeks ultimately succumbed to Roman brutality. “The fact is all ancient cultures were horribly brutal by our standards,” Mary Beard said, accepting his point that the Romans carried out public floggings, punishment of adulteresses, and the sacking of Corinth in 146BC, when their legionaries looted Greek sculptures and “used priceless pictures to play chequers on” (a paraphrase of the Greek historian Polybius). Horribly brutal, but sadly familiar.

Palmyra now lies in ruins. The site in modern Syria, an erstwhile Roman province, was once a trading post between East and West. On its magnificent sculptural relief panels were men dressed in a combination of Greek and Persian clothes. There was Hellenistic and Roman architecture, precincts dedicated to Phoenician, Aramaean and Mesopotamian gods.

A new exhibition on Egypt at the British Museum, “Faith After the Pharaohs”, has been carefully curated to illustrate a similar point. In the pages of manuscript and fragments of fresco lies evidence of the fruitful possibilities of syncretism and coexistence between the pagan worlds of antiquity, Christianity, Judaism and Islam. If a survey of classical history seldom offers such a rosy picture, these artworks and texts still provide a crucial space to debate what it means to
value one culture at the expense of another.

While not doing down the achievements of the Greeks and Romans, we are no longer in a position to forget that the “East” wasn’t just at the mercy of West, waiting to be brain-drained or reduced. It has, in short, become deeply unfashionable to conceive of “classics” as the history of the West. There is considerable interest now, for instance, in recognising the influence of Persia (modern Iran) on “Greek” culture. It is telling that the Oxford classicist and Byzantinist Peter Frankopan chose to begin his “new history of the world”, The Silk Roads, with the rise of the Persian empire, not Greece. We are, after all, seeing again the importance of the networks through which Greece and Rome both flourished and declined.

It is and always was about more than Greece and Rome. The Greeks enjoyed assimilating the ideas of their neighbours. The Romans led the way when it came to granting asylum. Their inclusivity and magnanimity in awarding citizenship to people as far afield as our own remote shores seemed to be what swayed the audience to give Rome 56 per cent of the vote in November at the London debate. Whether unconsciously or for the pure thrill of it, thousands of years after Greece and Rome first made the world that little bit smaller, we are finally doing something to repay the debt.

Daisy Dunn’s “Catullus’ Bedspread: the Life of Rome’s Most Erotic Poet” and “The Poems of Catullus: a New Translation” will both be published on 28 January by William Collins

This article first appeared in the 17 December 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special

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