Andrew Adonis. Photograph: Getty Images
Show Hide image

Beyond our Berlin Wall

The way to pull down social barriers in England is through reforming education — encouraging private schools to become more involved in the state sector by backing academies. That could also spread excellence.

Two of the greatest challenges in English education today are, first, not just to reduce the number of underperforming comprehensives but to eradicate them, and second, to forge a new settlement between state and private education.

I put these two challenges together because they go together. It is my view, after 20 years of engagement with schools of all types, that England will never have a world-class education system or a “one-nation” society until state and private schools are part of a shared, national endeavour to develop the talents of all young people to the full.

The two also go together, in that academies are at the heart of the solution to both challenges. It is academies that are systematically eradicating failing comprehensives. And academies – as independent state schools – are the vehicle by which private schools can become systematically engaged in establishing and running state-funded schools.

So, just as the challenge is simple – how to unite state schools and private schools in a common endeavour – I believe the solution is also simple. Every successful private school, and private school foundation, should sponsor an academy or academies. They should do this alongside their existing fee-paying school or schools, turning themselves into federations of private and state-funded independent schools and following the lead of a growing number of private schools and their foundations that have done precisely this and would not think of going back, including Dulwich, Wellington, the Haberdashers’, the Mercers’, the Girls’ Day School Trust, the City of London Corporation and the King Edward VI Foundation in Birmingham.

Simple does not mean easy, nor does it mean little. By sponsoring academies I don’t just mean advice and assistance, the loan of playing fields and the odd teacher or joint activity, which is generally what passes for “private state partnership”, however glorified for the Charity Commission. I mean the private school or foundation taking complete responsibility for the governance and leadership of an academy or academies and staking their reputation on their success, as they do on the success of their fee-paying schools.

The roots of the state-private divide are so deep that they reach to the very foundation of state education in England in the 19th century. Historians talk a lot about Gladstone’s Elementary Education Act of 1870, which essentially started state education. But equally significant were Gladstone’s Endowed Schools Acts 1869 and 1873, which turned the great public schools and many of the newer grammar schools previously run in a rackety way by Crown, church or local appointees, into a Victorian equivalent of today’s academies, with independent governing foundations to control their assets, management and leadership. This Victorian academy status greatly strengthened the private schools as institutions. Yet their fees, and the conservative use of their charitable assets by their new governing bodies, kept most of them largely closed to all except the upper and upper middle classes. And so they remained as the state secondary system developed in parallel, and separately, in the decades after the Balfour Education Act 1902.

There was a moment at the end of the Second World War when history might have taken a different turn. An official report, published in 1944 on the day Dwight Eisenhower reviewed his bridgehead in Normandy, said that the social division between private and state schools “made far more difficult the task of those who looked towards a breaking down of those harddrawn class distinctions within society”. Even Winston Churchill, visiting his alma mater Harrow, talked to the boys of “broadening the intake” and of the public schools becoming more and more based on aspiring youth “in every class of the nation”.

But it didn’t happen. Two generations later, the only significant changes to the private school system are that it is larger and richer, and its average educational attainment has risen to among the highest in the world.

The reason for the failure of postwar policy to overcome the private-state divide can be explained simply. Both sides of politics, and both sides of education, positively wanted the divide to continue. So, for differing reasons, they adopted a one-word policy in respect of private schools: isolation.

On the Labour side, ideological antipathy to fee-paying, and later also to selective, education bred often intense hostility. But the social and legal position of the private schools –plus, paradoxically, the personal educational preferences of Labour leaders from Attlee to Wilson and Callaghan – kept at bay any attack beyond the rhetorical, except for the withdrawal of state funding schemes for small numbers of pupils to attend private schools.

I treasure Roy Jenkins’s exchange with Harold Wilson when turning down Wilson’s offer to become education secretary in 1965. “Looking for an excuse [to decline the job],” he records in his memoirs, “I said that all three of our children were at fee-paying schools and that this surely was an obstacle to being minister of education in a Labour government. Wilson brushed this aside as being of no importance. ‘So were mine,’ he said.” Tony Blair was the first prime minister in history to send his children to state secondary schools.

On the Tory side, there was an equal and opposite isolationism. Most Tory ministers and MPs went to private schools and sent their children to them. They still do. So long as Labour kept the dogs off, they had no desire to court controversy by proposing any role in the state system for private schools and their foundations. Better to let sleeping dogs lie.

So much for the politicians. The leaders of state and private schools were – and many of them remain – similarly isolationist. It was an article of faith among the leaders of the comprehensive movement that private schools were not only socially divisive but also, in their educational practice, largely irrelevant. This is still a pronounced view, even among academy head teachers. They say, to paraphrase: “What can that lot who just spoon-feed the children of the rich ever know about education in Hackney and Knowsley?” As for the heads of the private schools, many of them have been only too eager to agree, especially when the suggestion is made that they might manage academies.

Pressed further, they often say it’s not about ordinary children v privileged children but about non-selective schools vselective schools, an argument made by Sir Eric Anderson when provost of Eton. I found this richly ironic, given that Eton until recently was basically an allability comprehensive for the rich and titled.
 

Writ large

Those on the left, and in the state sector, who see the private schools as an irrelevance need only look at their huge footprint in almost every national elite, from politics and business to the media, sport and the arts. The Cameron- Clegg coalition is an Eton-Westminster coalition. (Westminster School accounted for two of the five Lib Dem ministers in cabinet until Chris Huhne’s resignation, and the rest of the cabinet is practically a roll-call of the other leading private schools.)

To those in the private schools and their governing bodies who are reluctant to embrace academies, I appeal to their professionalism and their charitable missions. It was excusable to stand apart from state-funded education when the state did not want them engaged in the first place. But that is the isolationist politics of the past. With the academies programme, supported across the political divide, they have an opportunity to engage in state-funded education without compromising their independence, renewing for the 21st century their essential moral and charitable purposes.

Depressingly, the politics of private-state school reform is still too often seen in terms of cash transactions. On the left, the conventional wisdom is that charitable status gives an unfair subsidy to private schools which ought to be ended, while some private school leaders and governors, whenever it is suggested that they might sponsor academies or otherwise support state education in a non-tokenistic way, retort that their parents are already paying twice for education, through their taxes and their school fees, so why should they pay a third time over? Some say they would rather “give up” charitable status than be expected to do this.

Both these approaches are misconceived, for they fundamentally misunderstand the position of private schools as charities. “Charitable status” is not a badge that can be awarded or taken away from the assets of private schools by the Charity Commission for good or bad behaviour. Nor could the government do this, nor even parliament, unless charitable assets nationwide are to be held liable to random nationalisation. Rather, it is fundamental to their being, like blood in a mammal.

The assets of Eton, Westminster, Winchester and the rest are vested in their present trustees and managers on the understanding that they be deployed for charitable purposes. Private school charities can no more “give up” charitable status than they can have it stripped from them. If they do not wish to continue as charities, or if they are unwilling to perform genuine charitable endeavour, then their highly valuable charitable assets should be passed into hands willing to do so. If the governors of Westminster School, for instance, then want to set up a separate, non-charitable trust solely or very largely concerned with the education of those able to pay their fees of £31,000 a year, that is up to them.

The charitable purposes of these institutions could not be clearer. William of Wykeham established Winchester for the education mainly of poor scholars, and only a small number of “noble commoners”. Henry VI set up Eton for poor scholars. Charterhouse was established by Sir Thomas Sutton, the wealthiest commoner in England, for – yes, more poor scholars. Elizabeth I endowed Westminster School for the same purpose; to this day it is an integral part of Westminster Abbey. John Lyon set up Harrow in 1572 as a free grammar school for the education of boys of the parish of Harrow.
 

Conscience and duty

I could go on through the statutes, charters and founding deeds of hundreds of private schools. It shouldn’t take the Charity Commission to challenge private school foundations about their charitable mission. Their trustees and governors should look to them constantly as a matter of conscience and duty.

With each passing decade many of these schools have become more, not less exclusive, and for generations now few of them have done anything bold to reconnect with their charitable purpose. Most of them are seeking to provide a few more bursaries. Yet it is hard to argue that this is enough, when they could also be running academies whose central purpose is the mission for which their assets were intended in the first place.

As for the idea that these great schools and foundations are not capable of making a success of academies with a more challenging pupil intake, it is a comic proposition. The governing body of Eton is chaired by the former Conservative minister William Waldegrave. Its members include three professors, three knights, five PhDs and a Prussian princess. Westminster School’s governing body is chaired by the Dean of Westminster – John Hall, the former chief education officer of the Church of England who was the driving force behind the Church’s decision to set up more than 30 academies. His fellow governors include the Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, the Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, three professors, two canons, two knights, one baron and one dame.

Almost every private school governing body in the country is a catalogue of the very great and the very good, locally or nationally, including business, religious and educational leaders.

The notion that these organisations, if they have the will to do so, cannot command the resources and the expertise needed to run a successful school or schools in less advantaged areas – if that were true, England would indeed be Greece, about to default on its whole society and not just its state borrowing.

However, there is no need to argue by assertion. The leaders are there. Dulwich is spon - soring an academy in Sheppey. Wellington is sponsoring an academy in Wiltshire. The King Edward VI Foundation is sponsoring an academy in Sheldon, east Birmingham. All these academies replace failing comprehensives. The Girls’ Day School Trust has converted two of its outstanding private schools, in Liverpool and Birkenhead, into state academies. And five substantial academy chains – built up by the Mercers’ Company, the Haberdashers’ Company, the Woodard Corporation, the United Church Schools Trust and the City of London Corporation – have grown out of the management of historic chains of private schools, leveraging this expertise and experience in education to service academies alongside. With vision and leadership, there could be hundreds more academies sponsored by private school foundations.

It would also be good to see successful independent day schools convert to become academies. It was one of my main objectives for the academies programme, as minister for schools, that it should be a vehicle for a modern version of the “direct grant” scheme, which until its abolition in the 1970s made it possible for leading independent grammar schools to be state funded without charging fees. I had in mind a simple model. The private school would become an academy, fully retaining its independent management and character but without fees for any pupils. It would exchange academically selective admission for all-ability admission, with a large catchment area and “banded” admissions so as to ensure a fully comprehensive ability range. There would also be a large sixth form, underpinning continued very strong academic performance.

A direct-grant sector on these lines is gathering scale. I encouraged and oversaw the transition of five historic fee-paying secondary schools to academy status (William Hulme’s Grammar School in Manchester, the Belvedere School in Liverpool, Birkenhead High School, and Colston’s Girls’ and Bristol Cathedral schools in Bristol). All five are still performing strongly as academies, while expanding their intake and greatly broadening their social range. The Cameron government has continued this policy. Liverpool College and the King’s School, Tynemouth – both highly successful independent day schools in localities that suffer from high levels of deprivation – have recently decided to become academies.

With government encouragement, there could soon be 50 or 60 more “direct grant” academies. Over time, these direct grant academies could sponsor new academies, replicating their ethos and success within the system.

I recently visited the Petchey Academy, one of the five such schools in Hackney, east London, sponsored by Jack Petchey, a great East End philanthropist. His academy isn’t just about examination results; it is about education for character, for community and for citizenship. This is done brilliantly, in one of London’s most deprived communities.

The staff were particularly keen that I should see debating teams from Years 10 and 11 debate before the whole of both year groups. The debaters were articulate and well prepared, just like the pupils in all those private school debating societies.

The motion they were debating was: “This House would abolish the private schools.” It was carried by two to one. All the old arguments were aired. Unfairness. Privilege. Elitism. Afterwards, I asked the girl who had led the charge whether she had ever visited a private school. “Of course not,” she said. “Why would they want to have anything to do with anyone from around here?”

Why indeed. It is time to bury the past and build a better future.

Andrew Adonis is a Labour peer and served as schools minister from 2005-2008. For a unique New Statesman reader offer on his new book, “Education, Education, Education” – just £8 (rrp £12.99), signed and with a personalised inscription – visit bitebackpublishing.com and enter the promotional code: NSEducation.

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Who comes next?

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