Malala recovering in hospital in the UK with her family. Photograph: Getty Images
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Malala Yousafzai: The girl who played with fire

The shooting of the brave child activist Malala Yousafzai by a Taliban hitman shocked Pakistan. But politicians there are less keen to confront the state’s own role in sustaining extremists.

On Wednesday 11 October, a group of schoolgirls marched through an affluent area of Kara - chi, holding banners and placards that read: “We are all Malala.” Residents of such areas seldom walk the streets, as they fear robbery or kidnap, so it was a striking move. From Lahore to Islamabad to Peshawar, similar scenes played out all over Pakistan. Both women and men held processions, candlelit vigils and public prayer sessions for Malala Yousafzai, the 15-year-old schoolgirl and activist who was shot in the head by a Taliban assassin who had boarded her school bus.

Malala came to public attention at the age of 11 when she began to write a blog for BBC Urdu.

It recounted what it was like living under the Taliban in the months after they took control of her native Swat Valley, in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, Pakistan, in 2009. Written under the pseudonym “Gul Makai”, the blog described the child’s terror that her education would come to a halt. “I had a terrible dream yesterday with military helicopters and the Taliban,” the first blog began. “I have had such dreams since the launch of the military operation in Swat . . . I was afraid going to school because the Taliban had issued an edict banning all girls from attending schools.”

Both Malala and most of the Taliban are ethnic Pashtuns, the group that dominates Pakistan’s north western regions and who account for more than half of the population of Afghanistan. She was given her first name, which means “grief-stricken”, after Malalai of Maiwand, a Pashtun warrior-woman. The Yousafzai, her tribe, are prominent in Swat, where her father, Ziauddin, runs a chain of schools. It was he, an educational activist, who put Malala’s name forward for the BBC blog after a producer approached him asking for suggestions.

The former princely state of Swat is a green oasis in the north-west of Pakistan previously popular with honeymooning couples. But from 2007 it became the victim of a sustained assault by the Taliban. After crossing over the porous border between Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal areas, the militant group gradually moved down from the hills towards Swat. A military operation in 2007 failed to defeat the Islamist insurgents, and by 2009 they had gained control of as much as 80 per cent of the region. Following a period of tacit acquiescence by Islamabad, a second military offensive was mounted in May 2009, after which the army declared that the Taliban had been eliminated from Swat. After this, Malala appeared on national television to discuss the subject of girls’ education. She became a potent symbol of resistance against the Taliban and last year the Pakistani government honoured her for her activism with the country’s first National Peace Award for Youth.

Even after she was put on a Taliban hit list at the start of the year she was undeterred. “Sometimes I imagine I’m going along and the Taliban stop me,” Malala said on television. “I take my sandal and hit them on the face and say, ‘What you’re doing is wrong. Education is our right, don’t take it from us.’ There is this quality in me – I’m ready for all situations. So even if (God let this not happen) they kill me, I’ll first say to them, ‘What you’re doing is wrong.’”

On Tuesday 9 October, Malala was sitting on a school bus in her home city of Mingora, waiting to return home from morning lessons. A bearded man entered the bus and shot her at close range in the head and leg. (Two of Malala’s classmates were also injured.) She was given emergency treatment and taken to a hospital intensive-care unit in Peshawar, 105 miles from Mingora.

The extremist Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibility for the attack and warned that, if the girl survived, another attempt would be made on her life. “She was pro-west, she was speaking against Taliban, and she was calling President Obama her ideal leader,” said a TTP spokesman, Ehsanullah Ehsan. “She was young but she was promoting western culture in Pashtun areas.”

Fifty clerics from the Sunni Ittehad Council, one of the country’s Islamist parties, responded by issuing a fatwa that condemned the shooting as “un-Islamic”. They said that US drone attacks were no excuse for the Taliban’s action and that Islam does not prohibit the education of women.

The bullet grazed Malala’s brain and lodged in her neck. After it was removed, she was flown on 15 October to England, with her condition still critical. On arrival, she was transferred to a specialist unit at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham. Her treatment is being paid for by the government of Pakistan.  She is in a stable condition, even communicating by writing notes, but doctors have warned that she is “not out of the woods yet”, due to signs of infection.

****

In rural Pakistan, and especially in the areas of Taliban insurgency, a woman who defends her rights is taking a risk. On 5 July, a social worker and women’s activist, Farida Afridi, was shot dead in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa as punishment for being an “agent of change” in the tribal areas. The incident passed without much notice.

One woman activist who agitated for change and lived to tell the tale is Mukhtar Mai, from a village in the Muzaffargarh District. In 2002 she was gang-raped on the orders of a tribal council in an act of so-called honour revenge. Tradition dictates that a woman should commit suicide after a gang-rape, but Mukhtar refused and fought the case. Six of her rapists and attackers were sentenced to death for the crime but all were later acquitted by the courts. However, her struggles were reported widely in Pakistan and abroad, and she has become a prominent advocate for women’s rights.

I spoke to her on the phone from her home in Muzaffargarh, where she has opened a girls’ school and women’s crisis centre. “I feel so good about the public response to Malala,” she said, her voice firm. “She’s just a child and yet she’s fought for a nation. When they shot her, it was not just Malala who fielded the bullet; thousands of Malalas were wounded. Today it was her turn for the bullet; tomorrow it could be some other. It could be me. I pray for her.”

Mukhtar frequently receives death threats. “I get calls every couple of weeks. They ring on
three [different] telephone numbers and say obscene things and make threats,” she says. “I’ve passed the messages on to the police – not a thing is done.”

Her girls’ school was attacked by militants days before the Malala shooting. When the assailants did not find her there, they smashed the windows and beat up senior teachers. “There is always danger but the work I need to do is more important than my life. My life is in God’s hands.”

Like Malala, Mukhtar shows immense bravery, resilience and defiance. The failure of the state to provide protection for these women is symptomatic not only of a wider failure of criminal justice but of Pakistan’s ambivalent attitude to Islamic extremism.

****

Malala’s shooting was condemned by politicians from various parties. Billboards have been erected around Karachi by the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) displaying a photograph of Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated in 2007, next to an image of Malala, with the slogan “Your daughters will keep fighting”. However, many doubt that these declarations of outrage will translate into further action.

“There is no clarity from the military and security establishment on whether they wish to take on these people and ensure that they respect the rule of law, or whether they wish to use them as allies,” says Ali Dayan Hasan, director of Human Rights Watch in Pakistan. “Until they resolve this contradiction, the Taliban and affiliated groups will seek to expand political and social space. The attack on Malala is an example of just that.”

The rallies held across the country were a moving testament to public support for Malala and what she stood for. But they were nothing compared to the state-backed protests against the anti Islamic Innocence of Muslims film that swept Pakistan’s major cities several weeks previously. Mainstream political parties can easily mobilise people in their tens of thousands but they are choosing not to, perhaps because they rely on Islamist groups for votes and backing in parliament.

Nowhere has the Pakistani state’s inconsistent attitudes to militancy been felt more acutely than in Swat. In February 2009, after the Taliban had taken control of the valleys and cities of the region, the PPP-led government signed a peace deal with the Taliban that gave them de facto control of the Malakand Division, an administrative area that contains Swat. The deal was made in the mistaken belief that this would stop them from trying to take more ground. The brief period of Taliban rule in Swat was nightmarish. Men were required to grow beards and women forced into wearing burqas. Those who did not comply were publicly lashed or beheaded. More than 400 of the 1,576 schools in Swat were closed, 70 per cent of them girls’ schools. The Taliban did not stop there. Buoyed by their tactical victory, they ventured deeper into Pakistan, launching audacious attacks. Eventually the army was forced to take action. The subsequent military campaign, from May to July 2009, resulted in the displacement of two million people. Although the army claimed to have dismantled Taliban networks, most of the commanders were not captured, and three years later the leading players remain at large.

In April 2009, before the army moved in, a YouTube video prompted outrage comparable with that of recent weeks. It shows a 17-yearold woman, in a burqa and lying face down on the floor, in the Swat town of Kabal. One man holds her down by the arms and head, a second holds down her legs, and a third, facing the camera, grimly lashes her as she screams for mercy. A crowd of men, largely silent, looks on. Much as with the Malala attack, the video was a reminder of the brutality of the Taliban insurgents, and it energised public opinion. In May 2009, the military moved to recapture the Swat District.

****

One recent afternoon, I visited a government school in central Karachi, a sprawling, rundown building that is facing demolition by the state. Young girls in uniform headscarves filled the playground, so that there was hardly any room to move. Open sewage ran through one section of the grounds and the roof of one of the buildings was open to the sky. Yet parents and residents of this low-income, largely Pashtun neighbourhood are fighting to keep the school open.

The fight to save the school is just one example of the premium placed on education across Pakistan – regardless of gender. “People will perhaps agree that the price of going to school is that their daughters cover their heads, because there is a political instinct to appease rather than to confront,” says Hasan from Human Rights Watch. “But it is another thing to say she will not go to school. That is something that urban Pakistan has no time for.”

The type of education on offer is not always ideal. Madrasas, or religious schools, are frequently incubators of militancy in the urban centres. Often funded by Saudi Arabia, many preach a harsh version of Islam that is at odds with the forms that are established parts of the culture in south Asia. But the reasons for their influence are not always ideological. “If you find a poor male, who is out of a job, who is hungry, who can’t feed his family, he’s prey for being picked up and being turned into a militant,” says Najma Sadeque, a journalist and feminist activist. “Most send their children to madrasas because it’s a place where they can get free meals. It’s as basic as that. By not ensuring food security, not looking into economic and social problems, the government is just breeding more and more of this militancy.”

Although the main battleground of the Islamist insurgency is in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, which border Afghanistan, and in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the rest of the country is far from exempt. “Militancy and extremism run the length and breadth of Pakistan,” Hasan says. “That’s why it is so difficult to address, because it has permeated society. This is not a geographical thing. It’s a social landscape issue. That requires a series of remedial short-term, long-term and medium-term measures.”

There is no mass support for the Taliban but it would be naive to suggest that they have no appeal at all. The extremists have successfully appropriated an anti-imperialist and anti-American discourse that resonates with the wider public mood. The Taliban were not a problem in Pakistan until the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. American drone strikes and the associated civilian deaths as well as the assault on sovereignty have further complicated public sympathies. And conspiracy theories proliferate. Over dinner, a top lawyer very seriously told me that Malala was a “puppet of the west”. A businessman said that her shooting had “obviously” been orchestrated by the government as an excuse to delay the next election, which is scheduled for early next year.

While the dominant mood remains one of disgust and outrage about what happened, several newspapers have questioned why so much attention is being given to Malala when hundreds of nameless women and children have been killed in US drone attacks. Others repeat the widespread theory that the Taliban are being funded by Washington as a ploy to keep Pakistan unstable. “It is not just a question of one little girl’s life. It is a question of the survival of the state,” Zohra Yusuf, head of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, told me. “The threat has to be addressed and names have to be named.”

Above all, the attack on Malala reiterated how much the Taliban hate educated and independent women. This virulent, visceral hatred is as much founded in tribal codes as it is the product of an ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam. Anis Haroon, chairperson of the National Commission on the Status of Women, said that it was “condemnable” to justify the attack on Malala with talk of US drones and that her shooting should bring to an end all talk of negotiating with the TTP.

“The whole issue of good Taliban and bad Taliban is not valid because all Taliban are bad for women,” Haroon told me. “They have the same ideology, the same policies, the same patriarchal mindset. It doesn’t make any difference to us which type of Taliban. They are the same as far as women are concerned.”

There is fear in Pakistan. Many people do not travel without a chauffeur or an armed guard; others avoid going out on Fridays, when crowds amass around prayer time, in case of bomb attacks. But in spite of all this, women’s rights activists are refusing to be silenced. “The future is brighter,” Mukhtar Mai, the prominent advocate, says. “Women have found their voice. They use it in public to ask for their rights. You see now, even a child like Malala has the courage to speak out.

“There are dangers, but placed against the need to achieve something, to express yourself, the threat is diminished. The women here are fighting for release from their pain.”

Samira Shackle is a former NS staff writer now living and working in Karachi.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Something Rotten

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