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“Never be afraid of stridency”: Richard Dawkins’ interview with Christopher Hitchens

Is America heading for theocracy? How worrying is the rise of the Tea Party? Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins discuss God and US politics.

The 2011 Christmas issue of the New Statesman was guest edited by Richard Dawkins. This is his interview with Christopher Hitchens from that issue. It was to be Hitchens' final interview; he died as it was published. A sensation at the time, it is now available to read online for the first time.

Richard Dawkins (left) and Christopher Hitchens in conversation

Richard Dawkins Do you have any memories of life at the New Statesman?

Christopher Hitchens Not that I want to impart. It seems like a different world and a different magazine and it happened to a different person. I’d love them to interview me one day about it, for an edition about the role of the Statesman, but I’d really rather you and I focus on the pulse of the issue, which is obviously our common cause.

RD I’ve been reading some of your recent collections of essays – I’m astounded by your sheer erudition. You seem to have read absolutely everything. I can’t think of anybody since Aldous Huxley who’s so well read.

CH It may strike some people as being broad but it’s possibly at the cost of being a bit shallow. I became a journalist because one didn’t have to specialise. I remember once going to an evening with Umberto Eco talking to Susan Sontag and the definition of the word “polymath” came up. Eco said it was his ambition to be a polymath; Sontag challenged him and said the definition of a polymath is someone who’s interested in everything and nothing else. I was encouraged in my training to read widely – to flit and sip, as Bertie [Wooster] puts it – and I think I’ve got good memory retention. I retain what’s interesting to me, but I don’t have a lot of strategic depth. A lot of reviewers have said, to the point of embarrassing me, that I’m in the class of Edmund Wilson or even George Orwell. It really does remind me that I’m not. But it’s something to at least have had the comparison made – it’s better than I expected when I started.

RD As an Orwell scholar, you must have a particular view of North Korea, Stalin, the Soviet Union, and you must get irritated – perhaps even more than I do – by the constant refrain we hear: “Stalin was an atheist.”

CH We don’t know for sure that he was. Hitler definitely wasn’t. There is a possibility that Himmler was. It’s very unlikely but it wouldn’t make any difference, either way. There’s no mandate in atheism for any particular kind of politics, anyway.

RD The people who did Hitler’s dirty work were almost all religious.

CH I’m afraid the SS’s relationship with the Catholic Church is something the Church still has to deal with and does not deny.

RD Can you talk a bit about that – the relationship of Nazism with the Catholic Church?

CH The way I put it is this: if you’re writing about the history of the 1930s and the rise of totalitarianism, you can take out the word “fascist”, if you want, for Italy, Portugal, Spain, Czechoslovakia and Austria and replace it with “extremeright Catholic party”. Almost all of those regimes were in place with the help of the Vatican and with understandings from the Holy See. It’s not denied. These understandings quite often persisted after the Second World War was over and extended to comparable regimes in Argentina and elsewhere.

RD But there were individual priests who did good things.

CH Not very many. You would know their names if there were more of them. When it comes to National Socialism, there’s no question there’s a mutation, a big one – the Nazis wanted their own form of worship. Just as they thought they were a separate race, they wanted their own religion. They dug out the Norse gods, all kinds of extraordinary myths and legends from the old sagas. They wanted to control the churches. They were willing to make a deal with them. The first deal Hitler made with the Catholic Church was the Konkordat. The Church agreed to dissolve its political party and he got control over German education, which was a pretty good deal. Celebrations of his birthday were actually by order from the pulpit. When Hitler survived an assassination attempt, prayers were said, and so forth. But there’s no doubt about it, [the Nazis] wanted control – and they were willing to clash with the churches to get it. There’s another example. You swore on Almighty God that you would never break your oath to the Führer. This is not even secular, let alone atheist.

RD There was also grace before meals, personally thanking Adolf Hitler.

CH I believe there was. Certainly, you can hear the oath being taken – there are recordings of it – but this, Richard, is a red herring. It’s not even secular. They’re changing the subject.

RD But it comes up over and over again.

CH You mentioned North Korea. It is, in every sense, a theocratic state. It’s almost supernatural, in that the births of the [ruling] Kim family are considered to be mysterious and accompanied by happenings. It’s a necrocracy or mausolocracy, but there’s no possible way you could say it’s a secular state, let alone an atheist one. Attempts to found new religions should attract our scorn just as much as the alliances with the old ones do. All they’re saying is that you can’t claim Hitler was distinctively or specifically Christian: “Maybe if he had gone on much longer, he would have de-Christianised a bit more.” This is all a complete fog of nonsense. It’s bad history and it’s bad propaganda.

RD And bad logic, because there’s no connection between atheism and doing horrible things, whereas there easily can be a connection in the case of religion, as we see with modern Islam.

CH To the extent that they are new religions – Stalin worship and Kim Il-sungism – we, like all atheists, regard them with horror.

RD You debated with Tony Blair. I’m not sure I watched that. I love listening to you [but] I can’t bear listening to . . . Well, I mustn’t say that. I think he did come over as rather nice on that evening.

CH He was charming, that evening. And during the day, as well.

RD What was your impression of him?

CH You can only have one aim per debate. I had two in debating with Tony Blair. The first one was to get him to admit that it was not done – the stuff we complain of – in only the name of religion. That’s a cop-out. The authority is in the text. Second, I wanted to get him to admit, if possible, that giving money to a charity or organising a charity does not vindicate a cause. I got him to the first one and I admired his honesty. He was asked by the interlocutor at about half-time: “Which of Christopher’s points strikes you as the best?” He said: “I have to admit, he’s made his case, he’s right. This stuff, there is authority for it in the canonical texts, in Islam, Judaism.” At that point, I’m ready to fold – I’ve done what I want for the evening. We did debate whether Catholic charities and so on were a good thing and I said: “They are but they don’t prove any point and some of them are only making up for damage done.” For example, the Church had better spend a lot of money doing repair work on its Aids policy in Africa, [to make up for preaching] that condoms don’t prevent disease or, in some cases, that they spread it. It is iniquitous. It has led to a lot of people dying, horribly. Also, I’ve never looked at some of the ground operations of these charities – apart from Mother Teresa – but they do involve a lot of proselytising, a lot of propaganda. They’re not just giving out free stuff. They’re doing work to recruit.

RD And Mother Teresa was one of the worst offenders?

CH She preached that poverty was a gift from God. And she believed that women should not be given control over the reproductive cycle. Mother Teresa spent her whole life making sure that the one cure for poverty we know is sound was not implemented. So Tony Blair knows this but he doesn’t have an answer. If I say, “Your Church preaches against the one cure for poverty,” he doesn’t deny it, but he doesn’t affirm it either. But remember, I did start with a text and I asked him to comment on it first, but he never did. Cardinal Newman said he would rather the whole world and everyone in it be painfully destroyed and condemned for ever to eternal torture than one sinner go unrebuked for the stealing of a sixpence. It’s right there in the centre of the Apologia. The man whose canonisation Tony had been campaigning for. You put these discrepancies in front of him and he’s like all the others. He keeps two sets of books. And this is also, even in an honest person, shady.

RD It’s like two minds, really. One notices this with some scientists.

CH I think we all do it a bit.

RD Do we?

CH We’re all great self-persuaders.

RD But do we hold such extreme contradictions in our heads?

CH We like to think our colleagues would point them out, in our group, anyway. No one’s pointed out to me in reviewing my God book God Is Not Great that there’s a flat discrepancy between the affirmation he makes on page X and the affirmation he makes on page Y.

RD But they do accuse you of being a contrarian, which you’ve called yourself . . .

CH Well, no, I haven’t. I’ve disowned it. I was asked to address the idea of it and I began by saying it’s got grave shortcomings as an idea, but I am a bit saddled with it.

RD I’ve always been very suspicious of the leftright dimension in politics.

CH Yes; it’s broken down with me.

RD It’s astonishing how much traction the left-right continuum [has] . . . If you know what someone thinks about the death penalty or abortion, then you generally know what they think about everything else. But you clearly break that rule.

CH I have one consistency, which is [being] against the totalitarian – on the left and on the right. The totalitarian, to me, is the enemy – the one that’s absolute, the one that wants control over the inside of your head, not just your actions and your taxes. And the origins of that are theocratic, obviously. The beginning of that is the idea that there is a supreme leader, or infallible pope, or a chief rabbi, or whatever, who can ventriloquise the divine and tell us what to do. That has secular forms with gurus and dictators, of course, but it’s essentially the same. There have been some thinkers – Orwell is pre-eminent – who understood that, unfortunately, there is innate in humans a strong tendency to worship, to become abject. So we’re not just fighting the dictators. We’re criticising our fellow humans for trying to short-cut, to make their lives simpler, by surrendering and saying, “[If] you offer me bliss, of course I’m going to give up some of my mental freedom for that.” We say it’s a false bargain: you’ll get nothing. You’re a fool.

RD That part of you that was, or is, of the radical left is always against the totalitarian dictators.

CH Yes. I was a member of the Trotskyist group – for us, the socialist movement could only be revived if it was purged of Stalinism . . . It’s very much a point for our view that Stalinism was a theocracy.

RD One of my main beefs with religion is the way they label children as a “Catholic child” or a “Muslim child”. I’ve become a bit of a bore about it.

CH You must never be afraid of that charge, any more than stridency.

RD I will remember that.

CH If I was strident, it doesn’t matter – I was a jobbing hack, I bang my drum. You have a discipline in which you are very distinguished. You’ve educated a lot of people; nobody denies that, not even your worst enemies. You see your discipline being attacked and defamed and attempts made to drive it out.

Stridency is the least you should muster . . . It’s the shame of your colleagues that they don’t form ranks and say, “Listen, we’re going to defend our colleagues from these appalling and obfuscating elements.” If you go on about something, the worst thing the English will say about you, as we both know – as we can say of them, by the way – is that they’re boring.

RD Indeed. Only this morning, I was sent a copy of [advice from] a British government website, called something like “The Responsibilities of Parents”. One of these responsibilities was “determine the child’s religion”. Literally, determine. It means establish, cause . . . I couldn’t ask for a clearer illustration, because, sometimes, when I make my complaint about this, I’m told nobody actually does label children Catholic children or Muslim children.

CH Well, the government does. It’s borrowed, as far as I can see, in part from British imperial policy, in turn borrowed from Ottoman and previous empires – you classify your new subjects according to their faith. You can be an Ottoman citizen but you’re a Jewish one or an Armenian Christian one. And some of these faiths tell their children that the children of other faiths are going to hell. I think we can’t ban that, nor can we call it “hate speech”, which I’m dubious about anyway, but there should be a wrinkle of disapproval.

RD I would call it mental child abuse.

CH I can’t find a way, as a libertarian, of saying that people can’t raise their children, as they say, according to their rights. But the child has rights and society does, too. We don’t allow female – and I don’t think we should countenance male – genital mutilation.

Now, it would be very hard to say that you can’t tell your child that they are lucky and they have joined the one true faith. I don’t see how you stop it. I only think the rest of society should look at it with a bit of disapproval, which it doesn’t. If you’re a Mormon and you run for office and say, “Do you believe in the golden plates that were dug up by Joseph Smith?” – which [Mitt] Romney hasn’t been asked yet – sorry, you’re going to get mocked. You’re going to get laughed at.

RD There is a tendency among liberals to feel that religion should be off the table.

CH Or even that there’s anti-religious racism, which I think is a terrible limitation.

RD Romney has questions to answer.

CH Certainly, he does. The question of Mormon racism did come up, to be fair, and the Church did very belatedly make amends for saying what, in effect, it had been saying: that black people’s souls weren’t human, quite. They timed it suspiciously for the passage of legislation. Well, OK, then they grant the right of society to amend [the legislation]. To that extent, they’re opportunists.

RD But what about the daftness of Mormonism? The fact that Joseph Smith was clearly a charlatan –

CH I know, it’s extraordinary.

RD I think there is a convention in America that you don’t tackle somebody about their religion.

CH Yes, and in a way it’s attributed to pluralism. And so, to that extent, one wants to respect it, but I think it can be exploited. By many people, including splinter-group Mormons who still do things like plural marriage and, very repulsively, compulsory dowries – they basically give away their daughters, often to blood relatives. And also kinship marriages that are too close. This actually won’t quite do. When it is important, they tend to take refuge in: “You’re attacking my fundamental right.” I don’t think they really should be allowed that.

RD Do you think America is in danger of becoming a theocracy?

CH No, I don’t. The people who we mean when we talk about that – maybe the extreme Protestant evangelicals, who do want a God-run America and believe it was founded on essentially fundamentalist Protestant principles – I think they may be the most overrated threat in the country.

RD Oh, good.

CH They’ve been defeated everywhere. Why is this? In the 1920s, they had a string of victories. They banned the sale, manufacture and distribution and consumption of alcohol. They made it the constitution. They more or less managed to ban immigration from countries that had non-Protestant, non-white majorities. From these victories, they have never recovered. They’ll never recover from [the failure of] Prohibition. It was their biggest defeat. They’ll never recover from the Scopes trial. Every time they’ve tried [to introduce the teaching of creationism], the local school board or the parents or the courts have thrown it out and it’s usually because of the work of people like you, who have shown that it’s nonsense. They try to make a free speech question out of it but they will fail with that, also. People don’t want to come from the town or the state or the county that gets laughed at.

RD Yes.

CH In all my tours around the South, it’s amazing how many people – Christians as well – want to disprove the idea that they’re all in thrall to people like [the fundamentalist preacher Jerry] Falwell. They don’t want to be a laughing stock.

RD Yes.

CH And if they passed an ordinance saying there will be prayer in school every morning from now on, one of two things would happen: it would be overthrown in no time by all the courts, with barrels of laughter heaped over it, or people would say: “Very well, we’re starting with Hindu prayer on Monday.” They would regret it so bitterly that there are days when I wish they would have their own way for a short time.

RD Oh, that’s very cheering.

CH I’m a bit more worried about the extreme, reactionary nature of the papacy now. But that again doesn’t seem to command very big allegiance among the American congregation. They are disobedient on contraception, flagrantly; on divorce; on gay marriage, to an extraordinary degree that I wouldn’t have predicted; and they’re only holding firm on abortion, which, in my opinion, is actually a very strong moral question and shouldn’t be decided lightly. I feel very squeamish about it. I believe that the unborn child is a real concept, in other words. We needn’t go there, but I’m not a complete abortion-on-demand fanatic. I think it requires a bit of reflection. But anyway, even on that, the Catholic Communion is very agonised. And also, [when] you go and debate with them, very few of them could tell you very much about what the catechism really is. It’s increasingly cultural Catholicism.

RD That is true, of course.

CH So, really, the only threat from religious force in America is the same as it is, I’m afraid, in many other countries – from outside. And it’s jihadism, some of it home-grown, but some of that is so weak and so self-discrediting.

RD It’s more of a problem in Britain.

CH And many other European countries, where its alleged root causes are being allowed slightly too friendly an interrogation, I think. Make that much too friendly.

RD Some of our friends are so worried about Islam that they’re prepared to lend support to Christianity as a kind of bulwark against it.

CH I know many Muslims who, in leaving the faith, have opted to go . . . to Christianity or via it to non-belief. Some of them say it’s the personality of Jesus of Nazareth. The mild and meek one, as compared to the rather farouche, physical, martial, rather greedy . . .

RD Warlord.

CH . . . Muhammad. I can see that that might have an effect.

RD Do you ever worry that if we win and, so to speak, destroy Christianity, that vacuum would be filled by Islam?

CH No, in a funny way, I don’t worry that we’ll win. All that we can do is make absolutely sure that people know there’s a much more wonderful and interesting and beautiful alternative. No, I don’t think that Europe would fill up with Muslims as it emptied of Christians. Christianity has defeated itself in that it has become a cultural thing. There really aren’t believing Christians in the way there were generations ago.

RD Certainly in Europe that’s true – but in America?

CH There are revivals, of course, and among Jews as well. But I think there’s a very longrunning tendency in the developed world and in large areas elsewhere for people to see the virtue of secularism, the separation of church and state, because they’ve tried the alternatives . . . Every time something like a jihad or a sharia movement has taken over any country – admittedly they’ve only been able to do it in very primitive cases – it’s a smouldering wreck with no productivity.

RD Total failure. If you look at religiosity across countries of the world and, indeed, across the states of the US, you find that religiosity tends to correlate with poverty and with various other indices of social deprivation.

CH Yes. That’s also what it feeds on. But I don’t want to condescend about that. I know a lot of very educated, very prosperous, very thoughtful people who believe.

RD Do you think [Thomas] Jefferson and [James] Madison were deists, as is often said?

CH I think they fluctuated, one by one. Jefferson is the one I’m more happy to pronounce on. The furthest he would go in public was to incline to a theistic enlightened view but, in his private correspondence, he goes much further. He says he wishes we could return to the wisdom of more than 2,000 years ago. That’s in his discussion of his own Jefferson Bible, where he cuts out everything supernatural relating to Jesus. But also, very importantly, he says to his nephew Peter Carr in a private letter [on the subject of belief]: “Do not be frightened from this inquiry by any fear of its consequences. If it ends in a belief that there is no God, you will find incitements to virtue in the comfort and pleasantness you feel in its exercise and the love of others which it will procure you.” Now, that can only be written by someone who’s had that experience.

RD It’s very good, isn’t it?

CH In my judgement, it’s an internal reading, but I think it’s a close one. There was certainly no priest at his bedside. But he did violate a rule of C S Lewis’s and here I’m on Lewis’s side. Lewis says it is a cop-out to say Jesus was a great moralist. He said it’s the one thing we must not say; it is a wicked thing to say. If he wasn’t the Son of God, he was a very evil impostor and his teachings were vain and fraudulent. You may not take the easy route here and say: “He may not have been the Son of God and he may not have been the Redeemer, but he was a wonderful moralist.” Lewis is more honest than Jefferson in this point. I admire Lewis for saying that. Rick Perry said it the other day.

RD Jesus could just have been mistaken.

CH He could. It’s not unknown for people to have the illusion that they’re God or the Son. It’s a common delusion but, again, I don’t think we need to condescend. Rick Perry once said: “Not only do I believe that Jesus is my personal saviour but I believe that those who don’t are going to eternal punishment.” He was challenged at least on the last bit and he said, “I don’t have the right to alter the doctrine. I can’t say it’s fine for me and not for others.”

RD So we ought to be on the side of these fundamentalists?

CH Not “on the side”, but I think we should say that there’s something about their honesty that we wish we could find.

RD Which we don’t get in bishops . . .

CH Our soft-centred bishops at Oxford and other people, yes.

RD I’m often asked why it is that this republic [of America], founded in secularism, is so much more religious than those western European countries that have an official state religion, like Scandinavia and Britain.

CH [Alexis] de Tocqueville has it exactly right. If you want a church in America, you have to build it by the sweat of your own brow and many have. That’s why they’re attached to them.

RD Yes.

CH [Look at] the Greek Orthodox community in Brooklyn. What’s the first thing it will do? It will build itself a little shrine. The Jews – not all of them – remarkably abandoned their religion very soon after arriving from the shtetl.

RD Are you saying that most Jews have abandoned their religion?

CH Increasingly in America. When you came to escape religious persecution and you didn’t want to replicate it, that’s a strong memory. The Jews very quickly secularised when they came. American Jews must be the most secular force on the planet now, as a collective. If they are a collective –which they’re not, really.

RD While not being religious, they often still observe the Sabbath and that kind of thing.

CH There’s got to be something cultural. I go to Passover every year. Sometimes, even I have a seder, because I want my child to know that she does come very distantly from another tradition. It would explain if she met her greatgrandfather why he spoke Yiddish. It’s cultural, but the Passover seder is also the Socratic forum. It’s dialectical. It’s accompanied by wine. It’s got the bones of quite a good discussion in it. And then there is manifest destiny. People feel America is just so lucky. It’s between two oceans, filled with minerals, wealth, beauty. It does seem providential to many people.

RD Promised land, city on a hill.

CH All that and the desire for another Eden. Some secular utopians came here with the same idea. Thomas Paine and others all thought of America as a great new start for the species.

RD But that was all secular.

CH A lot of it was, but you can’t get away from the liturgy: it’s too powerful. You will end up saying things like “promised land” and it can be mobilised for sinister purposes. But in a lot of cases, it’s a mild belief. It’s just: “We should share our good luck.”

RD I’ve heard another theory that, America being a country of immigrants, people coming from Europe, where they left their extended family and left their support system, were alone and they needed something.

CH Surely that was contained in what I just . . .

RD Maybe it was.

CH The reason why most of my friends are non-believers is not particularly that they were engaged in the arguments you and I have been having, but they were made indifferent by compulsory religion at school.

RD They got bored by it.

CH They’d had enough of it. They took from it occasionally whatever they needed – if you needed to get married, you knew where to go. Some of them, of course, are religious and some of them like the music but, generally speaking, the British people are benignly indifferent to religion.

RD And the fact that there is an established church increases that effect. Churches should not be tax-free the way that they are. Not automatically, anyway.

CH No, certainly not. If the Church has demanded that equal time be given to creationist or pseudo-creationist speculations . . . any Church that teaches that in its school and is in receipt of federal money from the faith-based initiative must, by law, also teach Darwinism and alternative teachings, in order that the debate is being taught. I don’t think they want this.

RD No.

CH Tell them if they want equal time, we’ll jolly well have it. That’s why they’ve always been against comparative religion.

RD Comparative religion would be one of the best weapons, I suspect.

CH It’s got so insipid in parts of America now that a lot of children are brought up – as their parents aren’t doing it and leave it to the schools and the schools are afraid of it – with no knowledge of any religion of any kind. I would like children to know what religion is about because [otherwise] some guru or cult or revivalists will sweep them up.

RD They’re vulnerable. I also would like them to know the Bible for literary reasons.

CH Precisely. We both, I was pleased to see, have written pieces about the King James Bible. The AV [Authorised Version], as it was called in my boyhood. A huge amount of English literature would be opaque if people didn’t know it.

RD Absolutely, yes. Have you read some of the modern translations? “Futile, said the preacher. Utterly futile.”

CH He doesn’t!

RD He does, honestly. “Futile, futile said the priest. It’s all futile.”

CH That’s Lamentations.

RD No, it’s Ecclesiastes. “Vanity, vanity.”

CH “Vanity, vanity.” Good God. That’s the least religious book in the Bible. That’s the one that Orwell wanted at his funeral.

RD I bet he did. I sometimes think the poetry comes from the intriguing obscurity of mistranslation. “When the sound of the grinding is low, the grasshopper is heard in the land . . . The grasshopper shall be a burden.” What the hell?

CH The Book of Job is the other great non-religious one, I always feel. “Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward.” Try to do without that. No, I’m glad we’re on the same page there. People tell me that the recitation of the Quran can have the same effect if you understand the original language. I wish I did. Some of the Catholic liturgy is attractive.

RD I don’t know enough Latin to judge that.

CH Sometimes one has just enough to be irritated.

RD Yes [laughs]. Can you say anything about Christmas?

CH Yes. There was going to be a winter solstice holiday for sure. The dominant religion was going to take it over and that would have happened without Dickens and without others.

RD The Christmas tree comes from Prince Albert; the shepherds and the wise men are all made up.

CH Cyrenius wasn’t governor of Syria, all of that. Increasingly, it’s secularised itself. This “Happy Holidays” – I don’t particularly like that, either.

RD Horrible, isn’t it? “Happy holiday season.”

CH I prefer our stuff about the cosmos.

***

The day after this interview, I was honoured to present an award to Christopher Hitchens in the presence of a large audience in Texas that gave him a standing ovation, first as he entered the hall and again at the end of his deeply moving speech. My own presentation speech ended with a tribute, in which I said that every day he demonstrates the falsehood of the lie that there are no atheists in foxholes: “Hitch is in a foxhole, and he is dealing with it with a courage, an honesty and a dignity that any of us would be, and should be, proud to muster.”

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