ANDREW BRET WALLIS/OCEAN/CORBIS
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The keyboard and the spade

In the overdeveloped West, technology is making us forget what it truly means to be human.

Slit-planting is the easiest way to plant a bare root tree. It needs to be done in winter, when both the tree and the soil are dormant. We planted ours in February, and it was hard work: harder than I realised at the time. I am writing this in June, and my body still hasn’t recovered. My left arm is partly crippled by tendonitis, and my lower back is bad on some days and not so bad on others. My fingers and wrists begin to ache and tingle if I demand too much from them. This means that the acres of grass I have to scythe on my land are going uncut, and the place is running wild. I think I’m going to need to ask our neighbour to graze his horses in our field again, because I can’t do much else with it this year. My hands and my arms are currently not suited to serious physical work, as a direct result of my winter toils with the trees. That, and over twenty years of typing words like this into computers, which has frazzled the tendons and the nerves in my forearms possibly beyond repair. The spade and the keyboard are very different tools, but one thing they have in common is their ability to break the human body.

We planted around five hundred small trees here on our couple of acres in the west of Ireland. Most of them will end up in our woodstove: the idea is to be self-sufficient in heating as soon as possible. For this purpose, we’ve planted several blocks of birch, poplar and willow, which should have a coppice cycle of six or seven years. On top of that, we’ve put in about a hundred sticks of basket willow, in differing colours. We’ve also planted three hedges of native trees – rowan, more birch, spindle, holly, wild cherry, hazel, oak – to create windbreaks, shield us from the lane in front of the house and make some kind of offering for the birds around here. Perhaps it will distract their attention from our vegetable garden, which they are currently digging up daily.

The real work was in clearing the ground, most of which was covered thickly with a deep tangle of brambles and suckering blackthorns. When we moved to this little patch of land, we came with ideals, and one of them was to do our work by hand, with as little impact as possible. So we laid into the thorns and brambles, which must have been growing for decades, with scythes and mattocks and spades and machetes. It took weeks and weeks. The scratches were deep. The industrial-strength gloves we bought were torn to shreds. More than one mattock handle was broken. I have never seen suckers so thick or long, nor root balls so deep and woody. Even after weeks of clearing the ground by hand, we still had to hire a digger for a day to tear out the deepest of the roots and make the ground fit for planting.

After that, the planting itself was a doddle. To slit-plant a tree, you just push your spade into the ground up to the end of the blade, wiggle it back and forth until you have a wide enough slit and then drop the tree root into it. You cover the ground around the tree with newspaper, and then pile wet straw on top of that to mulch it. Finally, if your land attracts both rabbits and hares, which ours does, you wind a plastic spiral tree guard around the tiny trunk, and fortify it with a garden cane against the Atlantic winds.

Do that five hundred times, and you have a little forest. Better, you have a forest planted in a low-impact and ecological way. You have an endless supply of sustainable fuel for your sustainable household, and you have used minimal dirty fossil fuels in order to create it. You have taken some wasteland and made it into a diverse ecosystem. You have created a closed-loop system, and a mini carbon sink. You have also crippled yourself. But it was worth it.

At least, that’s what I thought I would be telling myself at this stage. But I’m not so sure any more.

I don’t mean that it wasn’t worth it. I would have liked to have done it without the consequent pain, but I don’t regret putting the trees in. This is the kind of thing we came here to do, and compared to a lot of what is done to agricultural land, it is a good thing. Maybe I can grow alongside these trees, and learn a little patience from them. Maybe we can leave this place better than we found it.

But I’m kidding myself if I think this was a “low-impact” enterprise, and I’m not just talking about the impact on my musculoskeletal system. It was a two-hour journey in my diesel-powered camper van to collect the trees in the first place. A heavy-duty mini-digger used up a day’s worth of fossil fuel to heave the root balls out of our land. And those are just the most obvious examples of our reliance on not-very-sustainable industrial technologies to put our little forest in. Consider the simple tools: the spade, the mattock, the machete, the scythe. All of them made of steel whose ore was dragged up from some mountain somewhere and smelted, shaped and tempered in a factory, then fixed to a machine-tooled handle made of wood from who-knows-where. All of them, like my gardening gloves and my wellies and my raincoat, and the plastic tree spirals and the newspaper and even the straw, products of a globe-spanning industrial economy which helped us to plant our low-impact trees in our low-impact garden.

Then, of course, there is the awkward fact that in order to plant these trees we had to cut down a lot of . . . trees. The trees that we chopped down were suckering blackthorn and bramble, mainly. They were not useful or attractive to us, whereas the ones we planted were. I give this an ecological gloss by talking up the fact that we have planted a diversity of native species, but whichever way I cut it, we have cleared a wilderness in order to plant crops. The product of those crops might be firewood or basket willow or natural beauty or human contentment or protection against the elements, but they are crops nevertheless, and the things they replaced were wild plants growing without any human intervention.

It turns out that living a simpler life can be quite complicated.

***

I was about a quarter of the way in to What Technology Wants before I realised I was reading a religious text. What Technology Wants is a book published a few years back by Kevin Kelly, co-founder of Wired magazine and a significant spokesman for what we might call the Silicon Valley Mindset. It takes the reader through the historical development of technology and into a future in which, Kelly believes, technology will be a living force which controls our destiny.

Kelly starts by leading us on a journey through the development of technology, or perhaps more accurately, the idea of technology. The idea, he suggests, is a fairly new one. Though human beings have been using tools since they first dug holes with sticks, and though the Greeks and Romans invented everything from iron welding and the bellows through to blown glass and watermills, there was no sense that this collection of useful artefacts was anything more than the sum of its parts. “Technology could be found everywhere in the ancient world except in the minds of humans,” writes Kelly. That changed in 1802, when, at the height of the Industrial Revolution, the German professor Johann Beckmann coined the word “technology” to refer to the “systemic order” of tools and machines that were beginning to take over many of the functions previously assumed by humans.

That was just over two hundred years ago. Before that, a spade and mattock were just a spade and a mattock: useful additions to life which made work easier. After that, they were part of something bigger, at least in Kelly’s telling. Kelly is a techno-utopian, and to him, this thing called “technology” is not just a collection of tools and machines but “a living force”. He calls this force “the technium”, and he describes it as a “global, massively interconnected system of technology vibrating around us”, which is now on the verge of taking on its own life and its own mind.

It is this last claim that makes his book so interesting. You can find plenty of people who will argue, as Kelly does, that technology will save us from pretty much every problem on Earth, if only we would trust it. Techno-utopianism is a subset of the contemporary religion of Progress, into which we are all baptised at birth. In this reading, the benefits of modern technology – fewer deaths in childbirth, dental hygiene, the ability to tweet a picture of what you had for breakfast to someone on the other side of the planet – are talked up, while its drawbacks – nuclear bombs, mass extinction, climate change, viral videos of Korean pop hits – are glossed over. This is the standard narrative of modernity, and arguing against it is likely to see you labelled a “Romantic Luddite” at best and a reactionary hater of “the poor” at worst.

This line, though, usually comes with a denial that our increasingly complex technologies could ever be anything other than inanimate servants. You will hear from its proponents that “technology is neutral”, or that “technologies are neither good nor bad: it depends what we do with them”. This is where Kelly stands out, because he is having none of this. He shares with technology’s sternest critics a controversial but, I think, correct perspective: that the huge web of ­advanced technologies we have built around us is now so central to our lives, so complex and interconnected and fast-evolving, that it is becoming an autonomous thing, separate from humanity, though currently still dependent on it. This thing is the technium.

Kelly claims that the technium is “as great a force in our world as nature”; indeed, it is itself a force of evolution. Technological life, like biological life, tends towards more complexity, interdependence and intelligence, because “technology and life share some fundamental essence”. We are now so symbiotic with technology, so dependent upon it, that “if all technology – down to the very last knife and spear – were to be removed from this planet, our species would not last more than a few months”. This means that trying to resist the march of the technium is futile and self-defeating. Instead we must “surrender to its advances” and “listen to what it wants”. This will involve us giving up some measures of freedom, but in return, we will “unleash human potential”, which will lead to “deep progress” as we merge with machines and become greater than we could possibly imagine.

If this sounds like the marginal outpourings of a starry-eyed techno-creationist, it’s worth understanding how influential Kelly and his co-thinkers are. His generation of Silicon Valley techno-hippies includes the late Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, the neo-green coterie who cluster around Stewart Brand, the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, and the influential booster of
the post-human future Ray Kurzweil, whose techno-utopianism makes Kevin Kelly looked like a barefoot pilgrim.

Kurzweil is the most famous promoter of the concept of the “Singularity”, through which humanity will merge with machines to create a new super-species. He is looking forward to living for ever, and he is working on technologies that will enable much that is currently inanimate to become a living, web-embedded presence in the physical world. In May this year, he offered up a list of predictions as to where the technium would take us in the near future. Within a decade, he said, self-driving cars, communicating with each other and co-ordinating their own movements, would be ubiquitous on the roads. Before that, within five years, current internet search engines would begin to give way to algorithmic “personal assistants”, which could “annotate reality” for you. They could “listen in to a conversation, giving helpful hints”, or even “suggest an anecdote that would fit into your conversation in real time”.

Not long after, they will be followed by full-immersion virtual-reality computer games. “To fully master the tactile sense, we have to actually tap into the nervous system,” he explains. “We’ll be able to send little devices, nanobots, into the brain and capillaries and they’ll provide additional sensory signals, as if they were coming from your real senses. You could, for example, get together with a friend, even though you are hundreds of thousands of miles apart, and take a virtual walk on a virtual Mediterranean beach and hold their hand and feel the warm spray of the moist air in your face.” By 2040, even that will be bettered by the technium’s ability to help us “stay young for ever”. Once we can get “little robots in the bloodstream that augment your immune system”, immortality won’t be far away.

Once upon a time, this kind of thing was held up by science-fiction writers as a warning about the dangers of human hubris. Today, Ray Kurzweil is the director of engineering at Google. None of us should be in any doubt: this is the future. It has been long planned, and it is under development. The technium is coming for you. How will you advance to meet it?

***

When I was a teenager, I had my head in a science-fiction book much of the time. So when I hear of Kurzweil’s desire to insert tiny robots into his brain so that he can be dropped, Matrix-like, into a perfect simulation of a beach walk with a distant friend, I can understand it at the same time as feeling horrified by it. Back in the day, I was looking forward, as Ray presumably still is, to living for ever and having robot servants and slingshotting around the moons of Jupiter while I watched attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. Seen from one perspective – excited, can-do, replete with a certain kind of uncomplicated modernist optimism – there is nothing more thrilling than this stuff. Ray Kurzweil and Kevin Kelly still see it from this perspective. Why don’t I?

I ask myself this question sometimes, and I think, in the end, it’s because I don’t want to be liberated in the way that they
do. Liberation is a word that occurs again and again in the writings of the apostles of the technium. In this reading, life is a project of progressive liberation, of the throwing off of shackles, of being the best we can be. Evolution is like a giant self-help manual. Kurzweil wants to liberate us from “the outdated software of our bodies”. Kelly wants to go even further: the technium, he says, can free us not only from our limiting physical frames, but from nature and time:

Technology’s dominance ultimately stems not from its birth in human minds but from its origin in the same self-organisation that brought galaxies,

planets, life and minds into existence. It is part of a great asymmetrical arc that begins at the Big Bang and extends into ever more abstract and immaterial forms over time. The arc is the slow yet irreversible liberation from the ancient imperative of matter and energy.

Advanced technology, in other words, will one day liberate us from the universe. It’s an astonishing claim, and it’s worth dwelling on, because this is the point at which the technium becomes a religious concern. Kelly acknowledges that its advance will lead to – indeed, already is leading to – the “erosion of the traditional self” and that the rise of the machine and our increasing dependence upon it “chips away at human dignity”. The ultimate endpoint of this is likely to be the abolition of humanity as we know it, but the flipside of the bargain is that this “liberation” will lead to “increasing the options, choices and possibilities” of all living things.

A transcendent force exists which is beyond the power and understanding of ­humanity, though which is also entwined closely with it. This force can liberate us from earthly misery and transport us into an eternal paradise in which we will be changed, but only if we surrender to its will. Doesn’t this sound like a certain kind of religious story? I can’t help seeing the ­narrative being spun out by Kelly and ­Kurzweil and all of their Silicon Valley stablemates as a new story of silicon transcendence: a story about the death of God and His replacement in the modern mind by machines which can do His, and humanity’s, job better.

***

Planting my trees was a technological endeavour. In using even the basic tools, I was locking myself into a global web of technological interdependence. Does that mean that the innocent project of planting trees is itself a part of the technium, rather than an escape from it? Kelly would say so, and in one sense he’d be right. There is no escape from our tools, from our technologies, from the part of ourselves that we have put into them. We are what we do and what we make and what we use, and everything is dependent upon everything else.

But there is something missing from this perspective. Yes, I was tied in to the industrial economy when I planted my trees. But if the industrial economy were to disappear tomorrow, could I still plant them? Yes, I could, though I may not want to. Both may give you sore arms, but there is a difference between a keyboard and a spade. A spade can still be made fairly simply. It doesn’t need constant energy to keep going. It can last a long time, if you treat it well, rather like your body. A keyboard and a spade are both products of an industrial economy, but not to the same extent, and they do not have the same purpose. One can exist independently, the other cannot. This might be a matter of degrees, but the degrees matter – and so does the intent.

There’s another point too, and perhaps a more important one: nobody ever got addicted to a spade. Yet we are surely addicted to the technium. Walk down a street in any city and count the number of people whose eyes are glued to their smartphones as they walk. Sit in a café and count the number of children who are staring at tablet computers instead of into the eyes of their equally net-bound parents. We are stuck in a web, caught in a net, and I’m not sure we could escape now if we wanted to. But we don’t want to. Our astonishing ability to accept virtually anything the digital world throws at us without questioning its downside sometimes sends shivers down my spine.

I don’t want to sound like I’ve read too much science fiction, but I’m on board with both Kelly and Kurzweil to this extent: this thing is bigger than us now. It is developing a degree of autonomy, and it is using us, somehow, to create itself. I know this sounds like a conspiracy theory, but it’s not really a theory, it’s more of a hunch: a conspiracy feeling. We are surrendering the freedom to be human in exchange for the freedom to live in confected dreams: dreams in which nature is dead, except for the pretty bits, and bad things never happen, and nobody dies, and there is nothing to life but entertainment, and everything we see we can control, because we have created it. Maybe we long for this pseudo-life. Perhaps we want the beauty and the transcendence without the darkness and the danger. Maybe that’s what the promises of heaven were always about, in the end.

Kevin Kelly and Ray Kurzweil don’t agree on everything, but what they do agree on seems to be shared by the team running Google, by the masters of the hyper-real universe who work in Silicon Valley, and by the intellectual classes across the “devel­oped” world. They agree that the future is hyper-digital, web-embedded and virtual. We are in for a world of wearable technology and smart homes, self-driving cars, synthetic life forms in the fields and forests and an accelerating merger between carbon and silicon, human and machine, natural and artificial, until the boundaries have blurred so much that nobody can tell the difference, and everyone has long since stopped caring.

I’m sure it’s unfair to Kevin Kelly, but halfway through his book I found myself suddenly remembering the anti-modern denunciations of Oliver Mellors, the randy gamekeeper in D H Lawrence’s novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover. I went to look up the exact words, and they made me smile:

“Motor-cars and cinemas and aeroplanes suck that last bit out of them. I tell you, every generation breeds a more rabbity generation, with indiarubber tubing for guts and tin legs and tin faces. Tin people! It’s all a steady sort of bolshevism just killing off the human thing, and worshipping the mechanical thing . . . All the modern lot get their real kick out of killing the old human feeling out of man . . .”

When I read Kelly on the technium or Kurzweil on the Singularity, when I hear Sergey Brin enthusing over his Google Glasses or see Mark Zuckerberg predicting wearable technology or smart fridges, I can’t help thinking how many more rabbity generations we are further on from old Mellors and his Lady. My generation “needs” technologies my parents never did, and my children’s will “need” even more. Perhaps in the overdeveloped West we’ve just forgotten what it means to be human in the world. Or perhaps this is what it means to be human: innovating, remaking, building until the foundations give way. Perhaps we will all end up as tin people, or silicon people, all the old human feeling killed, and we’ll not know that it was ever different. Perhaps that has already happened.

Maybe Kevin Kelly would say that I have less faith in humanity than he does, but in a way I think I have more. Being human is hard work. It hurts. Being a machine must be a lot easier. Maybe this explains the apparent desire of some of us to merge with our creations. We are becoming machines, and our machines are becoming gods; or we think they are. Kelly certainly does, and I suspect he is not alone. “[W]e can see more of God in a cellphone than in a tree frog,” he contends in his book’s fascinating and disturbing climax:

 

The phone extends the frog’s four billion years of learning and adds the open-ended investigations of six billion human minds. Some day we may believe the most convivial technology we can make is not a testament to human ingenuity but a testament of the holy . . . The intricate, unfathomable layers of logic built up over a century, borrowed from rainforest ecosystems and woven together into beauty by millions of active synthetic minds, will say what redwoods say, only louder, more convincingly: “Long before you were here, I am.”

 

***

 

It’s a few weeks now since I began writing this essay. It’s sunny this morning, beautifully so. There are three white mares cropping the grass in our field, and today I spent an hour mowing the grass around the young trees with my scythe. My elbow still hurts, but I have found some exercises which seem to be improving it. We dug a pond next to the alder trees last week and it’s full of water beetles already. I don’t know where they came from. Nature’s ability to rejuvenate itself, to
be born and born and born again, never ceases to come in at me when I least expect it.

You can spend too much time with thoughts of the future. The future, after all, doesn’t exist. Step away from those thoughts, get blisters on the heels of your hands and mess up your arms, and you begin to see what actually does. Your perspective adjusts. Today, sitting here in the sun, I can’t see anything of God in my mobile phone, but He, She or It seems to be dancing all over the buttercups and red clover in the meadow before me. Watching the dance, I think we have far less control over the world than Ray Kurzweil believes we do, and that the future is less ordained than Kevin Kelly wants it to be. I don’t know what’s coming, but I just saw a heron fly past my open window on its way to the river. The grasses are moving in the wind that is coming in from the west. Soon enough, we’ll see. 

Paul Kingsnorth is the author of “The Wake”, which was longlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A longer version of this essay first appeared in “Technê”, published by the Dark Mountain Project: dark-mountain.net

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

Martin O’Neil for New Statesman
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Why the British addiction to period drama is driving away our best black and Asian actors

There is a diversity crisis in British TV and film as, increasingly, stars are decamping to America to make their career there.

Back in April, a six-part drama called Undercover premiered on BBC1. Perhaps you were one of the five million people who watched it: the story was audacious and continent-hopping, enfolding a narrative about a man on death row in the United States with an all-too-believable tale of a Metropolitan Police officer who marries a woman he is meant to be keeping under surveillance.

The reason the programme attracted so much attention, however, was not what it was about, but whom. Starring Sophie Okonedo and Adrian Lester, Undercover was widely reported as the first mainstream British television drama with black actors in the lead roles. This wasn’t true: as James Cooray Smith wrote on the New Statesman website, that milestone was passed in June 1956 by Mrs Patterson, a BBC adaptation of a Broadway play starring Eartha Kitt.

Yet Undercover was still a breakthrough. Smith, casting his mind back over more than six decades of British television, could not think of more than a handful of other examples. Writing in the Observer, Chitra Ramaswamy expressed her feelings with quiet devastation: “In 2016, it is an outrage that it’s a big deal to see a successful, affluent, complicated black family sit at a ­dinner table eating pasta.” Think about that. In 2016 in Britain, a country where more than nine million people describe themselves as non-white, it is news that a black, middle-class family should not only feature in a prime-time BBC drama but be at its heart. Undercover exposed how white most British television is.

Actors of colour have appeared on British film and TV screens for decades, and they have been visible on British stages for centuries – yet they have been shunted into the margins with depressing regularity. In January the actor Idris Elba urged British MPs to take the matter seriously. “Although there’s a lot of reality TV,” he argued, “TV hasn’t caught up with reality.”

In February, there was renewed uproar over the lack of racial diversity in Hollywood at the 88th Academy Awards, and the infuriated hashtag #OscarsSoWhite blossomed again on social media. A month later, Lenny Henry argued that black and minority ethnic (BAME) talent was being “ghettoised”. The term could hardly be more charged. Speaking at the London premiere of Mira Nair’s film Queen of Katwe, the actor David Oyelowo said: “What we need now is for a change to come. I think the talk is done.”

There has been some change. In March, the Royal Shakespeare Company opened a production of Hamlet starring Paapa Essiedu, an actor of Ghanaian heritage raised in London. It was the first time that a black performer had taken the role for the company. A new set of BBC diversity targets both on- and off-screen was unveiled in April. Noma Dumezweni is playing Hermione in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in the West End, and in October the BFI launched Black Star, a nationwide season celebrating black talent in film and TV. But what does the picture really look like, in late 2016? And what, if anything, needs to change?

The first challenge is that many in the film and TV industry find it difficult to talk about the subject. Researching this article, I lost count of the number of people who demurred to go on the record, or of actors who seemed eager to speak but were then dissuaded. Fatigue might be partly to blame – it’s exhausting to be asked repeatedly about diversity because you didn’t go to Harrow and your skin isn’t white – but I got the sense that there’s more going on.

One man who passionately believes this is the screenwriter Trix Worrell, the creator of the pioneering Channel 4 sitcom Desmond’s, which brought an African-Caribbean barbershop in south-east ­London to Middle England’s living rooms in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

“TV is very difficult to break into. There’s a protectionism there,” he says with a shrug, when we meet for coffee on the seafront in Hastings, where he now lives. “People are nervous about rocking the boat.”

Though cheerful about most of the things we discuss, Worrell admits to feeling a roiling anger when it comes to this particular matter. Does he think that diversity has improved since he was pitching Desmond’s, three decades ago? “No. I say that with absolute certainty and surety.”

It is hard to underestimate the influence that Desmond’s had. The series ran for 71 episodes and at its peak it had five million viewers, remarkable for a sitcom. Starring the veteran actor Norman Beaton alongside a largely British-Guyanese cast, it made that community visible in a way that has not been rivalled in Britain in the 22 years since it came off air. It did so with the deftest of touches, addressing problems of interracial relationships and tensions within the black community through warm comedy.

“Up to that point, black people were ­never seen on TV,” Worrell recalls. “The only time we appeared in any media was in the red tops – muggings, vice. The idea was to show a black family who were just like any other.” Yet it seems that, apart from the spin-off comedy series Porkpie, occasioned by Beaton’s sudden death in 1994, Channel 4 has regarded the idea of portraying a normal black family in a sitcom as too great a gamble in the years since, despite an increase in the number of non-white roles in its other drama output.

Worrell smiles, but it is clear that the ­matter isn’t a joke. “The thing that’s said among black people is that there’ll only be one black sitcom every ten years.”

***

When I phone Paapa Essiedu while he’s on a lunch break from Hamlet, I am prepared to get a more positive perspective. Just 26, Essiedu has had a spectacular and seemingly unimpeded rise. A graduate of the prestigious Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, he joined the RSC in 2012 and then hopped to the National Theatre in Sam Mendes’s King Lear, before returning to Stratford. The Telegraph greeted his debut as Hamlet with the notice that every actor dreams of: “A new star is born”.

But Essiedu seems ready to implode with frustration. “It’s ridiculous,” he says. “This stuff has been here for decades and decades: we’re lying to ourselves if we think there’s been a lack of awareness until now. Lots of people are talking and talking, but we need action.” Has he experienced racism directly? “Put it this way: quite often, I’ve been in a room where everyone else is white.”

A major issue, he says, is the apparently unshakeable addiction of British TV and film to corsets-and-cleavage period drama, which has left many BAME actors locked out of the audition room. The BBC is in the middle of a run of literary spin-offs, from War and Peace to The Moonstone. Over on ITV, we have had Victoria and the invincible Downton Abbey.

It still feels as though much of British drama is stuck in an airbrushed version of the country’s past. Though partly set in contemporary Egypt, BBC1’s adaptation of The Night Manager by John le Carré had only a handful of non-white actors in significant roles. Allowing for exceptions such as the BBC’s version of Andrea Levy’s Windrush-era novel Small Island, broadcast in 2009, you could be forgiven for thinking, had you never visited Britain, that people of only one skin colour live in this country. That the largely white drama series are successful on the export market only helps to extend the cycle.

“Producers say, ‘Oh, we commission stuff that people want to watch,’” Essiedu tells me. “But it’s such a narrow version of history – middle-to-upper-class Caucasian men, generally. Period drama can be from anywhere in the world: Africa, Asia. Where are those stories?”

Drama is just a sliver of broadcasting output, but other genres aren’t much better. Journalists from ethnic-minority backgrounds have made steady progress in television newsrooms – but not fast enough, Channel 4’s Krishnan Guru-Murthy has ­argued; there is a glaring absence, however, when it comes to lifestyle and entertainment TV. The recent success of the intrepid youth TV star Reggie Yates notwithstanding, it is difficult to ignore or account for the dearth of BAME presenters in documentaries and “serious” factual programming; and no major current British chat show has a permanent anchor who isn’t white.

Adil Ray’s BBC1 comedy Citizen Khan, which focuses on the escapades of the overbearing Muslim patriarch Mr Khan and his family in the Sparkhill area of Birmingham, is a rare exception. It has just returned for a fifth season. A worthy successor to Desmond’s in its tongue-in-cheek approach to potentially inflammatory issues (the 2014 Christmas special featured the birth of Mr Khan’s grandson, Mohammad, on Christmas Day) the programme also resembles its forebear in a more depressing way: it appears to be one of a kind.

When I ask Ray why he thinks this is, he selects his words carefully. “It’s not prejudice exactly,” he says, “but in the TV business, there are a lot of formulas. If you’re doing curry, get an Asian person. If it’s hip-hop, someone who’s black. If you’re doing a walk in the countryside, or drinking tea in the Cotswolds . . .” He leaves the sentence hanging.

What appears on screen is only the visible part of the problem. Actors get cast in roles only if writers write them; projects get made only if commissioners commission them. TV and film are notoriously incestuous and competitive industries. Careers are unstable. Knowing someone who knows someone is often – too often – the only way of getting work.

According to figures produced this year by Creative Skillset, many media companies fail dismally when it comes to representation. Just 24 per cent of those in senior roles in cable or satellite firms are female; 4 per cent of employees in positions in senior terrestrial broadcast are BAME; and, if the numbers are to be believed, there are no BAME people at all working on the senior production side of independent film companies. The figures aren’t entirely robust – they rely on organisations filling in forms and returning them – but if they’re anywhere near the truth they make for grim reading.

The BBC’s statistics are more encouraging (according to the latest figures, BAME people make up 13.4 per cent of staff overall and hold 9.2 per cent of leadership roles) but don’t include freelancers, an area in which it is reasonable to suppose that, without quotas to fill, representation will be worse. In September, the media regulator Ofcom put broadcasters on notice that they could face “harder-edged” regulation if they did not improve diversity.

Chi Onwurah, the MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, who has been vocal about these matters in parliament, says that the BBC has a special duty to up its game. “It’s not doing enough,” she tells me. “If it was, there wouldn’t be a problem. It was very interesting watching the [European Union] referendum; all the efforts broadcasters have gone to to make sure there was balance. If they went to half that effort for BAME, gender and disability, it would be a different world.”

The BBC is keen to show that it is paying attention. Last year, it appointed Tunde Ogungbesan as its new head of “diversity, inclusion and succession”, and in April his team announced eye-catching targets: gender parity across every part of the corporation; 8 per cent of staff disabled; 8 per cent of staff lesbian, gay or trans; 15 per cent of staff from BAME backgrounds. Those numbers will be replicated on screen, lead roles included, and are roughly equivalent to averages for the overall population of Britain.

Yet the idea that established BBC presenters will go quietly seems optimistic. Take the ruckus that the comedian Jon Holmes recently raised when his contract with The Now Show (Radio 4) wasn’t renewed. Holmes asked in the Mail on Sunday: “Should I, as a white man . . . be fired from my job because I am a white man?”

Ogungbesan – a former head of diversity for Shell – has a businesslike attitude to the challenges he faces, which are, he concedes, considerable. “We’ve got four years to do this, and we know there’s a hell of a lot of work to do.” That is why his team has given itself a deadline. “Hopefully, when we hit those targets in 2020, we’ll be the most diverse broadcaster in the UK.”

How does he respond to Onwurah’s suggestion that the BBC is skilled at announcing targets but less good at making change happen? “We’re publishing our results,” he says. “You’ll be able to hold us to it.”

And what if the targets aren’t met? Ogun­gbesan laughs, for perhaps a touch too long. He will not consider the possibility. “I’m like a boxer. I refuse to look at it.”

***

If British TV and film don’t get their act together soon, there may be no one left to cast. Increasingly, black and Asian stars are decamping to America to make their career there. Among those who have joined the brain drain are Archie Panjabi and Cush Jumbo (The Good Wife), David Oyelowo (Selma) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave). Idris Elba, who brooded brilliantly in BBC1’s crime procedural Luther, would likely never have been cast in a big British series if he hadn’t already made a name in the United States with The Wire. Before she appeared in Undercover, Sophie Okonedo said in an interview that the scripts she was offered from the US far outnumbered those from the UK.

Visiting Los Angeles recently, I tracked down Parminder Nagra, who made her name in Bend It Like Beckham before being spotted by a producer for the long-running medical drama ER. In 2003 she was offered the role of the Anglo-American doctor Neela Rasgotra, which she played until the series ended in 2009. A big part in the NBC crime drama The Blacklist followed, along with other film and TV work.

She never intended to move, she says, laughing ruefully, when we meet at a café in a well-to-do suburb of LA populated by movie folk. She has worked occasionally elsewhere but, 13 years on, she is still on the west coast. “The jobs I’ve got, like most actors, haven’t come about in a conventional way. It’s generally because someone is open-minded enough to look at you.”

Although she is careful to make it clear that the US is far from a utopia in terms of how it portrays race, sexuality or gender on screen – she tells a gruesome tale of a white writer who sent her his attempt at an “Asian” character – Nagra senses that things are more open in the US. “It’s a bigger pond here, because of the sheer size of the country,” she says. “There are writers of colour in the UK, but what happens is that you’ve only got one or two people at the top who are making decisions about the taste of the country . . . Those people are white.”

The landscape is certainly more open in the US. Leaving aside the allegations about Bill Cosby, NBC’s Cosby Show (1984-92) was a force for good, with its focus on a middle-class African-American family and with the numerous ethnically diverse shows it made possible: A Different World, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, In Living Color, Scandal (the last was commissioned by the influential black writer-producer Shonda Rhimes). Back in the early 1980s, the gentle NBC sitcom Gimme a Break! – starring Nell Carter – explored issues of racism, too.

US cable and online subscription ­services are even more courageous. Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black has an ethnically kaleidoscopic cast and plotlines that vault across almost every conceivable question of gender, sexuality, body image and politics. Where it has apparently taken the BBC until 2016 to realise that families can be both black and upper middle class, ABC in the US was years ahead: in 2014 it commissioned Black-ish, which offers a subtle portrait of an advertising executive who frets that he is losing touch with both his Obama-era kids and his inner-city origins.

Nagra nods. “There still are a lot of issues here, but if you’re an actor of colour, there is more work. All those British period dramas are really well done, but there’s a yearning there: ‘Can I please just see somebody like me on TV?’”

The reason all this matters is that TV, theatre and film have a duty to show us not merely who we are, but who we can become. In Undercover, Okonedo becomes Britain’s first black, female director of public prosecutions: this may seem unlikely, given the state of the UK’s judiciary, yet seeing it on TV helps to shift perceptions. No one would argue that Okonedo’s co-star Dennis Haysbert got Barack Obama into the White House by playing a black president of the United States in 24, but perhaps it made such a world marginally more imaginable.

The time is overdue for British TV to abandon its fetish for bodices and show us what our nation actually looks like, in all its variety – and to be more imaginative about the kind of history it presents. Colour-blind casting is mainstream in theatre. Actors of various heritages appear in Pinter or Chekhov and no one raises an eyebrow.

Anthropologists argue that race and gender are forms of performance, sets of shared codes, rather than something intrinsic to who we are. Is it so difficult to imagine a Jane Austen production with performers of black or Asian heritage? Is that any harder to believe than the thousand impossibilities we witness every day in TV drama?

I ask Essiedu if he is optimistic. Yes, he says forcefully. “I have to be. Optimism is the only way we initiate change.”

When I put the same question to Nagra, she pauses to think. “I remember being asked about this when I started ER, and I was a bit tired of the issue even then. Yet here we still are.” Her expression is wry. “So ask me in ten years’ time.”

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: out of exile