Copts & Brothers

A surprising dialogue between the Muslim Brotherhood and Egypt's Coptic Christians suggests a new wa

Two years ago, on 14 October 2005, a major religious riot between Christians and Muslims broke out in the backstreets of Alexandria. An angry mob spilled out of a mosque during Ramadan and began attacking the large Coptic church of Mar Girgis - St George - on the other side of the road.

Tension between the two communities in Egypt had been high ever since the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. When George W Bush used the word "crusade", it implicated the Copts, in the eyes of some Muslims, in a wider Christian assault on the Muslim world. The immediate cause of the violence, however, was a play that had been mounted in the church about resisting conversion to Islam - part of a programme of summer activities for the Coptic youth organised by the local parish priest. When a video of the play, made by the proud father of one of the actors, was found on the hard drive of a laptop that he had inadvertently sold to a Muslim hardliner, trouble quickly escalated.

In the days that followed the publication of the first articles about the play in the Islamist press, and the distribution of DVDs of the performance around the mosques of Alexandria, angry Muslims went on the rampage, believing that the play criticised Islamic beliefs and denigrated the Prophet. Stones and Molotov cocktails were thrown at Coptic properties, windows were broken, six churches were trashed, Coptic jewellery shops were looted, and two men were killed: one a Christian, one a Muslim. Many more were injured.

At one point, a party of 150 Coptic girls who come to Mar Girgis for religious instruction was besieged within the church by a large mob, and a potentially horrific situation was avoided only after the police belatedly answered a distress call from the parish priest, Abouna Augustinos. Tear gas and water cannon had to be used before the mob finally dispersed. Four more Copts were knifed as they came out of church services the following Sunday. "What happened that week has left a permanent scar," I was told by Dr Kamal Siddiq, a Coptic dermatologist who, like many, was forced into hiding during the rioting. "We used to have peaceable relations with our neighbours. But in this atmosphere any small incident can instantly escalate."

Now, however, an initiative has been launched that brings Coptic Christians together with young members of al-Ikhwan, or the Muslim Brotherhood, to ensure that such misunderstandings are not repeated. One of the events that has been planned is a play in which young Copts and Muslim Brothers perform side by side. The man behind the play, Youssef Sidhom, is the editor of Watani, Egypt's leading Coptic news paper. He believes that dialogue between the two faiths is a pressing necessity. "After the success of the Muslim Brothers in the recent elections we can no longer ignore them," he says. "We need to enter into dialogue, to clarify their policies towards us, and end mutual mistrust."

The dilemma faced by the Copts reflects a larger question now facing western policymakers. Throughout the Muslim world, political Islam is on the march. In the past three or four years, almost everywhere that Muslims have had the right to vote - in Lebanon, Pakistan, Palestine, Turkey, Egypt and Algeria - they have voted en masse for the religious parties in a way they have never done before. The only two exceptions to this rule are Morocco and Jordan, the latter in an election marked by accusations of mass vote-rigging.

In countries where the government has been most closely linked to US policies, the rise of political Islam has been most marked: in Pakistan the religious parties, which used to gain only 3 per cent of the vote, have been polling around 20 per cent. Equally, in the 2006 election in Palestine, Hamas roundly defeated the blatantly corrupt and US- supported Fatah.

It has long been an article of faith for the neocons that bringing democracy to the Middle East would do away with the Islamists in the same way that the arrival of democracy saw off the communists in eastern Europe. In reality, while US foreign policy since 9/11 has indeed succeeded in turning Muslim opinion against the decadent monarchies and corrupt nationalist parties that have ruled the region for the past 50 years, Muslims, rather than turning to liberal secular parties, have lined up behind the parties that have stood up against US intervention. The religious parties, in other words, have come to power for reasons largely disconnected from religion.

Nowhere has the march of the Islamists been more steady than in Egypt: at the last general election in 2005, members of the nominally banned Muslim Brotherhood, standing as independents, saw their representation rise from 17 seats to 88 in the 454-seat People's Assembly, despite reports of systematic vote-rigging by President Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party (NDP). At the same time, the face of the country has visibly changed: almost all Muslim women now wear the hijab and reject make-up, at least partly as a statement of political defiance against the west and western-backed regimes. This is a major change: as recently as the early 1990s the great majority of Egyptian women did not cover their hair.

The US response to gains made by the Islamists has been to retreat from its previous push for democracy when the "wrong" parties win - something that was most apparent in the notably undemocratic US response to the rise of Hamas in Palestine. This instinct was also at work in the US- and UK-brokered "rendition" of the Pakistani Muslim League leader Nawaz Sharif to Saudi Arabia, in order to leave the electoral field clear for Benazir Bhutto - in effect imposing a single candidate on the electorate, until Musharraf's emergency changed all political calculations and Sharif was allowed to return. The US has also retreated from backing democracy in Egypt. Many of the Brotherhood's leading activists and business backers, as well as Mubarak's principal opponent in the 2005 presidential election, are now in prison. In September, four Egyptian newspaper editors were given prison sentences for libelling Mubarak and the NDP.

But the Egyptian Copts - the ancient Christian community who make up roughly 15 per cent of Egypt's population - don't have the luxury of looking the other way. They realise that with the decline in popularity of the NDP, they will have to learn, for better or worse, to live with the Islamists.

* * *

The Copts have long suffered petty discrimination. But the revival of the Islamists has made their position more uneasy and their prospects more uncertain than they have been for centuries. Like other Christian sects in the Middle East, the Copts now find themselves caught between their co-religionists in Europe and the US, and their strong cultural links with their compatriots in the east. As at the time of the Crusades, it is the eastern Christians who are getting it in the neck for what the people perceive as the anti-Islamic policies of the west.

Throughout the 1990s, Copts, especially in Upper Egypt, were targeted by the Islamist guerrillas of the Gama'a al-Islamiyya. In April 1992, 14 Copts were shot in Asyut Province for refusing to pay protection money. There followed a series of crude bombs outside Coptic churches in Alexandria and Cairo. In March 1994, militants attacked the ancient Coptic monastery of Deir al-Muharraq near Asyut; two monks and two laypeople were shot dead at the monastery's front gate. "In the last few years many churches were burned, many of our priests and laymen were killed," I was told by one Coptic monk. "Every day, there are death threats. The police arrest no one, though they know very well who does this."

Since then, however, the Gama'a has renounced violence, and the Islamists have concentrated on reaching power through the ballot box. At the same time, the Copts' political influence has slowly diminished: there is still one Coptic provincial governor and there are two Coptic ministers, one of them a popular technocrat nephew of the former UN secretary general Boutros Boutros-Ghali. But, in contrast to the situation under Nasser and Sadat, there are no Coptic senior policemen, judges, university vice-chancellors, or generals.

Yet if the Copts face a certain amount of institutional discrimination, Mubarak himself has been largely sympathetic to the community, making Christmas a national holiday and freeing up the rules on building new churches. The Copts know that things could get much worse for them if Mubarak falls and the Brothers come to power.

Samir and Nabil Morcos are among those Copts who have recently begun a series of public discussions with the younger generation of the Brothers. Many of these, they say, are moderate in their outlook, and wish to turn al-Ikhwan into a Muslim equivalent of a European Christian Democratic party, similar to the AKP in Turkey. They believe there is a major divide between the younger Brothers and the old guard, who share the illiberal and intolerant outlook of the Brotherhood's founder, Hassan al-Banna. They also point out the role played by the Brothers in the Alexandria riots, where they acted quickly to calm the rioters and, in some cases, even formed human chains to stop the rioters entering Coptic districts.

After Coptic intellectuals recently appeared on al-Jazeera to discuss citizenship and the rights of religious minorities under an Ikhwan government, the Brothers promised to produce a policy document on the subject. "The Copts are much more vocal in their claim for rights these days," says Samir Morcos, who took part in the debate. "We have been expressing our fears to the political bureau of al-Ikhwan, and discussing new interpretations of the various Islamic texts about minorities. Dialogue is always a positive thing. We have discovered a whole new generation who are doing their best to find a new fusion of democracy, modernity and Islam. A lot of them are secular Muslims - former leftists who have moved intellectually towards a rediscovery of Islamic tradition. In many ways, they are an Islamic version of the neocons."

"The Brothers are not a solid block," agrees Nabil. "The recent growth of the Brotherhood has largely come out of the failure of Nasserism. Many of the younger Brothers are there not for explicitly religious reasons, but because they are struggling to find new answers to the chronic problems the Arab world is facing. We want to be part of that discussion. As Egyptians, it is important that we all struggle against poverty, lack of democracy and social justice."

At the offices of Watani, Youssef Sidhom is also involved in opening up dialogue. In the past few years there has been a growing polarisation in Egyptian society, he says with concern. A generation ago, most Egyptians chose names for their children which could be either Christian or Muslim. Now children's names - such as Mohammed or Girgis (George) - immediately define their sectarian affiliation. Likewise, the near-universal adoption of the hijab by Muslim women has left Coptic women dangerously exposed and sometimes subject to threats and abuse. In the face of growing discrimination, the Copts have tended to form their own schools and social clubs, keeping their distance from the Muslim majority.

This is something the Coptic clergy - every bit as radically conservative as their Muslim counterparts - have often encouraged, but Sidhom believes it is an extremely dangerous development. "In schools and universities, in sports and in cultural activities, Muslims and Christians no longer mix together," he says, "and these attitudes are encouraged by the religious leaders of both the churches and mosques. Even if there are friendships across the divide, there is little trust. If we continue to allow the Coptic youth to be separated from their fellow citizens, there will be a growth of mistrust on either side. But with dialogue, both sides are surprised to find how much they have in common."

Sidhom has given one of the more progressive Muslim Brother MPs a column in his paper, allowing the Copts to ask him questions and air their anxieties. "There was horror when the column first appeared. But it has allowed us to ask about the Brotherhood's attitude not only to the Copts, but to such issues as women, banking and terrorism," says Sidhom. "Dialogue is not the same as surrender - we differ on many issues and want a secular state not an Islamic one. But what we really need is radical constitutional reform. As long as the Brothers are the only opposition to Mubarak and the NDP, this situation is going to get worse."

* * *

What is happening in Cairo may be a useful model of how to engage with the ever more powerful democratic religious parties across the Islamic world. Right-wing commentators such as Melanie Phillips, Michael Gove and Martin Amis tend to see the march of political Islam as the triumph of an anti- liberal "Islamofascism" that aims to conquer the west through jihad and establish a universal caliphate. Although some Islamic ideologues do speak in these terms, to see this as the principal or even a major thrust in political Islam is ignorant and simplistic.

The truth is more complex. First, by concentrating on the violent fringe of jihadis, we in the west have in many ways missed the main story - the rise of a vast and largely democratic force. Second, while determination to resist western hegemony in the Muslim world is an important driving force in political Islam, the movement has local causes, too. Some - such as the promotion of Wahhabi Islam by Saudi madrasas - are religious, but most are not. In Egypt, as in many countries, the parties of political Islam contain a broad spectrum of anti-government opinion, and it is often entirely secular factors that have brought them to power. In Palestine, the open corruption and greed of the PLO led many to support Hamas. In Lebanon, the rise of Hezbollah has been the result of Hasan Nasrallah's status as the man who gave the Israelis a bloody nose, who compensates the people for war damage and provides social services, just as Hamas does in Gaza.

The same is true of the rise of political Islam in Pakistan, where the Islamist parties have benefited from the unpopularity of the feudal and military elites that have held power since 1947. When I interviewed Abdul Rashid Ghazi in the Red Mosque shortly before his death in the storming of the complex in early July, he returned again and again to issues of social justice. "We want our rulers to be honest people," he repeated. "But now the rulers are living a life of luxury, while thousands of innocent children have empty stomachs and can't even get basic necessities."

Youssef Boutros-Ghali, Egypt's Coptic minister of finance, also believes the rise of political Islam is largely due to secular factors: "The success of the Brothers does not come expressly from religious sources. Their popularity is primarily a result from our [the NDP's] unpopularity - they are quite simply the main focus of opposition to us. Our society is in transit, and transitions are not painless. But give me five years of high growth and prosperity, and a better distribution of income, and I guarantee you that this problem would roll back completely."

The only exceptions to the litany of Islamist electoral successes are significant, and confirm Boutros-Ghali's instincts: in the relatively stable, prosperous and peaceful kingdoms of Jordan and Morocco the Islamist tide has been checked at the ballot box. In the case of Morocco, the mildly Islamist Justice and Development Party was expected to sweep the polls in November, but ended up coming second behind the secular-nationalist, pro-monarchist Istiqlal (Independence) Party.

Either way, it is only by opening dialogue with the different Islamist parties across the Muslim world that we are likely to find those with which we can work. Like the Copts, we may well discover in talking to them that less separates us than we at first imagined.

William Dalrymple is the author of "From the Holy Mountain: a Journey in the Shadow of Byzantium" (Harper Perennial, £9.99). His latest book, "The Last Mughal: the Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi, 1857" (Bloomsbury, £8.99), recently won the Duff Cooper Prize. www.williamdalrymple.com

Egypt’s Christian history

1st century AD Christianity arrives from Palestine

200 Egypt is largely Christian; the Church of Alexandria is second in importance only to Rome

641 Arabs invade; over the next 200 years most Egyptians convert to Islam

13th century Following the Crusades, Copts are persecuted by Egypt's Mamluk rulers; forced conversions take place

1952 to present After Gamal Abdel Nasser comes to power in a nationalist coup, Copts are increasingly marginalised. Discrimination worsens with the rise of Islamism in the 1990s

Research by Rachel Aspden

This article first appeared in the 17 December 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special 2007

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