Crushed by the wheels of industry: critics increasingly see new tech as one of the free market's most dangerous tools of oppression. Image: Ikon Images
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The new Luddites: why former digital prophets are turning against tech

Neo-Luddism began to emerge in the postwar period. First after the emergence of nuclear weapons, and secondly when it became apparent new computer technologies had the power to change our lives completely.

Very few of us can be sure that our jobs will not, in the near future, be done by machines. We know about cars built by robots, cashpoints replacing bank tellers, ticket dispensers replacing train staff, self-service checkouts replacing supermarket staff, tele­phone operators replaced by “call trees”, and so on. But this is small stuff compared with what might happen next.

Nursing may be done by robots, delivery men replaced by drones, GPs replaced by artificially “intelligent” diagnosers and health-sensing skin patches, back-room grunt work in law offices done by clerical automatons and remote teaching conducted by computers. In fact, it is quite hard to think of a job that cannot be partly or fully automated. And technology is a classless wrecking ball – the old blue-collar jobs have been disappearing for years; now they are being followed by white-collar ones.

Ah, you may say, but human beings will always be better. This misses the point. It does not matter whether the new machines never achieve full human-like consciousness, or even real intelligence, they can almost certainly achieve just enough to do your job – not as well as you, perhaps, but much, much more cheaply. To modernise John Ruskin, “There is hardly anything in the world that some robot cannot make a little worse and sell a little cheaper, and the people who consider price only are this robot’s lawful prey.”

Inevitably, there will be social and political friction. The onset has been signalled by skirmishes such as the London Underground strikes over ticket-office staff redundancies caused by machine-readable Oyster cards, and by the rage of licensed taxi drivers at the arrival of online unlicensed car booking services such as Uber, Lyft and Sidecar.

This resentment is intensified by rising social inequality. Everybody now knows that neoliberalism did not deliver the promised “trickle-down” effect; rather, it delivered trickle-up, because, even since the recession began, almost all the fruits of growth have gone to the rich. Working- and middle-class incomes have flatlined or fallen. Now, it seems, the wealthy cyber-elites are creating machines to put the rest of us out of work entirely.

The effect of this is to undermine the central argument of those who hype the benefits of job replacement by machines. They say that new and better jobs will be created. They say this was always true in the past, so it will be true now. (This is the precise correlative of the neoliberals’ “rising tide floats all boats” argument.) But people now doubt the “new and better jobs” line trotted out – or barked – by the prophets of robotisation. The new jobs, if there are any, will more probably be serf-like attenders to the needs of the machine, burger-flippers to the robot classes.

Nevertheless, this future, too, is being sold in neoliberal terms. “I am sure,” wrote Mitch Free (sic) in a commentary for Forbes on 11 June, “it is really hard [to] see when your pay check is being directly impacted but the reality to any market disruption is that the market wants the new technology or business model more than they want what you offer, otherwise it would not get off the ground. The market always wins, you cannot stop it.”

Free was writing in response to what probably seemed to him a completely absurd development, a nightmarish impossibility – the return of Luddism. “Luddite” has, in the past few decades, been such a routine term of abuse for anybody questioning the march of the machines (I get it all the time) that most people assume that, like “fool”, “idiot” or “prat”, it can only ever be abusive. But, in truth, Luddism has always been proudly embraced by the few and, thanks to the present climate of machine mania and stagnating incomes, it is beginning to make a new kind of sense. From the angry Parisian taxi drivers who vandalised a car belonging to an Uber driver to a Luddite-sympathetic column by the Nobel laureate Paul Krugman in the New York Times, Luddism in practice and in theory is back on the streets.

Luddism derives its name from Ned Ludd, who is said to have smashed two “stocking frames” – knitting machines – in a fit of rage in 1779, but who may have been a fictional character. It became a movement, with Ludd as its Robin Hood, between 1811 and 1817 when English textile workers were threatened with unemployment by new technology, which the Luddites defined as “machinery hurtful to Commonality”. Mills were burned, machinery was smashed and the army was mobilised. At one time, according to Eric Hobsbawm, there were more soldiers fighting the Luddites than were fighting Napoleon in Spain. Parliament passed a bill making machine-smashing a capital offence, a move opposed by Byron, who wrote a song so seditious that it was not published until after his death: “. . . we/Will die fighting, or live free,/And down with all kings but King Ludd!”

Once the Luddites had been suppressed, the Industrial Revolution resumed its course and, over the ensuing two centuries, proved the most effective wealth-creating force ever devised by man. So it is easy to say the authorities were on the right side of history and the Luddites on the wrong one. But note that this is based on the assumption that individual sacrifice in the present – in the form of lost jobs and crafts – is necessary for the mechanised future. Even if this were true, there is a dangerous whiff of totalitarianism in the assumption.

Neo-Luddism began to emerge in the postwar period. First, the power of nuclear weapons made it clear to everybody that our machines could now put everybody out of work for ever by the simple expedient of killing them and, second, in the 1980s and 1990s it became apparent that new computer technologies had the power to change our lives completely.

Thomas Pynchon, in a brilliant essay for the New York Times in 1984 – he noted the resonance of the year – responded to the first new threat and, through literature, revitalised the idea of the machine as enemy. “So, in the science fiction of the Atomic Age and the cold war, we see the Luddite impulse to deny the machine taking a different direction. The hardware angle got de-emphasised in favour of more humanistic concerns – exotic cultural evolutions and social scenarios, paradoxes and games with space/time, wild philosophical questions – most of it sharing, as the critical literature has amply discussed, a definition of ‘human’ as particularly distinguished from ‘machine’.”

In 1992, Neil Postman, in his book Technopoly, rehabilitated the Luddites in response to the threat from computers: “The term ‘Luddite’ has come to mean an almost childish and certainly naive opposition to technology. But the historical Luddites were neither childish nor naive. They were people trying desperately to preserve whatever rights, privileges, laws and customs had given them justice in the older world-view.”

Underpinning such thoughts was the fear that there was a malign convergence – perhaps even a conspiracy – at work. In 1961, even President Eisenhower warned of the anti-democratic power of the “military-industrial complex”. In 1967 Lewis Mumford spoke presciently of the possibility of a “mega-machine” that would result from “the convergence of science, technics and political power”. Pynchon picked up the theme: “If our world survives, the next great challenge to watch out for will come – you heard it here first – when the curves of research and development in artificial intelligence, molecular biology and robotics all converge. Oboy.”

The possibility is with us still in Silicon Valley’s earnest faith in the Singularity – the moment, possibly to come in 2045, when we build our last machine, a super-intelligent computer that will solve all our problems and enslave or kill or save us. Such things are true only to the extent to which they are believed – and, in the Valley, this is believed, widely.

Environmentalists were obvious allies of neo-Luddism – adding global warming as a third threat to the list – and globalism, with its tendency to destroy distinctively local and cherished ways of life, was an obvious enemy. In recent decades, writers such as Chellis Glendinning, Langdon Winner and Jerry Mander have elevated the entire package into a comprehensive rhetoric of dissent from the direction in which the world is going. Winner wrote of Luddism as an “epistemological technology”. He added: “The method of carefully and deliberately dismantling technologies, epistemological Luddism, if you will, is one way of recovering the buried substance upon which our civilisation rests. Once unearthed, that substance could again be scrutinised, criticised, and judged.”

It was all very exciting, but then another academic rained on all their parades. His name was Ted Kaczynski, although he is more widely known as the Unabomber. In the name of his own brand of neo-Luddism, Kaczynski’s bombs killed three people and injured many more in a campaign that ran from 1978-95. His 1995 manifesto, “Industrial Society and Its Future”, said: “The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race,” and called for a global revolution against the conformity imposed by technology.

The lesson of the Unabomber was that radical dissent can become a form of psychosis and, in doing so, undermine the dissenters’ legitimate arguments. It is an old lesson and it is seldom learned. The British Dark Mountain Project (dark-mountain.net), for instance, is “a network of writers, artists and thinkers who have stopped believing the stories our civilisation tells itself”. They advocate “uncivilisation” in writing and art – an attempt “to stand outside the human bubble and see us as we are: highly evolved apes with an array of talents and abilities which we are unleashing without sufficient thought, control, compassion or intelligence”. This may be true, but uncivilising ourselves to express this truth threatens to create many more corpses than ever dreamed of by even the Unabomber.1

Obviously, if neo-Luddism is conceived of in psychotic or apocalyptic terms, it is of no use to anybody and could prove very dangerous. But if it is conceived of as a critical engagement with technology, it could be useful and essential. So far, this critical engagement has been limited for two reasons. First, there is the belief – it is actually a superstition – in progress as an inevitable and benign outcome of free-market economics. Second, there is the extraordinary power of the technology companies to hypnotise us with their gadgets. Since 1997 the first belief has found justification in a management theory that bizarrely, upon closer examination, turns out to be the mirror image of Luddism. That was the year in which Clayton Christensen published The Innovator’s Dilemma, judged by the Economist to be one of the most important business books ever written. Christensen launched the craze for “disruption”. Many other books followed and many management courses were infected. Jill Lepore reported in the New Yorker in June that “this fall, the University of Southern California is opening a new program: ‘The degree is in disruption,’ the university announced.” And back at Forbes it is announced with glee that we have gone beyond disruptive innovation into a new phase of “devastating innovation”.

It is all, as Lepore shows in her article, nonsense. Christensen’s idea was simply that innovation by established companies to satisfy customers would be undermined by the disruptive innovation of market newcomers. It was a new version of Henry Ford and Steve Jobs’s view that it was pointless asking customers what they want; the point was to show them what they wanted. It was nonsense because, Lepore says, it was only true for a few, carefully chosen case histories over very short time frames. The point was made even better by Christensen himself when, in 2007, he made the confident prediction that Apple’s new iPhone would fail.

Nevertheless, disruption still grips the business imagination, perhaps because it sounds so exciting. In Luddism you smash the employer’s machines; in disruption theory you smash the competitor’s. The extremity of disruptive theory provides an accidental justification for extreme Luddism. Yet still, technocratic propaganda routinely uses the vocabulary of disruption theory.

Meanwhile in the New York Times, Paul Krugman wrote a very neo-Luddite column that questioned the consoling belief that education would somehow solve the probem of the destruction of jobs by technology. “Today, however, a much darker picture of the effects of technology on labour is emerging. In this picture, highly educated workers are as likely as less educated workers to find themselves displaced and devalued, and pushing for more education may create as many problems as it solves.”

In other words – against all the education boosters from Tony Blair onwards – you can’t learn yourself into the future, because it is already owned by others, primarily the technocracy. But it is expert dissidents from within the technocracy who are more useful for moderate neo-Luddites. In 2000, Bill Joy, a co-founder of Sun Microsystems and a huge figure in computing history, broke ranks with an article for Wired entitled “Why the future doesn’t need us”. He saw that many of the dreams of Silicon Valley would either lead to, or deliberately include, termination of the human species. They still do – believers in the Singularity look forward to it as a moment when we will transcend our biological condition.

“Given the incredible power of these new technologies,” Joy wrote, “shouldn’t we be asking how we can best coexist with them? And if our own extinction is a likely, or even possible, outcome of our technological development, shouldn’t we proceed with great caution?”

Finally, there is Jaron Lanier, one of the creators of virtual reality, who lost faith in the direction technology was taking when his beloved music industry was eviscerated by the destruction of jobs that followed the arrival of downloading. Why, he repeatedly asks in books such as You Are Not a Gadget, should we design machines that lower the quality of things? This wasn’t what the internet was supposed to do.

Moderate neo-Luddism involves critical scepticism about the claims by the makers of the new machines and even more critical scepticism about the societies – primarily Silicon Valley – from which these anti-human ideas spring. At least now there is a TV satirical comedy about the place – HBO’s Silicon Valley – which will spread the news that the technocracy consists of very strange people who are, indeed, capable of building “machinery hurtful to Commonality”. The running joke in the first episode was about the way the technocrats always claim to be working to make a better world. As if.

Luddite laughter is a start. But there’s a long way to go before the technology beast is tamed. For the moment, you still may lose your job to a machine; but at least you can go down feeling and thinking – computers can’t do either. 

@bryanappleyard

Update 11 September 11am:


1The New Statesman has published the following letter in response to this article:

Bryan Appleyard’s article on “the new Luddites” (above) gave a rather misleading picture of the Dark Mountain Project, which apparently represents “a form of psychosis” likely to “create more corpses than ever dreamed of by even the Unabomber”. In reality, we are a network of writers, artists and thinkers, centred on the Dark Mountain journal. We publish two books of new work every year, much of it involving exactly the kind of “critical engagement” with technology for which Appleyard calls.

According to the New York Times, a publication not noted for its homicidal or psychotic tendencies, Dark Mountain is “changing the environmental debate in Britain and the rest of Europe”. We won’t speculate about Appleyard’s mental health or criminal intentions, but we do hope that the editors of the NS require a higher standard of research from him in future.

Dougald Hine, Paul Kingsnorth
Directors
Dark Mountain Project

 

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, What the Beatles did for Britain

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