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Living with diversity: for a politics of hope without fear

An open letter from the Forum of Concerned Citizens of Europe.

Rather like climate change, a quietly brewing concoction of xenophobia, intolerance and fear of difference is threatening the future of Europe. Aggressive political demagoguery drumming up hatred against minorities, immigrants and democracy itself is on the march again. Leading the charge are not only fundamentalist and xenophobic movements, but also, most worryingly, mainstream political forces trying to appease national majorities, looking for a quick fix to address public insecurities related to economic uncertainty, future stability and Europe's place in the world. And, alarmingly, they are proving to be successful. Many people in many European countries are coming to see the stranger and those deemed to be different as a contaminant or threat, much in the same way as Europe did in colonial times and during its dark totalitarian decades prior to 1945.

Fear, suspicion and hatred are becoming everyday public sentiments, legitimating vilification and harsh forms of discipline as normal, breeding on endless talk of greedy asylum seekers, disloyal and seditious immigrants, would-be Muslim terrorists, and an illusory desire to return to founding principles and chauvinistic values. A new lexicon of "us versus them" is being rolled out, blaming the victims of unfettered financial speculation, poverty, inequality, and authoritarianism at a global scale, and pretending to ignore how the contribution of immigrants and refugees has been, is and will remain essential to European social, economic and cultural life. A new mentality of 'catastrophe management' is being promoted, centred on the containment or elimination of the stranger and non-conformist through extensive surveillance, border controls, curtailment of rights, naming and shaming.

This is a dangerous turn, and as in the darkest moments of its history, Europe runs the risk of waking up too late. We are close to the point of no return from a Europe excessively obsessed with diversity and wrongly blaming difference for its problems. These are complex problems, linked to a variety of causes such as deep economic crisis and instability, the impacts of market society on individual and collective responsibility, the absence of a model of belonging appropriate for a plural and open society, the breakdown of comprehensive risk mitigation and social insurance systems, the intensification of a politics of surveillance, normalisation and punishment after 9/11, and nostalgia for a mythical Europe of cosy, homogeneous communities. These problems need to be acknowledged and alternative solutions need to be found; solutions that can harness diversity and difference as a way of facing the future. Otherwise Europe will find itself once again in an age of suspicion and intolerance, with even friends and neighbours becoming enemies as a politics of suspicion and anxiety tightens its grip.

The aim of this 'open letter', which is addressed to publics, opinion-makers and political actors in Europe who value the open and democratic society, is to formulate another way of approaching diversity and difference in Europe. There is considerable latent anxiety over the dark twists and turns we are witnessing in many European countries, but it has yet to stack up into an irreversible clamour for change. This letter might help in raising the tempo. But it is also important that the anxieties and fears on which intolerance and xenophobia feed are not dismissed as irrational, and those who hold them as abnormal, as we frequently find in current anti-racist and anti-fascist protest. The stance of this letter is to acknowledge the unsettlements associated with the profound changes Europe is witnessing, but to seek to dislocate them from their current associations with difference and 'strangers' variously cast and address them, instead, through a politics of solidarity, reciprocal learning and cooperation among all those who find themselves in Europe.

Such dispositions cannot develop in a vacuum. Accordingly this letter traces the outlines of another model of belonging and participation in Europe, one that argues for hope and courage in the face of uncertainty and risk, solidarity and learning as a resource for the future, diversity and cultural pluralism as the status quo, economic fairness, a shared commons at the centre of public policy, and democratic engagement and debate as the staple of political deliberation. In this sense, the letter is a call to European progressive political leaders and representatives, to transcend the short-sighted views and interests that so far have dominated the response both to the economic crisis and to the growing wave of xenophobia and general intolerance vis-à-vis social and cultural diversity.

We call on them to exercise their responsibility to promote and implement legislation and concrete policies consistent with universal human rights, both in Europe itself as well as in the relations and exchanges between Europe and the rest of the world, especially the impoverished societies. That is, legislation and policies geared on the one hand to build on the best European traditions in terms of hospitality, openness to difference, innovation and change, dialogue and democratic engagement, and on the other, in opposition to the colonial and imperial practices still in place, to establish a new set of rules, based on cooperation and reciprocity, in its relations with all those countries where life -human and other- most often is the cheapest commodity.

A Critical Moment for Europe

The enormity of the change sweeping through Europe needs to be recognised with clarity. A hard-won legacy of openness, inclusion and engagement towards the unfamiliar and unexpected is being threatened by a 'catastrophe' approach based on exclusion and the vilification of anything that apparently endangers the customary way of life. Both approaches to change are present in Europe, one looking to the future with courage, curiosity and a desire to evolve, and the other with fear, dread and an anxiety to preserve a privileged but unsustainable way of life.

The inclusive approach is rooted in the principle of provision for an expanding spectrum of social actors at home and abroad, typically through collective negotiation, social insurance, empowerment and education, social cohesion and inclusion, dialogue and democratic engagement. It brings the outside and the foreign into the inside. Europe's long Humanist legacy, aspects of the post-war European social model, and late-20th century recognition of gender, racial, sexual and post-colonial equality by the EU and many member states can be seen as heirs of this tradition.

The catastrophe approach is rooted in the principle of mitigation against hazard and risk through elaborate military-like preparations including disaster planning, warnings of Armageddon, predatory surveillance, restriction of civil liberties, and the violent oppression of dissent, difference and the foreign. The outside must be kept at bay, the enemy must be named, the primitive must be tamed, and tough measures must be taken in the name of social and cultural preservation, collective security and well-being.

This is how Europe justified the exploits of Empire and colony, its differences with the Orient and Islam, its division of the world into superior and inferior races and peoples conveniently colour coded, the brutal suppression of Jews and Roma, and the brutal suppression of dissidents, non-conformists, workers and peasants by different totalitarian regimes. This is how contemporary 'emergency' measures after 9/11, bent on targeting would-be terrorists, unfit citizens and social outcasts through loose proxies such as physical appearance, religious belief, cultural practices, race and ethnicity, social and economic status, can be linked to a dark European legacy based on the demonization of particular types of vulnerable bodies. And this is how the politics of fear is used to curtail not only civic and political rights for the whole society, but also to dismantle the hard-won conquests of the oppressed and exploited in terms of labour conditions and welfare services.

It is not long before this politics of fear and hate, having exhausted the list of easily identifiable scapegoats, will create new divisions in order to sustain itself. It is not long before a biopolitics of fear and resentment that tries to shut out an irreducibly plural and porous world will incapacitate Europe, as the means to engage, to look ahead, to cultivate an ethic of care, empathy and curiosity are lost.

Facing the Future Together

Europe is home today to millions of people from non-European backgrounds, many religious and cultural dispositions, networks of affiliation that stretch right across the globe. It is as much a site of longings rooted in myths of origin and tradition - regional, national and continental - as it is a site of cosmopolitan identities and attachments, a place of plural and hybrid composition, drawing on varied geographies of cultural formation. In such a Europe it makes no sense to close the borders, to play the game of good insiders and bad outsiders, to defend ethnic and cultural purity, to demonise everything alien, to declare the end of secularism. It also makes no sense to valorise an image of European history which is centred upon cultural homogeneity and nationalised 'purity'. Engagements with difference have marked Europe from its earliest days and such engagements are equally unavoidable in the European present and in any image of its shared future.

There is no denying that these are turbulent times, riddled with large and often unforeseen risks and hazards thrown up by the entanglements of an unregulated and interdependent world. Those risks, however, have much more to do with the uncontrolled movements of speculative financial capital and global economic integration than with the over-controlled displacements of migrants and refugees trying to reach a destination to work and live with dignity, the vast majority of whom are moving within their countries of origin and within the south of the planet. Governance has become an art of trial and error, making the best of an imperfect and fully unknowable world. Risks quickly multiply, mutate, cross borders, and this no doubt worries governments and publics seeking certitude and a secure future. But uncertainty, escalation and imprecision - all requiring the need to act in new ways - should neither be read as unavoidable catastrophes, nor, most importantly, as problems that can be resolved through a politics of retrenchment, generalised fear and militarisation; a politics of harming some bodies for the safety of others. They also represent new opportunities, new prospects on a future in the making.

Europe has to find a way of tackling hazard, risk and uncertainty by harnessing rather than rejecting diversity and difference; by inventing new solidarities rather than craving for an uncontaminated future; by cultivating an ethos of hope, shared ground and common purpose rather than one of hate and division; by accepting that acting in an uncertain world requires the wit, imagination and effort of all stakeholders rather than the designs and impositions of so-called experts and tough leaders; by realising that the negotiation of complexity and interdependence - the world as it has become - requires an attitude of pragmatic experimentalism, continuous learning and negotiation, rather than a stance of heroic certitude and unbending projection.

A start on this difficult but necessary journey to rethink how best to live in a plural and uncertain world is to jettison a culture of emergency management through obsessive surveillance and control. What is needed, instead, is to clarify why democracy, inclusion, empowerment, fairness and social justice for the many and not only the few - in Europe and beyond - is a precondition for dealing positively with uncertainty and change. New work is required to show with conviction and evidence that gender, class, racial and sexual equality are a good thing, that access for all to the means of well-being in a society releases new capabilities and reduces envy and resentment, that full-blown democracy involving universal rights, representation, popular participation and public scrutiny spreads responsibility and checks power abuses, that investing in the collective infrastructure shared by all and in future sustainability reduces fear and anxiety along with underpinning a sense of the shared turf, that widespread economic opportunity, parity and security can reduce conflict and disaffection.

These cannot remain empty phrases, but must form part of a new and passionately felt politics of social inclusion and justice that is not just whispered from the sidelines, but can demonstrate that there are significant gains to be made by majorities and minorities, citizens and residents, and above all, society as a whole. This is not an argument for a simple return to the welfare state. Times have changed, and past effort was not without its problems. Only too frequently, states and elites rolled out giant programmes in the name of equality that fell far short, while majorities continued to discriminate against minorities, outsiders, and the vulnerable under the guise of universalism and collectivism.

Towards a Politics of the Commons

The challenge of bridging similarity and difference, the particular and the common, the familiar and the strange thus remains an unresolved challenge, as does the need to show how such bridging is the road to peace, progress and understanding in a turbulent world. These are difficult issues that need to be addressed through collective debate over the concerns at stake, through public ownership of and conviction in the justice of the proposals put forward. Otherwise the proposals - no matter how sophisticated or persuasive - will be rejected as impositions.

A start can be made, however, by indicating the kind of ethos that is needed to face the future through diversity and difference. First, it must be an ethos of hope not fear, trust not suspicion, reciprocity not domination, dialogue not condemnation, and negotiation not aggression. Secondly, it must be an ethos of finding vision in the dark through many eyes and torches held by many hands, united by belief in the benefits that come from unity and solidarity, but also by the knowledge that the way can never be fully illuminated, is full of pit holes and dangers to be negotiated through common concerns. Thirdly, therefore, it must be an ethos of pragmatic learning, trial and error, but clear about the principles of the open society and the Charter of Human Rights that cannot be violated. This includes pressing for the complete dismantlement of the catastrophe mentality and its infrastructure. These three dimensions of an ethos of shared concern, mutual engagement and pragmatic learning should be the basis on which a sense of 'the European' should emerge.

The problems of race, ethnicity and culture that have come so much to centre stage in the politics of catastrophe management need to be put back in place by making space for a wider frame of collective reference and shared ambition, itself understood to require the effort of all members of a society. An ethic of care for the commons has to lie at the centre of an inclusive and non-fearful politics of preparedness for the future,
harnessing difference and pluralism for common benefit, proposing shared injuries, concerns and injustices as political demands, rather than divisive accusations.

Pragmatically, this means pressing for particular keywords such as hospitality, fairness, solidarity and mutuality as the prime colours of the open society; debated in the public arena, used as the measure of things by people and institutions. It also means publicising something that Europe has excelled in historically, which is the tradition of nurturing public space and public infrastructures open to and shared by all. The achievements of public libraries, squares and parks, public education, health and transport services and facilities cannot be underestimated, especially when these spaces are used and appreciated by all. They are the formative ground of citizenship and a respect for shared resources.

Then, it means advocacy for a vibrant public sphere, a variety of modes of collective communication, an instinct of taking things of social interest into the public arena. So, instead of burying latent concerns or new policies being introduced by stealth, challenges, threats and risks are here named, debated and subjected to democratic scrutiny. It means seeking unity in difference through a politics of shared concerns, common problems made visible (such as housing and well-being, employment, security, urban services, the quality of the environment, future sustainability, and so on), so that the concerns that face us all can become the basis for collective understanding and solidarity.

Finally, it means organising to protect the commons. Much is said today about the need to protect the environment against pollution and consumption. Our children may have little air to breathe in times to come if we continue to disregard nature. But there is more of the commons to protect, raising once again old questions of ownership and stewardship that will not go away. Banking reforms, redistributive justice, corporate social responsibility, public ownership and control, the democratic accountability of public communications, work for all, fair wages, universal insurance, building capability, regulatory reform, the social economy, and other aspects of the economy organised for meeting needs and spreading rewards, are all part and parcel of a much needed new politics of diversity. It is through such reforms that future growth can be directed to the many and not only the few, and for outcomes that address envy and enmity. Europe's political classes seem to have forgotten this link, made so clear after the war in the effort made by states and progressive movements to repair the economy and the commons as the way forward for both prosperity and solidarity.

This letter is a call to intervene, to revive an old tradition in Europe to question, to dissent. It proposes that living with difference in Europe should be seen as an opportunity to face the future together, in mutual respect.

Forum of Concerned Citizens of Europe

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