Mad Margaret's voyage of dishonour

In this week's selection from the New Statesman archive former editor Bruce Page opposes the sending

The New Statesman 9 April 1982

On 2 April 1982 Argentina's military junta invaded the British colony of the Falkland Islands in the south Atlantic. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was determined to liberate the islands and their people from what was fascist rule - by war if necessary. In a number of passionately argued editorials, Bruce Page, then editor of the New Statesman, rejected the sending of the British expeditionary force and the support given to its departure by the Labour Party.

Selected by Robert Taylor

The owl of Minerva, said Hegel, flies only at dusk. By this he meant that human societies take a dangerously long time in learning from history.

In the case of Britain and her post-Imperial pretensions, the owl trundles down the runway again and again. But she never shows any sign of getting into the air.

It is not easy to believe that even a government as stupid and amateurish as Mrs Thatcher's can actually be sending some of the Navy's costliest and most elaborate warships to take part in a game of blind-man's-buff at the other end of the world. The revenue cost of the enterprise can't be less than £50 million, which would be more than enough to give the Falkland Islanders the fresh beginning in life that this country certainly owes them. The capital cost, if ships and aircraft start going into action, and taking casualties, could make the revenue cost look trivial.

And the cost in blood? One is not talking here of using a few highly-trained SAS men to knock over a captured embassy with its garrison of half-demented terrorists. The task is to take and hold a group of islands defended by some 5,000 professional soldiers, who have air and naval support from a tolerably-handy home base – while our people have to operate at the end of an 8,000 mile ocean supply line.

Some other late flutters of the post-Imperial heart – notably, the Anguilla episode – had their comic side. But if any serious shooting starts in the Falklands, a lot of young men, British and Argentinian, are likely to get killed and maimed. And in what cause will this be done?

If you read the Daily Mail, or listen to Tory MPs, you might imagine that the cause was liberty and democracy. (These are the same people who became passionate trade-unionists when Jaruzelski's army crushed Solidarity.) If you believe The Times, you are committed to thinking that the cause is the rolling back of aggression more evil and portentous than Hitler's invasion of Poland in 1939. WE ARE ALL FALKLANDERS NOW says The Times, having apparently failed to notice that the government on which it now fawns went to some trouble, last year, in its Nationality Bill, to ensure that we are not Falklanders – and to ensure that no such colonial bounders could be mistaken for members of the homeland club.

Certainly the Argentine Government, in spite of changes of regime, hasn't for many years been off any sensible observer's short-list of the world's most noxious regimes. But until the weekend's rhetorical orgy swept leader-writers and Parliamentarians into its embrace, no Labour or Tory ministers had found any serious inconvenience in that fact. Till now, British government have gone out of their way to truckle to Argentina – and if that means abandoning the Falklanders, okay; if it means turning a blind eye to torture and fascist repression, fair enough. There was a brief tiff in January 1976, when Buenos Aires broke off ambassadorial relations after Lord Shackleton paid a visit to the islands. But by March 1979 the Labour Government had agreed to exchange ambassadors again.

The truth is that relations between Britain and Latin America are dictated not by ministers, but by the Foreign Office and by an assortment of business-oriented lobbyists like Lord Chalfont and Viscount Montgomery. When Mr Nicholas Ridley was supposedly in charge of our Latin American affairs in 1980, he gave a touchingly honest account of the government's actual expertise: complaining of the whole continent, he said “it's very far away, it's very expensive to get there, and what's more they mainly speak Spanish or Portuguese.”

Labour ministers have not been better than Tories at taking a detached view of the “advice”offered to them. A letter sent from Edmund Dell, Trade Secretary, to David Owen, Foreign Secretary, in 1978 deserves quotation in some detail:

“Even Luard may have told you of the dinner given by the Lord Mayor recently...for the purpose of bringing together those with significant interests in Latin America. There was a free exchange of views, during which several speakers expressed concern about the effect which our stance on human rights was having and would continue to have for some time on our trade interests there.

Since then, George Nelson of GEC has written to Fred Catherwood, who as you know is chairman of the British Overseas Trade Board, following up their discussion at the dinner. Apart from reiterating his concern over our long-term trade interests generally, he has particularly drawn attention to GEC's and British Aerospace's interest in selling the Hawk aircraft to Argentina (worth about £100 million)...I understand that you are at present considering whether or not General Agosti, Argentine Chief of Air Staff, should be invited here and received at the appropriate level. Nelson and Catherwood both urge that we should invite him...”

No surprise, then, that during the 1970s Britain provided nearly one-third of all major weapons purchased by Argentina – including ship to air missiles and ship-to-ship missiles which could be used against our own fleet in the event of Mrs Thatcher's somewhat hysterical “diplomacy” going adrift.

In October 1979 William Whitelaw received hearty Argentine congratulations on ending the visa programme for Latin American refugees. In August 1980 Cecil Parkinson Minister for Trade, visited the Argentine and enthused about the trading possibilities, and was followed by Peter Walker in 1981. Meanwhile in all sorts of penny-pinching detail, the social infrastructure of the supposedly-treasured Falkland Islands was steadily handed over to the Argentine regime: as the British Government never followed-up Shackleton's recommendation for a long-range airstrip on the island, the Falklanders' communications go via Buenos Aires, and via a small airstrip built by Argentine soldiers who no doubt made the most of their reconnaissance opportunities.

Supposedly, the emphasis is now on "diplomacy", in which Mrs Thatcher's chum Ronald Reagan is expected to play some part. The likelihood of the double-act's success should be assessed in terms of its immediate past performance – which is the remarkable one of driving the Argentine dictatorship into the arms of Cuba and the Soviet Union.

Until last week, Buenos Aires backed Reagan's anti-Communist crusade all the way: sending “advisers” to the Salvadorean and Guatemalan armies, and to the Somocieta camps in Honduras; withdrawing ambassadors from Havana and Managua in support of American aims.

Only last November the Americans gave General Galtieri a banquet in Washington and described him as a "majestic personality". Demented by flattery, Galtieri appears to have concluded that the Americans would support him in his Falkland Islands, and was thunderstruck to receive a long, distinctly hostile phone-call from Reagan just before the invasion went in. “Whose side are you on?” he is reported to have asked Reagan, in understandable puzzlement.

But the Soviet Union – which will take 80 per cent of Argentina's grain exports this year – has been carefully cultivating the General for some time, and there is excellent historical precedence for hasty marriages of convenience between totalitarian regimes of “left” and “right”. Already the Argentine ambassadors are on their way back to Cuba and Nicaragua. And next month Galtieri's foreign minister will go to Havana to discuss ways in which Argentina might become more active within the “non-aligned” movement of which Fidel Castro is president.

To support Britain's dubious, irrational enterprise, the whole armoury of patriotic rhetoric and flim-flam has been deployed. The Times, predictably, reached out for one of the two literary passages which even Fleet Street leader-writers know (the other being Yeats's remark about things falling apart when the centre fails to hold), and in which by endless repetition even John Donne's prose has acquired the overtones of cliché:

"No man is an island, entire of itself... therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."

A slightly wider acquaintance with Donne's works might have yielded this, from the Verse Letters (and the title, To H.W. In Hibernia Belligeranti, ought to remind us that amid all this mimicry the Secretary of State for Northern Island is trying to transact some serious business):

"Went you to conquer? And have so much lost

Yourself, that what in you was best and most,

Respective friendship, should so quickly die?"

The puzzle that the thing we call "Britain" presents to the world is that of a community of peoples perhaps as civilised, and humane of temper, as any who may be found – yet which is led, again and again, into enterprises which are as self-defeating as they are dishonourable. The reason, of course, is that the thing we still have to call our government – the United Kingdom state – was never designed to rule a group of democratic, European industrial nations such as the English, the Scots, the Welsh and the Irish are capable of being. It was brought into existence to run, by bluff and cheapskate contrivance, a shabby world-wide empire that was assembled by blunder, force and fraud in varying proportions. Like an old, mangy lion, it knows no other trick, and so long as it has dominion over us it will betray us – and make us pay the price of betrayal in our own best blood.

This article first appeared in the 02 April 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Africa: How we killed our dreams of freedom

Martin O’Neil for New Statesman
Show Hide image

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