Bringing it home

The debate over the exodus of Britain's black actors has finally begun. Now it is time to start talk

On 15 October at the Screen Nation Awards - dubbed the "black Baftas" - the founder of the awards, the distinguished Ghanaian producer Charles Thompson, bemoaned what he called a "talent drain of British actors running off to the States". I was both saddened and pleased by his comment: saddened because, as a black British actor and playwright, I know how serious the problem is, and pleased because, at last, people are actually starting to talk about it.

The overwhelming majority of black actors of my generation have found that their only hope of a career lies in America (an old maxim states that "in Britain, white actors have careers and black actors have jobs"). Rather than passing on tips about auditions, my contemporaries exchange advice about the "01 visa", the document that "provides admission into the United States of persons with . . . extraordinary achievement in motion picture and television production". I once read a very interesting comment referring to the former US general and later secretary of state Colin Powell. "It is his good fortune that they [his Jamaican-born parents] took the New York rather than the Southampton boat. If they had, he might have made sergeant." That sentiment increasingly appears to apply to the television and film industries, too.

Among the departed is Marianne Jean-Baptiste, who made history in 1997 by becoming the first black British actress to be nominated for an Oscar, for her performance in Mike Leigh's Secrets and Lies. The media coverage for her in this country was scant - particularly compared to the buzz around Brenda Blethyn, nominated that year for a part in the same film, and the coverage for Kate Winslet the year after. She is now appearing in the US crime series Without a Trace.

Eamonn Walker was the next to cross the pond and receive huge plaudits. He started with the TV series Oz and went on to star in films such as Tears of the Sun and Lord of War with Nicolas Cage. Two years ago I saw him on Broadway playing opposite Denzel Washington. Other success stories in the US are Thandie Newton, star of Crash, Naomie Harris, who appeared in Pirates of the Caribbean, and Idris Elba, who played Russell "Stringer" Bell in the HBO series The Wire. So convincing was Elba's performance that American audiences were shocked when they discovered that he was British. Since leaving the show in 2004, he has starred in 11 films; he is mobbed by fans every day. The career of Chiwetel Ejiofor, who played the lead role in Stephen Frears's Dirty Pretty Things, took a leap when he was cast as Detective Mitchell in Spike Lee's latest film, Inside Man.

Of course, the journey across the pond is well charted for actors pursuing stardom, from Charlie Chaplin to Kate Beckinsale. Unfortunately, in the case of black actors, the motivation is not necessarily fame and fortune - it is simply being able to find enough work to sustain a career.

This may come as a surprise to some television viewers. I was in the green room of a concert venue only a few weeks ago where these white British poets were talking about how far things have come in this country for black actors. It must sometimes seem that you can hardly put on the box without seeing some person of colour advertising chewing gum or a building society, or playing a nurse, a doctor or a police officer in a drama.

Things have indeed improved since my career began. I played Finlay Newton in the BBC hospital drama Casualty for a number of years. At the time, there was an unofficial policy of "one black male regular at a time". Midway through my tenure, Greg Dyke made it clear that he wanted the BBC to become more representative of the country it serves. I was on set one day when a producer rang to inform me that the series was going to get its first black doctor. I was overjoyed for a moment, and then realised this was probably bad news for me, as I would have to make way for the newcomer. I immediately phoned the bank to check that I had saved enough to pay the year's tax bill. Fortunately, my fears were misplaced; that same year, the series achieved a cast that was 27 per cent people of col our - far more representative of real hospitals in our city centres.

The problem, however, is that not many of the black actors who started their careers in bit-part roles in the early 2000s have moved on to the meatier parts that are crucial to keeping ambitious, talented people in the business. Hardly any of my generation have become household names, while many of our white counterparts, though not necessarily more talented, are now widely recognised and enjoying interesting and varied careers. The last major black British star was Lenny Henry, and that was decades ago. That cannot be right, when our talent is going to America and getting recognised, rewarded and respected. It is an inequality that has led to what many of my contemporaries regard as a two-tier system in our television and film industries.

This is not just an issue about acting. It also presents a huge problem for my work as a playwright, and for the visibility of stories from the black community in general. A play is nothing until the actors lend their craft and talent to bring the characters alive. At present, when I write a Caribbean character aged over 55 into one of my plays - as I did recently for Statement of Regret, which opens at the National Theatre in November - there is a maximum of four actors from among whom the director and I can choose. All the others have dropped out of the game because there was no work for them. Whole generations of talent have disappeared. I have a new play that opens next year and the producers and I discovered that only two out of the four actors able to play an elderly West Indian were available. If neither of them wanted to do it, it would be impossible to put the play on at all.

Now I am seeing the same thing beginning to happen for actors aged 35-45. Who will be here to play the fathers and mothers, the grandfathers and the myriad great parts yet to be written? If they are all gone, what will become of black narratives? This is a question of the utmost importance to the black community, and to British society as a whole.

So, how can we begin to turn this inequality around? There is hope, as we have proved in the past that it can be done. By pegging arts funding to policies of inclusion, the government helped to create important theatrical voices such as the playwrights Roy Williams and Debbie Tuck er Green, and even myself. We are now seen as produceable - Williams has received rave reviews for a string of plays, including Lift Off and Fall Out, both of which ran at the Royal Court Theatre, and Days of Significance, produced in January this year by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Tucker Green won Most Promising Newcomer at the 2004 Olivier Awards for born bad. Similarly, in the world of visual arts, the inclusion agenda arguably helped to foster interest in the brilliant work of Chris Ofili.

The idea should not be to introduce anything as artificial as a quota system, but we should look at who the hottest talents are and create projects for them that allow a sense of career progression.

I personally think our mothers and fathers got on the right boat - the one that brought them to these shores. In order to prove that contention, however, I would like to see immediate intervention and a real commitment to improving the representation of black Britons on screen.

"Statement of Regret" by Kwame Kwei-Armah opens at the Cottesloe, South Bank, London SE1, on 7 November. For more information, log on to:

Ones to watch

Michael Obiora challenged stereotypes with his role as the chatty gay receptionist Ben in BBC1's Hotel Babylon. After playing a string of bad-boy parts on screen and stage, including Ashley in Kwame Kwei-Armah's Elmina's Kitchen, Obiora says: "It's great acting gay." Born in north-west London to Nigerian parents, 21-year-old Obiora has been acting since the age of seven. He appeared on TV in Grange Hill aged nine and in The Bill aged 15.

Angel Coulby (right) appears in Statement of Regret at the National Theatre in November as Issi, a bright young intellectual working at a think tank dominated by men. She has previously had roles in TV series such as Vincent (with Ray Winstone) and The Visit (BBC3). Coulby has worked consistently, but she says: "You do find that a lot of the character casting is predominantly white, and I'm often cast as the token mixed-race girl. Things are getting better, but you really notice that that is how the industry still works." And she remarks that, despite the opportunities in America, "They never seem to have mixed relationships in American dramas . . . In the UK, people are a bit more open-minded."

Javone Prince (left) had his most challenging role this summer in Soho Theatre's The Christ of Coldharbour Lane, a satire on the lives of south London characters. Prince is now working on the second series of Little Miss Jocelyn (BBC3); he also appears in Statement of Regret.

Ashley Walters The best-established of the new bunch and former So Solid Crew member known as Asher D has had major roles in the films Bullet Boy (2004), this year's Sugarhouse and the forthcoming Tuesday, directed by Sacha Bennett. He says his ambition is "discovering new talent and teaching them how to go it alone themselves, and then lead the way for the next generation. That's very important to me, always has been."

Claire Provost

This article first appeared in the 29 October 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan