Interview: Alan Johnson

The one-time postman became the Labour darling of the Tory press as he contemplated the top job. But

Alan Johnson greets me with a broad smile. It is not a fixed smile, one that denotes discomfort, but nor is it natural. It is a professional smile. We chat mischievously about the prospects of the other candidates, wondering out loud about which of the other four runners will get the required number of nominations to stand.

Tape on, I go straight into the issue of the moment - the treatment and behaviour of the nation's youth, following a Unicef report com paring the UK unfavourably with other nations, and the spate of gang killings in our inner cities. Johnson enters the caveat that some of the report's findings are based on old statistics. Fair enough, perhaps, but I still invite him to discuss the various concerns. Instead, he offers this: "What the report shows is the damage you can do with 18 years in power from the right, and what good you can do with long periods in office from a government that's determined to tackle it." Blame it all on Thatcher? "Theirs [the Tories'] is a disgraceful record," he retorts. "It would be really strange if we were suddenly to shut up about it when such a report is released."

Johnson talks passionately about the achievements of Sure Start children's centres. "All the things we're doing in education, from Sure Start to higher education and through to adult skills, is about closing the social class gap," he says. "Closing that gap has to start at a very young age because most analysis shows that usually it's at the age of 22 months that a bright kid from a working-class background starts declining vis- à-vis a less bright kid from a more affluent background." He cites data showing that literacy and num eracy standards have risen more rapidly at schools in deprived areas than elsewhere. "In terms of absolute poverty, 700,000 children have been lifted out of poverty. On relative poverty, it's much more difficult when everyone's income is rising . . . It's clear we're getting to the disadvantaged. Are we getting to the most disadvantaged? We need to do more work there."

It riles Johnson that the Conservatives are now talking about quality-of-life issues, with the ind ulgence of the media. He calls David Cameron's agenda "synthetic": only an Eton-educated Tory leader would see the world in this way. People on incapacity benefit and single mothers, Johnson says, "are almost knocking down our door to say, 'We want to get back into work.' I know it's become a mantra, but it's true that the best form of welfare is a job. Christ, we campaigned on that for donkey's years, from the foundation of the party through the Jarrow marches - the dignity of work and the obscenity of people being cast on the scrap heap."

We move on to drugs. Given the links bet ween gangs and drugs, should the approach change? "I don't know what more we can do on drugs policy," he replies. "I suppose we could stop a few party leaders smoking cannabis."

It might seem strange that a man who has a visceral loathing for the Conservatives looks chuffed when I remind him how right-wing newspapers wrote fawning pieces about him last autumn as the most likely "anyone-but-Gordon" candidate. It took Johnson a good two months, following the tension surrounding the so-called Brownite "coup" of September, to decide to stand only for the number-two job, thus removing the Blairites' last hopes of finding a credible rival to the Chancellor. I wondered if he had been in no hurry to disappoint them. "Why should I? I was getting some good coverage, lots of profiles, and nobody really knew what was going to come out of it anyway." Before the party conference, "there were all kinds of people throwing their hats in. I might have wanted to throw my hat in as well."

Why he is different

So what now is his pitch? What makes him different from the other candidates? Johnson says he likes them all. I suggest he ought not to be so bashful. "Modesty comes naturally to the working classes," he insists, and then says: "I could complement the leader; I've got experience; I could help us continue to win elections; I've got links in the trade-union movement; I've been in five different constituencies in my 35 years of party membership and I've been in government for eight years."

He plans an overhaul of party structures if he does win, and says he is setting up a commission led by the MP Shahid Malik. This will report back, before the official launch of the campaign, on a number of matters: the recruitment of new members, particularly wo m en and people from ethnic minorities; a strategy for marginal seats; a new structure, including the role of the party chair; an improved policy-making process; and strengthening links with the trade unions to ensure that the ties are as much emotional, social and to do with policy as they are financial. "We should use the leadership elections to renew the party and make sure it is in the best state possible to fight the next general election. I've got my own ideas, but I also want to listen to ordinary members to get their thoughts."

What about policies? Which areas are ripe for change? "I think we have a very good record. We have an excellent record." No mistakes at all? "Well, I don't think there have been any huge mistakes. By and large, we've played it well, over the past ten years." I suggest that voters, and Labour members, have moved on from 1997 and politicians reading from scripts. They tend nowadays to appreciate a little openness, and perhaps the lack of it is harming the party's performance at the polls. "I think we're in very good nick in the polls," he says. This is on the eve of one survey putting Labour support at a 14-year low.

Undeterred, he suggests that public displays of candour are not in the party's best interests. "If you're going to have an election as leader, then it's the opportunity for your political enemies - as we found out when Charles [Clarke] said the things he said about Gordon - to mark down what candidates say about each other. You have to be absolutely sure that there is an appetite for this and I don't think there is an appetite for a contest. You certainly don't have a contest for the sake of it. There's nothing wrong with coronations."

He launches a swipe at Peter Hain and others. "You can go for the cheers and applause of your members, and even your ex-members, but the British public are watching. It's totally different if your party is in government, so there's no case for picking over the past ten years, where we went right and where we went wrong." Really? "Well, we could have this debate. What difference would this debate make to somebody on a good income, in a good career? Probably it doesn't make any difference to some of your readers. It doesn't make any difference to you, probably. It makes an awful lot of difference to the people I represent. It makes an awful lot of difference to people from my kind of background."

Middle-class lefties, in other words, indulge in criticising Labour because ultimately, they do not care if it loses. That, one might say, is a moot point. As newspaper clippings love to point out, Johnson was orphaned at the age of 12 and was then raised by his elder sister. He married at 17 and by the time he was 20 he had three children. He left school with no qualifications and became a postman. "I raised three kids on a council estate in Slough. My foreground, my background, my hinterland, are all working-class. I'm not on the dinner-party circuit in Islington."

Money talks

Johnson was one of new Labour's first modernisers, and the only senior trade-union leader to back Blair's scrapping of Clause Four in 1994. One of the party's achievements, he says, has been to combine the needs of "aspirants" with the less advantaged. He recalls canvassing in the 1983 election in his home area of Slough. "The people on this estate felt that Thatcher had given them an opportunity to buy their own council houses. And we were still in theoretical discussions endlessly about Nicaragua and Cuba."

It is only when we talk about City bonuses and other business practices that Johnson concedes that all might not be perfect in the new Labour garden. Last year, the private equity company Permira bought Unilever's UK and European frozen-food business. A few days later, it cut the pension provision for workers at the Birds Eye plant in Johnson's Hull constituency, and promptly closed the factory down. The GMB has been mounting a vocal campaign against Permira to draw attention to its "asset stripping".

Johnson is keen to support the union. "I don't know what you can do to deter this, but it's good that there's a focus on this. It's also good that the GMB is focusing on what's happening with hedge funds and what's happening with private equity companies: that's absolutely right. It ought to be a subject for debate."

He concedes that Unilever "probably would have closed the plant anyway" if it had remained the owner, but talks of a duty of care to employees, which costs money. "You were dealing with an employer that had a feel for the community and that had good employment relations and dealt properly with its trade unions. One of the reasons they [Permira] sold Birds Eye off was because they couldn't face up to the decisions they needed to take. They ducked out of them." Johnson says politicians should exercise caution. "If you get it wrong you just find the same things are happening but you've damaged an important part of the economy." Still, by backing the GMB campaign, he is hoping to change the mood in the country, and put pressure on such companies. "It's public opinion that changed people's attitudes to treating employees properly."

As Johnson lets himself be a little more candid, impressions of him improve. My colleague Martin Bright and I have now seen all five declared candidates. (We are waiting for Hazel Blears to declare.) Some have used the opportunity for grandstanding and headline-grabbing. Others exercised caution and were defensive. Dispiritingly absent so far has been vigorous debate on the way ahead. There is still time. But if a party in government for a decade closes in on itself during its deputy leadership contest, and avoids a meaningful contest for leader, it will have only itself to blame for reverses in the polls.

Alan Johnson: the CV

Born 17 May 1950, London
1962 Orphaned at 12, he is raised by his elder sister in a council flat
1968 Becomes a postman. Joins Union of Communication Workers. The following year, moves to Slough
1992 Aged 41, becomes youngest general secretary in history of the UCW
1994 Only senior union leader to back abolition of Clause Four
May 1997 Elected MP for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle. Becomes parliamentary private secretary to Dawn Primarolo at the Treasury
July 1999 Appointed minister for competitiveness, Department of Trade and Industry
2000 His proudest achievement: Trawlermen's Compensation Scheme, providing £46m for those who lost their jobs after the cod wars
June 2001 Minister of state for employment and the regions
June 2003 Minister for higher and further education
September 2004 Joins cabinet as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions
May 2005 Appointed Trade and Industry Secretary
May 2006 Reshuffled again, becomes Education Secretary
June 2006 Says the idea of him becoming prime minister is like "putting the Beagle on to Mars - a nice idea but doomed to failure"
November 2006 Launches deputy leadership campaign
Research by Sophie Pearce

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