Nowhere else to go

It is too easy to believe that anyone who votes for the BNP in the 3 May elections is a racist or a

Under grey skies at Oldham Athletic football ground, a group of schoolkids stands on the steps of our 1964 double-decker anti-racism bus, wearing Hope Not Hate T-shirts. All except one boy, a pale-faced 11-year-old in an ill-fitting school uniform, who is standing at the back of the bus studying the floor.

"Come on, lad!" his teacher calls out. The boy stamps his feet one after the other. His expression says he wishes he were invisible. In big letters behind him, a sign reads: "Celebrating Modern Britain".

"Come on, J!" His friends are calling him. He drags off his hoodie and pulls on a yellow Hope Not Hate T-shirt over his white school shirt. He takes his place on the steps of the bus for the photograph. J turns out to have a lovely smile.

"That's a big step for him," one of the mums says. "His family are all BNP. It's more than 40 per cent on our estate voted for BNP in the last election." When I ask her why, she shrugs. "Because there's nowhere else to go," she says, in a matter-of-fact way. "Not really, when you think about it. Working families feel let down by Labour. It's like it's a London party for southerners. It's all about spin. There's Iraq and all that. Local lads dying out there from the regiments round here - cannon fodder." And why isn't she voting for them? "Because they aren't a proper party, that's what people don't realise. They're not like the other parties. They're extremists as bad as the ones in the mosques."

On 3 May, the British National Party will contest a record number of seats in the local elections. A total of 827 across England and Scotland, and more than twice the number the party has ever fielded before. The Hope Not Hate battle bus - which took a 1,700-mile drunk's scribble of a journey from London to Glasgow organised by the Daily Mirror and Searchlight - was an attempt to engage with those parts of the country most likely to connect with a far-right message.

It also turns out to be a tour of an angry, alienated Britain - the estates and shopping centres and market towns mainstream politics is no longer reaching. On estate after city centre, supermarket after community hall, we meet the same feeling that there is no longer any party left to speak for the working man or his wife or children, or his elderly parents.

At times our trip on a 1964 Leyland Titan with a grindingly slow top speed of 38mph (downhill and in fair winds), without such mod cons as heating or a petrol gauge, feels like a journey into a vacuum, the ground vacated by the political parties as they rush to the milk-and-honey heartland of Middle England. Every day brings its own surreal hybrid of celebrity visits to soap opera sets, interviews with pop stars, tea on sink estates and leafleting of supermarket car parks.

We meet people left on council waiting lists for housing, whose estates are no-go at night because of antisocial behaviour, and whose schools are failing and knife-ridden. People whose experience of the NHS is distressing and whose home is between two burnt-out properties.

One day in the West Midlands we spend a morning with white working-class shoppers, followed by Sugababes, and then an evening eating baltis and drinking Guinness at a Sikh-Irish pub.

In Thurrock, in Essex, a man tells us proudly that the local BNP candidate is a young woman in her twenties. "Not a thug with a pit bull," he says. I find this strangely shocking, as if women shouldn't be fascists, or at least young people should be idealists.

He looks at me curiously. "Maybe she is an idealist. Have you thought of that?"

It is too easy to believe that everyone voting for the BNP is a racist or a fool, when in fact it is no coincidence that the party is flourishing in old industrial areas where jobs are scarce and hope is thin on the ground.

In the BNP heartland of Dagenham, where the car industry has been ravaged, BNP leaflets are fresh in the doorways of the estates, and the party's presence is strong in the old mill towns and the once-proud Potteries. In the multiply disadvantaged Sandwell, the BNP 4x4 follows us at a distance, watching the kids come and take the badges and balloons.

In the towns where Tory recession and abandonment have bled into the disinterest of the national Labour Party, nationalism is both listening and offering a voice to quiet, bottled-up rage.

As we trundle through Leicester and Lincoln, Nottingham and Sheffield, we meet the same faces again and again - men and women who feel ignored, put upon, let down. These are the communities spitefully mocked by the middle classes, who prefer to caricature the "chav" underclass as feckless, ignorant and thuggish. Yet if you ask them they'll tell you it is Westminster that isn't "bovvered".

In Yorkshire, we meet Andy Sykes, a former BNP organiser turned anti-racist, who tells us why he joined the party in 2002. "I started going to meetings because I was afraid," he explains. "I started believing the stuff they were pushing through my letter box about paedophiles and rapists and murderers."

The BNP understands that people are feeling frightened and abandoned. It is slipping into the vacuum left by mainstream politics and setting out its stall, countered only by handfuls of local activists and MPs.

They don't tell people that they didn't support England in the World Cup because of its black players, or that their constitution states that a black or Asian person can never be British. They raise valid issues and then exploit them with dizzying distortions, a bombardment of half-truths and semi-facts, all in a language littered with buzzwords designed to inflame feelings of outrage and paranoia: paedophilia, jobs, Islam, 7/7, immigration. They find a tiny blister and then they rub and rub until it is a running sore.

They will tell you it is because of asylum-seekers that your grandmother's heart operation is being delayed - when in fact the amount given to asylum-seekers is less than 1 per cent of what is spent on the National Health Service each year. They will say these people are bringing tuberculosis into the country and that they are criminals, when the British Medical Association refutes any claim about TB and the Association of Chief Police Officers confirms there is no higher rate of criminality among asylum-seekers (and that, in fact, asylum-seekers are far more likely to become victims than perpetrators of crime).

They speak to people's perception that crime - especially violent crime - is on the rise and that eventually all the jobs they can do (and it's all right for Middle Englanders in their gated communities, plugging in by laptop to a global job market) will have gone abroad, and they'll wake up one day and everyone will be speaking Hindi or in that homogenised black-white patois common to inner-city youth.

And all the while, the same language is being whispered by extremist Muslim leaders to young black and Asian youths in our young offenders' institutions, sink estates and prisons: "No one is listening to you, except us. You are nothing, nobody to anyone but us."

Towering heroes

We met some towering heroes on our tour: the boxing legend Brendan Ingle - trainer of Prince Naseem, Herol "Bomber" Graham and, now, a generation of white and Asian Sheffield kids; Chris Keen on the deprived Stoops Estate in Burnley, a great big ex-rugby player of a community worker; Joe Sargonis, a Nottingham Forest football coach offering teenagers alternatives to gun culture.

But if I could have taken the alienated voters of Dagenham anywhere, it would have been to Oliver's Gym, a sweat-soaked, old-fashioned boxing club on a Salford industrial estate.

Here is J the schoolboy's biggest idol, effortlessly jumping rope - a 5ft 10in British Pakistani Olympic boxing hero. "Look at that gym in there," Amir Khan says, taking a breather. "English, Jamaican, Pakistani, Irish, we all train together. We're all treated equal and we all treat each other the same."

According to the BNP, Khan shouldn't be allowed to represent Great Britain. And, with more candidates than the National Front contested at its peak during the Seventies - as the BNP website boasts - there is a real danger that it will increase its foothold in some groups on 3 May.

Some, of course, are only paper candidates, but the party is standing full slates of regional candidates in areas such as Stoke, Leeds, Thurrock and Sunderland, as well as Scotland and Wales. Once elected, these candidates acquire no track record of doing anything to help communities. In fact, it rather suits them if alienation worsens, because they already have their scapegoats in place.

Still, Khan, at least, is optimistic.

"I think racism's going to die out," he says, jumping up into the driving seat of our bus. "It's got to, right? 'Cos in the end, what's the colour of your skin got to do with anything?"

Ros Wynne-Jones is senior feature writer for the Daily Mirror. http://www.mirror.co.uk/hopenothate

Ros Wynne-Jones writes about poverty in the UK and abroad for the Daily Mirror and The Independent.

This article first appeared in the 30 April 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan: The Taliban takeover

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