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London calls the street rebels

The global justice movement is back in town – and planning the biggest rally since the Iraq War marc

As the heads of government of the G20 nations prepare to convene for the crisis summit in London’s Docklands on Thursday 2 April, a political movement which ten years ago seemed to be sweeping all before it, yet hit a brick wall a few years later, may once again make the political running. The global justice movement is back in town.

“This isn’t going to be another Stop the War moment, where a huge march is held, the government ignores it and everyone goes home depressed,” says Nick Dearden of the Jubilee Debt Campaign, one of those responsible for what the organisers hope will be the biggest public rally since the anti-war march of 2003 (the event takes place on Saturday 28 March). “And it’s not going to be another Make Poverty History, where the rock stars meet the world leaders and everyone makes promises and nothing happens. This is a serious coalition with a serious agenda, and we’re in it for the long term.”

The coalition to which Dearden refers is a new alliance of unions, non-governmental organisations and religious groups, armed with a manifesto that aims to rewrite the rules of the global economy. Put People First has already created a significant alliance – more than a hundred groups, ranging from Greenpeace to the Dalit Solidarity Network via the NUJ and the Muslim Council of Britain, have so far signed up.

“Put People First only began life back in November,” Dearden says. “A group of NGOs involved in what you might call the ‘economic justice movement’ – groups like Jubilee Debt, the Bretton Woods Project and the Trade Justice Movement – saw a real opportunity to be seized as the financial crisis unfolded. For decades, we’ve been campaigning to make the global financial architecture fair and sustainable. Now that it’s collapsed, that message is more relevant than ever – but there’s a danger that the G20 governments will not make real changes. We wanted to bring a coalition together to make clear what needed to be done.

“The interest has been quite amazing. What’s really significant about this is the marrying up of unions, environmental groups, trade justice groups, religious groups – all of them uniting for the first time around a common manifesto which we are demanding the G20 adopts.”

It is this impressive size and breadth that makes the coalition’s organisers hopeful of a large turnout. And Put People First is already making an impact. Its manifesto and accompanying policy paper call for a “historic break with the policies of the past”, and include demands for an end to tax havens, radical reform of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, new rules stipulating transparency for multinational corporations and financial institutions, a “Green New Deal” recovery package based on huge investment in renewable techno­logies, and the control of cross-border capital flows. It seems the British government is listening – but only up to a point.

“We have held a series of meetings with the government at various levels,” says Julian Oram, head of policy at the World Development Movement and another key player in the coalition. “To be fair, they have been good at meeting us and listening to what we have to say. And we agree on some things, like ending tax havens. My impression is that they want to be seen to be in agreement with us – to adopt our language and look like they’re working with us – but on most of our demands, they either don’t get it or blame China or India for their inability to change things. We need to be very clear with them and the public what we want. We are not going to be co-opted.”

After the G20, Put People First will turn its attention to the UN’s crisis summit on the global economy, planned for June, and then the Copenhagen conference on climate change in December. But whatever the coalition’s long-term impact, it is not the only voice that will be raised in the week ahead.

One of the loudest will be the fourth gathering of Camp for Climate Action on 1 April. After the movement’s previous protests at the Drax and Kingsnorth power stations and Heathrow Airport, the intention is for this year’s camp to take place in the belly of the beast: the City. Twenty-four hours of direct action, workshops and debates will climax in the attempted occupation of the European Climate Exchange, the pan-

European centre for the trading of carbon emissions permits. “Carbon markets don’t work,” says Mel Evans of the Camp for Climate Action. “On the contrary – this is the government handing power over the climate to the corporations and the traders who got us into this mess. We want to block that. Carbon trading will be the next sub-prime. What we want people to understand is that the climate crisis and the economic crisis are intimately connected. It’s the same unsustainable growth economy that causes both.” Exactly what will happen on the day is a closely guarded secret, but the camp is likely to be a big affair, and the G20 will find it hard to ignore.

A wave of street protests, direct action and other activities is also planned by a loose alliance of political groups, activists, anarchists, artists, students and others for 1 April, or “Financial Fools Day”. The Daily Mail is already sounding gleeful about the potential confron­tation (“Anarchists plan City riot!” ran a recent headline). At mid-morning on 1 April, marchers representing the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse will begin moving from four London railway stations, heading for the Bank of England. Each group will be commanding its forces against 1) climate chaos, 2) war, 3) job, pension and savings losses and 4) home repossessions.

So, London might be a bad place to try to move around in the coming week. But all the colour and the chaos, marches and manifestos should not obscure the bigger picture, which puts the week’s events in proper historical context. Ten years ago, in the US city of Seattle, governments gathered for a ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organisation. They had come to set the rules by which the global economy would operate. In retrospect, it was probably the high-water mark of globalisation: after the fall of communism and before 11 September 2001.

As the meeting began, the delegates were unexpectedly confronted by a mass of people who saw things very differently. More than 50,000 people took to the streets to rebel against the WTO’s version of history. Environmentalists highlighted the global economy’s disastrous impact on the natural world; campaigners for justice railed against the exploitation of the poor; unions, religious groups, anarchists and thousands of unaligned individuals took to the streets to shut down the WTO. The police responded violently with tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets. A movement was born, and during the next three years it stormed every global summit. The inequality and unsustainability of the global economy were exposed to public view. But the 11 September 2001 attacks and Iraq War caused the movement to dissipate, and its surface energy disappeared.

Yet, a decade on, the wheel has come full circle. Many of the claims that the protesters made back in Seattle have been proved right, and what is happening now can be seen as the next phase of the same movement. But this time those who claimed that markets should not be left to their own devices, that global inequality was something to be ashamed of, find their arguments echoed, however insincerely, by prime ministers, presidents and CEOs.

The movement seems to have learned from its mistakes. It knows it can never repeat the vast street protests that culminated in widespread police brutality, most shamefully the death of an activist in Genoa in 2001: a newly empowered and determined state apparatus would not allow it, for one thing. But it knows also that getting too close to power, as the Make Poverty History coalition did, can be fatal. The trick is to create a space in which everyone from artists and anarchists to NGO policy wonks can play a part, while making hard, detailed demands of power. And not stopping until those demands are met.

It remains to be seen where this movement goes next, or the scale and the effectiveness of the week’s events. But the world leaders inside the summit venue would be well advised to listen to what it has to say. After all, it’s not as if they have any better ideas of their own.

Paul Kingsnorth’s latest book is “Real England” (Portobello Books, £14.99). For details log on to: www.paulkingsnorth.net

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The end of American power

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