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Brown and Mandelson: It's Love

Peter Mandelson once spoke of how Gordon Brown “wants to kill me before I destroy him”, but now the

There is a compelling black-and-white photograph from 1996 of Peter Mandelson and Gordon Brown by the fine Magnum photographer Peter Marlow. Brown, his head slightly lowered, has his back to the camera, somehow reinforcing the sense of his volcanic presence in a wood-panelled room of the Institution of Civil Engineers, where the men are alone before some long-forgotten youth employment launch. Would the moment that First Secretary Mandelson tells Prime Minister Brown the game is up, if it were ever to happen, look something like this? In faultlessly pressed white shirt and cufflinks, jacketless, his pose courtierly, Mandelson is in profile. Almost, but not quite, apprehensive, he has the facial expression of a man waiting patiently for an answer that he knows, with just the faintest trace of sympathy, the other does not want to give. As in a classic narrative painting, the tension is palpable.

As well it might have been. For Marlow has frozen an instant in the most pivotal few months of what by then already seemed an irretrievably dysfunctional relationship. Only four months earlier, Tony Blair had written to remind Mandelson that “we are not players in some Greek tragedy” and lamented that “the most brilliant political minds of their generation” are “more desirous of victory over each other than making it work”. This followed a letter of “resignation” from Mandelson after a particularly poisonous row. Mandelson quoted the Brown ally Michael Wills as saying that “Gordon ‘wants to kill me before I destroy him’”.

Yet by the time the picture is taken, Mandelson, eager for a fashionable and expensive home in Notting Hill, has been house-hunting under the genial tutelage of Geoffrey Robinson, the millionaire MP, close friend of Brown and then owner of the New Statesman. Weeks later the two men would finalise the £373,000 loan from Robinson that, in the single most self-destructive act of his career, Mandelson would keep secret as he began his rise through government under the patronage of Tony Blair.

Until, that is, details of the loan were leaked to the press in December 1998 by other close allies of Brown, causing Mandelson’s first resignation from the cabinet. Brown was not responsible for the leak, but it was the climax of what Blair had called in his letter a “titanic but ultimately irrelevant personality feud”. Yet it was a feud that no one, least of all the then British prime minister, knew how to stop.

A decade later, Brown and Mandelson are all but joined at the hip. The clutch of Merrie England titles that Mandelson has acquired in his new role reflects his centrality in the government. There was speculation at the time of the reshuffle that Mandelson had sought to be foreign secretary – certainly a job he has long wanted.

In fact, it was never a possibility. He is too pivotal to be allowed long absences from the UK. He now spends much of his time in Downing Street – including, by all counts, many evenings that end with his urging the Prime Minister to go to bed. He even coexists, albeit warily, with Ed Balls, easily Brown’s closest ministerial confidant hitherto. Today, joined in their service to the Prime Minister, they have a “non-aggression” pact in which, while Balls continues bilateral telephone contact with Brown, the two lieutenants do not contradict each other at meetings and do not brief against other. Finally, Mandelson is credited, even by those who wished it had not happened, with “saving” the Prime Minister during the period of maximum turbulence around the Euro elections this month.

How did all this happen? How did Mandelson’s sworn enemy come first to bring him back into government and then to locate him as primus inter pares among his ministers? And how will it end? After all, it was not as if the enmity did not survive in-tact well into Mandelson’s appointment as European trade commissioner in 2004. Even while Brown was still chancellor, Mandelson would regularly, if only semi-openly, complain to British correspondents in Brussels about the Treasury’s refusal to consult with him.

After Brown became Prime Minister relations with Mandelson became, if anything, worse. The Brussels press corps were left with the impression that the commissioner thought Brown might not be up to taking on what he indicated was the impressive challenge being mounted by David Cameron. Then, in March 2007, at a time when the widely known freeze in relations between the commissioner and his home-country government was already undermining his authority in Brussels, Mandelson chose to give a chilly radio interview in which he announced that he had decided to deny Brown the pleasure of sacking him by not seeking a second term. It was a new low point.

The bare facts of the subsequent and gradual rapprochement during the first half of 2008 are well documented: the prime ministerial visit to Brussels and the long talk between the two men about anything but trade. The London dinner given by Stewart Wood, the only No 10 official then permitted contact with Mandelson, to which were invited both Mandelson and Baroness Shriti Vadera, a tough-minded and long-standing ally of Brown’s, to whom Mandelson greatly warmed. The lunch, also in London, Mandelson had with the veteran Downing Street (and former Treasury) official Jeremy Heywood, before which the Prime Minister asked Heywood if he could come, too. Heywood politely refused, but the lunch was followed by another long tête-à-tête between Brown and Mandelson, this time in Downing Street.

Even before this, however, Brown followed up on his Brussels trip – after a short interval – by starting to telephone Mandelson, to send him speech drafts and policy proposals. In short, to consult him. By all accounts the gradually intensifying appeal was notably personal, a call for help by a man who was discovering that being prime minister was a good deal more complicated than being chancellor. But Mandelson, his friends are convinced, had no notion at this stage that he might return to government.

It is easy to describe the invitation to Mandelson to rejoin the cabinet in October last year (and the thaw that preceded it) in merely political terms. For Brown, the appointment added much-needed lustre to an otherwise routine reshuffle. More importantly, and even if the prospects of a challenge from David Miliband had faded, it served to neutralise what he saw as a still potent Blairite threat to his premiership. From Mandelson’s point of view it was, in Blair’s now famous phrase when a stunned Mandelson consulted him about the offer, a “no-brainer”.

Despite having arguably the best job in the European Commission – given that trade, unlike many of the other portfolios, is actually in the commission’s competence – he missed the action in London; he was in danger of becoming a “lame duck” because of his decision not to seek a second term and because of the wide perception, even if it was becoming much less accurate, that he had been frozen out by London. And there was little sign of a successful conclusion to the world trade round, which might have crowned his term in Brussels. (Blair’s advice, similarly solicited by Alastair Campbell, whom Brown also offered more or less any job he wanted, was more equivocal. Campbell refused the job offer; he had built another life, which he enjoyed.)

Yet politics alone cannot explain the subsequent and growing intimacy between the two men, or the relative ease with which they exorcised the demons of the previous 13 years. The psychological roots almost certainly lie further still in their past.

It is easy to forget now the cohesiveness of this triangle, before John Smith’s death in 1994, that had gradually formed since the “discovery” of Mandelson as Labour’s communications director, and the subsequent promotion of the backbenchers Brown and Blair as early as the run-up to the 1987 election. Alex Stevenson, working as a young researcher for Mandelson, recalled that, during 1993, when the group felt relatively isolated as “modernisers”, there were “incessant” telephone calls from Blair and Brown, but that those from Brown were even more frequent. The three men’s closeness – with a largely unspoken understanding that Brown was the leading figure of the three – can scarcely be exaggerated. Probably no one but Mandelson and Brown remembers that it was the latter who painstakingly advised the former on his crucial speech to the selection conference that chose him as parliamentary candidate for Hartlepool in 1989 – and actually wrote the peroration of it.

The best analogy to describe the relationship is that of two brothers who quarrel bitterly over a legacy – in this case the leadership of the Labour Party and the premiership – but are finally reconciled, resuming their old warmth. This is the view of two former officials who worked in Downing Street during the worst of the Mandelson-Brown schism and experienced it first-hand. One says now, “I think the reason they were so angry with each other was that they had been so close.” The other puts it even more forcefully: “It’s impossible to hate someone that much unless you also love them.”

Even during the worst of the feud, the bond was never quite broken. When Mandelson’s mother, Mary, the daughter of Herbert Morrison and the most formative political influence of his life, died in 2006, during yet another peak of Brown-Mandelson hostilities, Brown telephoned Mandelson in Brussels to express his condolences. The conversation was awkward but the call was memorable enough for Mandelson to report it to his closest friends.

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Anatomy of a feud

1994 After the death of the Labour leader John Smith in 1994, Peter Mandelson sidelines his old friend Gordon Brown and backs the more popular Tony Blair for the leadership. “We’ve been betrayed,” Brown tells one ally. “I love you, but I can destroy you,” Mandelson warns Brown.

1995 Blair’s attempts at détente fail when he confronts Brown. “Peter? He’s been going around telling everyone that I’m gay. And I’m not gay,” Brown fumes.

1996 Displaying his often unacknowledged sense of humour, Brown acidly remarks to a Tribune rally: “Peter asked me for 10p to phone a friend the other day. I said: ‘Here, take 20p and ring them all.’ When people ask me if I have a close relationship with Mandelson, I answer: ‘How would I know? I haven’t spoken to him for 18 months.’”

1998 Mandelson is forced to resign from the cabinet for the first time after the Guardian reports that he received a secret loan of £373,000 from his ministerial colleague Geoffrey Robinson. Mandelson blames Brown’s pugnacious spin doctor Charlie Whelan for the leak.

2001 Accused of unreasonably aiding the Hinduja brothers in their quest for British citizenship, Mandelson resigns as Northern Ireland secretary and loses his status as joint election co-ordinator with Brown. Mandelson is subsequently exonerated by the Hammond inquiry.

2007 Asked whether he fears being replaced as the UK’s European commissioner when Brown becomes prime minister, Mandelson replies: “I don’t know whether this is going to come as a disappointment to him, but he can’t actually fire me. So like it or not, I’m afraid he will have to accept me as commissioner until November 2009.”

2008 On 3 October, Mandelson makes an extraordinary return to the cabinet as business secretary. Ten days later he becomes Baron Mandelson of Foy and takes his seat in the House of Lords.

2008 Mandelson is said to have “dripped pure poison” about Gordon Brown to George Osborne, the shadow chancellor, just weeks before his return to government. Mandelson denounces the leaking of the conversation as “straight out of a dirty-tricks department”.

2009 Brown hands Mandelson overall control of a new superdepartment, with a portfolio including business regulation, universities and space travel. Awarded the Soviet-style title of First Secretary of State, Mandelson cements his position as de facto deputy prime minister.

George Eaton

More remarkably still, at the time of his first resignation eight years earlier, Mandelson, fighting in vain for his political life after being exposed by some of Brown’s closest henchmen, turned to the then chancellor himself for counsel. He discovered that Brown was horrified that the saga was leading to Mandelson’s inevitable departure from government.

In Mandelson’s second resignation, Brown played no part. Indeed, Mandelson had more cause to blame Blair than Brown. What the resignation did, however, was expose the falsity of the frequent claim that Brown’s problem had been with Mandelson and not with Blair. Mandelson’s removal did nothing to reduce the relentless pressure Brown applied on Blair, which, together with the legacy of the Iraq War, culminated in Blair’s departure in 2007.

Nevertheless, the split between Mandelson and Brown was deeply personal and precisely fratricidal. Brown’s lieutenants blamed Mandelson for creating the conditions in which Blair emerged in the polls as the clear front-runner for the Labour leadership in 1994. In fact, he had no such magical powers, as Brown himself may deep down have realised. Which is why Mandelson judged the break came several months later in an argument over party appointments. The issue over which Mandelson sided with Blair against Brown was relatively trivial, but showed the depth of Mandelson’s new fealty to Blair.

All this, especially the intensity of feeling between Brown and Mandelson, calls into question the conventional wisdom that Mandelson may ultimately move against Brown in October, as he did not move against him a fortnight ago. In Mandelson’s case, predictions are a fool’s game, and it could yet happen. Certainly he has not been in the habit of ending up on the losing side in the past, including in 1994, or when, after a brief hesitation, he decided not to join the SDP after its formation in 1981.

The idea of being “the last man standing” in the cabinet, as a deeply uneasy Ken Baker was at the time of Margaret Thatcher’s fall in 1990, is hardly appealing. But most of those close to Mandelson – including those who might ideally prefer it otherwise – appear to think it likelier that he intends to stick with Brown to the end, and to use, on the Prime Minister’s behalf, all the political skills he has to keep him in place.

There are several political reasons for this. The unrest in the parliamentary party is dire, though perhaps not much more dire than it was for Blair in the wake of the Iraq War. But there is no clear, obvious successor to the Prime Minister, or at least no clear agreement, not even among the “Blairites” (to the extent that such a term has meaning now that Mandelson has thrown in his lot with the Prime Minister), about the ideal successor. If Brown disappeared, Mandelson would probably prefer David Miliband over Alan Johnson. But there is a lack of confidence – even among those, other than Mandelson, closest to Blair in the past – about whether either Miliband or Johnson would do better than Brown. At least the Prime Minister has the policies and track record needed at a time of profound economic crisis. And while Brown’s supporters may have wilfully exaggerated the inevitability of a leadership contest, it is by no means clear, given the febrile state of the party and the beginnings of the jockeying to determine a post-election scenario, that one could be avoided, possibly with disastrous results so close to a general election.

This is not to say that, if an irresistible revolt materialises, it would not fall to Mandelson, as it did in 1994, to tell Brown how conditions were. Or, if Brown decided to go, to ensure that he withdrew with honour. But it looks much less likely than assumed that Mandelson would be prepared to wield the knife. And the personal reasons for this are at least as potent as the political ones: a commitment not to desert Brown twice and, at least as important, the resulting damage to his reputation if he did.

The former Labour foreign secretary and SDP founder Lord Owen is said to have reinforced this point in a recent conversation with Man­delson, as have others. Of all the twists in this melodrama of internecine strife that has so hobbled the Labour government over more than a decade, the strangest of all would be if it fell to Peter Mandelson to disprove Lloyd George’s maxim that there is no friendship at the top.

Donald Macintyre is the author of “Mandelson and the Making of New Labour” (HarperCollins)

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Iran

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