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The new ruling class

If the polls are to be believed, the Conservative Party is heading for government in 2010, ending 13 years in the political wilderness. So who are the men, and women (yes, there are one or two), jostling for power around Prime Minister Cameron?

David Cameron, 43

Leader of the Conservative Party
Education Eton College. Oxford University
Wealth £3.2m*
Expected to inherit million-pound legacies from both sides of his family, David Cameron comes from a long line of stockbrokers. A direct descendant of King William IV, he is the fifth cousin twice removed of Queen Elizabeth II, and reportedly got his first job in the Conservative Research Department after one of the Queen's equerries intervened on his behalf. A former member of Oxford's notorious Bullingdon Club, Cameron - who said that the large expenses claimed on his constituency home were an "inadvertent mistake" - was described by Norman Lamont as a "brilliant Old Etonian with a taste for the good life".

* This and other wealth figures are estimates

George Osborne, 38
Shadow chancellor
Education St Paul's School, London. Oxford University
Wealth £4.3m
George Gideon Osborne stands to inherit the Osborne baronetcy of Ballentaylor in County Tipperary, Ireland, as well as a substantial share of Osborne & Little, his father's luxury wall­paper company. Not that he needs the money - he already benefits from a company trust fund, and as a backbencher commanded fees of up to £5,000 per article for the Spectator and Associated Newspapers. A former member of the Bullingdon Club, he is very much part of the old boy network, as shown by last year's scandal involving Osborne, his old friend Nat Rothschild, Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska and a yacht in Corfu.

Oliver Letwin, 53
Chairman of the Conservative Party's Policy Review/Research Department
Education Eton College. Cambridge University
Wealth £1.5m
Despite earning £145 an hour for consultancy work at N M Rothschild & Son, Oliver Letwin claimed £2,000 in parliamentary expenses to replace a leaking pipe in his tennis court. He once said he would rather "go out in the streets and beg" than send his children to a London comprehensive, and during the 2001 election argued that the Conservatives should cut future public spending by £20bn a year relative to Labour proposals. His suggestion was so unpopular that he was forced to stay out of the public eye for the duration of the campaign.

Andrew Lansley, 53
Shadow health secretary
Education Brentwood School, Essex. Exeter University
Wealth £700,000
Andrew Lansley, who earns an extra £29,000 a year for 12 days' work at a marketing agency, spent more than £4,000 of taxpayers' money renovating his country home months before he sold it and flipped his expenses claim to his London flat, where he spent thousands more. Last year, Lansley caused outrage with a blog entry on the Conservative Party website arguing that a recession could be "good for us", as people could "spend time at home with their families". The potential future health secretary also has some insight into obesity, saying that "people who see more fat people around them may themselves be more likely to gain weight".

David Willetts, 53
Shadow universities and skills manager
Education King Edward VI, Birmingham. Oxford University
Wealth £1.9m
David Willetts makes £80,000 a year from 40 days' work as adviser to Punter Southall, and is also paid as chairman of Universal Sensors Ltd, but he still tried to claim £750 for a shed base and £175 for a dog pen on expenses last year.

Francis Maude, 56
Shadow minister for the Cabinet Office/ chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster
Education Abingdon School, Oxfordshire. Cambridge University
Wealth £3m
Francis Maude, a former director of Morgan Stanley, juggles an array of non-executive financial positions. These bring him £68,600 a year, but luckily don't require too many hours - Barclays pays him £36,700 for six days' work. Maude, who has railed against the irresponsibility of mortgage lenders, banked £100,000-plus as director of a financial services group that profited from sub-prime mortgages. Despite owning four properties, he claimed almost £35,000 in two years for interest payments on a London flat just yards from his house.

Michael Gove, 42
Shadow schools secretary
Education Robert Gordon's College, Aberdeen. Oxford University
Wealth £1m
A self-proclaimed neoconservative and former journalist, Michael Gove still writes a weekly column for the Times, which pays him £5,000 a month. Gove has boasted that it takes him an hour a week to write it. This makes his hourly wage more than £1,100 - 127 times higher than the average salary in his constituency, Surrey Heath. He tops this up through contributions to other titles, including Scotland on Sunday and Building Magazine. Gove is a signatory to the Henry Jackson Society, a "project for democratic geopolitics" that advocates a proactive approach to spreading democracy, by military intervention if necessary. Last year, he described the invasion of Iraq as "a proper British foreign policy success".

Liam Fox, 48
Shadow defence secretary
Education St Bride's High School, East Kilbride. Glasgow University
Wealth £1m
Fox, a former GP, may lambast the public sector for its inefficiencies and "bloated administration", but he is not so thrifty himself. Despite earning £25,000 a year by lecturing for the medical educational firm Arrest Ltd (14 days' work), he claimed almost £19,000 of taxpayers' money for his mobile phone bill. A staunch Eurosceptic and strong believer in the "special relationship" with America, Fox said recently a Conservative government would be "sympathetic" to a request for thousands more troops in Afghanistan.

Andrew Mitchell, 53
Shadow international development secretary
Education Rugby School. Cambridge University
Wealth £2m
Mitchell, an ex-merchant banker racks up £43,500 every year for financial advisory and consultancy roles that involve a few hours' work each week, as well as owning shares worth up to £180,000. But it's obviously not enough - last year he claimed more than £21,000 for cleaning and redecorating his constituency home. In 2004 he asked the Commons Fees Office to pay him £2,000 a month from his MPs' additional cost allowance "until it is exhausted". Mitchell said last year that the recession was an "incredibly good moment" for the party.

Caroline Spelman, 51
Shadow communities and local government secretary
Education Herts and Essex Grammar School, Bishop's Stortford, Essex. University of London
Wealth £1.5m
Caroline Spelman co-owns Spelman, Cormack & Associates, a food and biotechnology business, with her husband. They also own three properties, including a four-storey Georgian townhouse in London, with an estimated combined value of £5m. In 1997-98, she misused the parliamentary staffing allowance to pay her nanny. The expenses revelations this year showed that she received £40,000 for bills and cleaning for her constituency home, despite her husband claiming it was their main home. In 2005, she attacked proposals on revaluing council tax. Ironically enough, for the 2007-2008 financial year she overclaimed hundreds of pounds on her own council tax.

Lord Strathclyde, 49
Leader of the opposition in the Lords
Education Wellington College. University of East Anglia
Wealth £10m
The majority shareholder in the family estate management company Auchendrane Estates, worth roughly £6m, Lord Strathclyde holds down a plethora of paid directorships for hedge funds and investment companies. One of them is Galena, the investment management arm of Trafigura, a controversial oil trader recently found to be dumping toxic waste in Africa. He said that Trafigura's other activities fell "well outside the terms of my remit".

William Hague, 48
Shadow foreign secretary
Education Wath-on-Dearne Comprehensive School, Rotherham. Oxford University
Wealth £2.2m
Earning up to £10,000 for an appearance, Hague is a stalwart of the Conservative after-dinner speaking circuit. As a non-executive director of JCB, he was paid £50,000 a year and went on to a directorship at AES Engineering, receiving £25,000 a year. He has been paid up to £1,041 an hour for his consultancy work, a wage rate 113 times higher than the average among his constituents in Richmond, Yorkshire. Hague reportedly threatened to walk out when Cameron suggested forcing the shadow cabinet to give up second jobs.

Chris Grayling, 47
Shadow home secretary
Education Royal Grammar School, High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire. Cambridge University
Wealth £500,000
Chris Grayling, worth only half a million, is a real man of the people. The proprietor of four London homes, he still billed a £40,000 second-home refurbishment to the state. So in touch is the former BBC producer with the reality of life in Britain, that he compared the country's streets to those of Baltimore on the US television drama The Wire, and came up with the idea of deterring young criminals by taking away their mobile phones.

Lord Ashcroft, 62
Conservative Party deputy chairman
Education Royal Grammar School, High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire. Mid-Essex Technical College
Wealth £1.1bn
Lord Ashcroft, the Tories' fairy godmother, has donated millions to the Conservative Party since the 1980s, personally guaranteeing its overdraft when it was reportedly £3m in the red. He makes a habit of political donation, and has been accused of wielding undue political influence in Belize, where he has extensive business interests. He does not say whether he pays tax in the UK, and the Electoral Commission is investigating whether his company fits strict rules on overseas donations.

Dominic Grieve, 53
Shadow justice secretary and shadow attorney general
Education Westminster School, London. Oxford University
Wealth £3.1m
A barrister and QC, Dominic Grieve supplements his income with shareholdings in 13 firms, most notably with £240,000 worth of shares in companies operating in Zimbabwe. Apparently £3.1m doesn't go very far towards keeping a second home - Grieve was forced to bill the government £18,668 in maintenance costs last year. A traditionalist who has voted against bills promoting gay rights, he has praised the Victorian era for its "sense of moral values".

Philip Hammond, 53
Shadow chief secretary to the Treasury
Education Shenfield School, Brentwood, Essex. Oxford University
Wealth £9m
Hammond enjoys a lucrative directorship at Castlemead Property, in which he has shares worth £4.9m, but that didn't stop him claiming £23,075 - £8 short of the maximum - for his second home in London. He now promises to oversee swingeing cuts in public spending in an emergency post-election budget. He has said it is "absolutely not the case" that public-sector workers are dreading cuts, feeling instead a "sense of liberation".

Owen Paterson, 54
Shadow Northern Ireland secretary
Education Radley College. Cambridge University
Wealth £1.5m
Paterson, married to the 4th Viscount Ridley's daughter, owns a large country estate in his North Shropshire constituency (he voted strongly against the hunting ban). He is a member of the Cornerstone Group, which published a report describing the NHS as "Stalinist" and calling for it to be replaced.

Jeremy Hunt, 42
Shadow culture, media and sport secretary
Education Charterhouse School. Oxford University
Wealth £4.1m
Hunt is paid £1,000 a month for two hours of business advice to Hotcourses Ltd, an educational guide publisher, and enjoyed a £245,181 dividend payment from the company in 2006. He still felt hard-pressed enough to submit an invoice for 1p for a 12- second mobile phone call.

Gregory Barker, 43
Shadow minister for energy and
climate change
Education Steyning Grammar School, West Sussex. Royal Holloway, University of London
Wealth £3.9m
Gregory Barker, a former adviser to the Russian billionaire and Chelsea FC owner Roman Abramovich, reportedly made millions when he sold his stake in a recruitment advertising firm, and continues to rake in cash as director of Flare View, a property investment company, and as an adviser for Pegasus Capital Advisors. He made a £320,000 profit in just over two years by using the second-home allowance
to buy and sell a house in the exclusive borough of Chelsea, in central London.

Philip Dunne, 51
Conservative whip/deputy chairman
Education Eton College. Oxford University
Wealth £5m
Dunne, a super-rich backbencher has had a 20-year career spanning investment banks in London, New York and Hong Kong, as well as Ottakar's bookshop, which he co-founded. The son of Sir Thomas Dunne, the Lord Lieutenant of Hertfordshire, he has done all this while looking after the family farming estate.

Brooks Newmark, 51
Conservative whip
Education Bedford School, Bedfordshire. Harvard University. Oxford University
Wealth £3.2m
Yet another Conservative MP with a high-flying background in the world of finance, Brooks Newmark held a senior role at Lehman Brothers, and spent eight years at a British merchant bank. He now owns the investment firm Telesis Management and has shares in two other investment firms, from which he gets undisclosed payments.

Zac Goldsmith, 34
Conservative parliamentary candidate
Education Eton College (expelled). Cambridge Centre for Sixth-Form Studies
Wealth £300m
Son of Sir James Goldsmith and his third wife, Lady Annabel Vane-Tempest-Stewart, Frank Zacharias Robin Goldsmith is an environmentalist and socialite. An odd combination, perhaps, but both grandfathers were Conservative MPs, so he is walking a well-trodden path.

Michael Spencer, 53
Conservative Party treasurer
Education Worth Abbey, West Sussex. Oxford University
Wealth £250m
A close friend of Cameron's, Spencer owns a 21 per cent stake worth £474m in the money broker Icap, which he set up in 1986. He was caught up in controversy last year when it emerged he had pledged his stake in the investment bank Numis as security for a loan, a legal grey area. When he did sell his shares, he made only £16m - a third of what he would have gained in 2006 when shares were at their peak. It's a hard life.

Research by Samira Shackle, Stephanie Hegarty and George Eaton

This article first appeared in the 05 October 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The tories/the people

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