Danger man?

The one thing everybody knew they would get from Nicolas Sarkozy was change. So no one will be surpr

"I am a little Frenchman of immigrant stock . . .

"I have known failure and had to overcome it."

So said Nicolas Sarkozy, the new president of France, whose modest self-assessment masks an ambition the size of Macbeth's. That is not to say his reign will surprise France; it promises rather to shake the nation out of its hidebound ways. His rise to power breaks an old mould, presenting the world with a new France much as Margaret Thatcher once introduced a new Britain.

It seems clear that there will be greater change with Sarkozy than there could have been with Ségolène Royal, the left's defeated presidential candidate, because it is a surge of energy that the French have voted for. In the recent years of economic torpor, ghetto disturbances and social despond, France has looked like the sick country of Europe. Poor Ségolène, "new" as she appeared, was hobbled by a little too much old Socialist baggage to be able to offer enough energy. Though Sarkozy, aged 52, has served near the top of the conservative government for five years, he has none the less convinced enthralled voters that he offers change aplenty. With Sarko, it would seem, taboos are there to be broken.

Danger man! Brute! Chancer! Epithets that cling to the diminutive president-elect - mostly thrown by the humbled left, it must be said - have actually served to promote his cause: a break with past political thinking and with a national aversion to risk.

If this Thatcher-in-trousers is heading into an inevitable confrontation with the unions, no one can say he hasn't prepared France for the scrap. He will amend the 35-hour working week so that it is no longer the reposeful regulation it implies; he will force strikers to maintain a minimum service for trains, buses and other public services to prevent the total standstills to which France is wearily accustomed; he will slice into the bloated state bureaucracy, where the unions are strongest, by permitting one replacement for every two retiring government office workers. As a prospective union tamer, he has to contend not so much with the size of union membership (the numbers are proportionately smaller than in Britain), but with the benefit-driven French culture that the unions resolutely uphold.

Roughly stated, President Sarkozy's goal for the French is: put aside the welfare culture, work more, earn more and thereby enrich the country, thus creating more jobs. The accent is on the value of hard work and getting up early to start it. He and his supporters have coined a wonderfully bleak word for work-shyness that hardly needs translating - assistanat. Sarkozy's France is poised to remove equality and perhaps fraternity from the illustrious triad formed in 1789.

Uncompromising

His is a free-market, self-responsibility venture that he claims every advanced country in Europe, from Britain to those in Scandinavia, and lately Germany, has adopted to its advantage. In this sense, he represents not so much novelty as catch-up politics with a conservative twist. Long ago, when he first started planning his assault on the presidency, he provoked fellow conser vatives by saying that the traditional "French model", pursued to differing degrees by both left and right, no longer worked. His iconoclastic solution: "When something doesn't work, change to something that does." Conservative grandees, from the outgoing president Jacques Chirac down, have loathed Sarkozy for his pushiness, though they have felt it wise to keep him in charge of law and order as interior minister, where his uncompromising language has proved popular with most sections of opinion except the young and immigrants.

The man who will rule France for the next five years, very possibly ten, speaks his mind more than most politicians. He has taken the politics of the personal to unexplored frontiers in France and voters have evidently admired the candour, however contrived. Ségolène Royal, for all her courage, came across as closed and humourless by comparison, reciting her caring leftist beliefs by rote. In the end, his victory came with a clear six-point margin (53 per cent to 47 per cent) - quite enough, in view of a vigorous voter turnout, to give him full legitimacy to carry out his programme. Moreover, he has done France the favour of incapacitating the extreme right, ending the truculent career of Jean-Marie Le Pen.

The "little Frenchman of immigrant stock" is indeed the son of an immigrant, a distressed but not impoverished one - a Hungarian squireling who landed in France before Hitler's war to avoid the turbulence in the Habsburg lands, and then married the daughter of a Jewish doctor from Ottoman Greece, himself a naturalised Frenchman and convert to Catholicism. The exotic marriage failed, leaving what Sarkozy calls a bitterly unhappy mark on his childhood. He became a lawyer before turning to full-time politics with extraordinary zeal in his mid-twenties. To the delight of the gossip columns, the personal candour he has come to trade upon reaches to owning up about his on-off relations with his wife, Cécilia, who twice left home on his route to the presidency and who at his moment of triumph on election night last Sunday was absent, showing up only for a mass late-night victory party on the Place de la Concorde.

Whiff of nationalism

As such, Sarkozy is a largely sympathetic figure even if you don't care for his policies. Besides the dynamism, there is an easy intimacy - a desire to be matey - that is likely to disarm even dour Gordon Brown. Tony Blair, whom Sarkozy has often cited as his example, made a video in French and rushed it to Paris for the TV networks to congratulate "mon ami Nicolas".

The object of Blair's affections is far from an ideologue: for Danger Man read, more accurately, Action Man. His emphasis on national identity - for which he intends to create a new government ministry - carries a whiff of nationalism of the kind that many people in France and abroad frown at, and is certainly a concern for today's mainly Arab immigrants in France, yet he presents it as the key to successful integration. That said, yes, he is tough on immigration. Those who insist on treating women as inferior or who don't learn French will fail the identity test he has in mind for newcomers. He wants to fix immigration quotas according to the newcomers' capacity to find work and housing. With him, French identity is deeply emotional stuff, as he indicated when claiming victory: "I love France as one loves someone dear who has given you everything, and now it is my turn to pay her back for what she has given me."

Don't look for grandeur, though. Listen instead for some sharp crowing from the French cock, especially on the vexed subject of Europe, which he is making his first priority. Immediately after taking office on 16 May he will head for Brussels and then Berlin, where Angela Merkel awaits him to revive the elusive EU constitution that France threw out in a referendum just two years ago. He is, he affirms, a committed European and he supports the concept of political union from which Blair and Brown have shrunk.

He will sign up to Merkel's slimmed-down constitutional treaty, containing the essentials of the rejected one, and have it ratified by a new French parliament to be elected in June. No more awkward referendums on Europe for Sarkozy.

The cock will crow loudest over Europe's economic status. While he embraces the market-capitalism ethic for his new France within the EU, Sarkozy is too wary of "outsourcing" to agree to leave Europe without protection from the rest of the world. Economic intervention is one temptation French leaders can't resist, and the new president will be no exception. For a brief period when he served as finance minister between his law-and-order responsibilities, Sarkozy's sniping at the European Central Bank showed that he dislikes the very thing that makes it tick - its independence. He wants member states to guide the bank in setting interest rates. Here lies ground for conflict with Brown, for while Britain is not in the eurozone, the PM-to-be prides himself on his initiative in making the Bank of England independent.

Royal and the French left are adrift once more, as they were after the previous presidential election in 2002. They are a social-democratic tribe without its script and logo: they confess they have been too slow to shed hoary socialist principles and lingering Marxist ideas for the modern electorate. Their outlook is bleak for the legislative elections on 10 and 17 June.

Sarkozy should have little trouble in inducing voters to give him a sizeable parliamentary majority in the two-round poll. He promises to give parliament more power, but only to assert himself as an American-style president exerting close executive control - less the omnipotent umpire that past presidents have been, more the Action Man. His ambition may yet be chopped and sawn by the unions, but the trees have a long, long way to go to Dunsinane.

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2007 issue of the New Statesman, What now?

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