Undercover is not the first prime time British TV drama with two black leads

And it overlooks UK television's very real diversity problem to say it is.

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This week, various media outlets have reported the fact that Undercover, a BBC One drama due this April and starring Sophie Okonedo and Adrian Lester, would be the first British television drama to feature two black actors in leading roles.

Diversity for its own sake, diversity in and of itself, is inherently a good thing and it should be celebrated, at least while we aren’t engaging in despairing glances as to why it has taken so long. It is, for example, important that Helen, a trans character in Russell T Davies’ Channel 4 tryptic of Cucumber/Banana/Tofu was played by a trans woman, the comedian and actor Bethany Black.

I want my children to grow up in a world where they are visible on TV in a variety of contexts and setting. Not to be reduced, as my grandparents were, to watching It Ain’t Half Hot Mum and Mind Your Language because they were places you routinely saw Indians speaking on telly.

There’s a problem, however, with treating Undercover as a milestone, and it’s that this “fact” is not even remotely true. It’s out by decades. Where do you want to start? Perhaps with Mrs Patterson (BBC TV, 20:30, 17 June 1956) starring Eartha Kitt, Neville Crabbe, Evelyn Dove? Or maybe with The Green Pastures (BBC TV, 20:00, 14 September 1958), which had an all-black cast. Of 63.

I’m here restricting myself to productions that I’ve seen with my own eyes and that I can remember off of the top of my head. There are numerous other examples from even the era of just two television channels, each transmitting for only few hours a night. One of particular interest is The Big Pride (1961), not only starring Johnny Sekka and William Marshall, but written by the Jamaican novelist Sylvia Warner and her then husband, the Guyanese poet and academic Jan Carew.

This history doesn’t mean, of course, that British television is – or ever has been – an easy place for black actors, or actors from other ethnic minorities, to find leading roles. Or roles where their ethnicity is not regarded by the piece they are in as an integral part of their character. It equally obviously does not mean there is not more work to do in making television more diverse, or that those doing such work should not be celebrated. But it does mean there is a line of UK TV dramas with multiple black leads stretching from at least the 1950s.

Slightly later, particularly notably, are the play Black Christmas (directed by Stephen Frears) from 1977, with Norman Beaton and Carmen Munroe, and the series Empire Road (1978) also with Beaton and Munroe, as well as Corinne Skinner-Carter, Joseph Marcell and others. Again, these are not isolated examples. Beaton is no longer with us, but Skinner-Carter, Marcell and Munroe are still working, with Marcell playing King Lear at Shakespeare’s Globe and on tour and Munroe excelling as Brecht’s Mother Courage. Corinne Skinner-Carter was also, for a time, in EastEnders.

I am not, personally, temperamentally drawn to soap opera, but to pretend that they are not drama series, are not on in prime time and that many, particularly EastEnders, have not had several black characters among its leads at any given time is ludicrous. More recently, Misfits (2009-13) was a prime time drama series. So was Babyfather (2001-02).

Recent one-off dramas with multiple black leads include the rightly acclaimed Murdered by my Boyfriend (2014). The 2013 series of Luther, in which Idris Elba’s principal antagonist is played by Nikki Amuka-Bird, must surely count no matter how narrowly one defines “a primetime drama with more than one black lead”?

These examples are not provided to say that they together constitute “enough representation” (whatever that could possibly mean), because they don’t. Nor are they meant to denigrate Undercover, nor its two quite brilliant leading actors.

What they are for is to point out that, when something like “the first British TV drama with two black leads” is said, people believe it. More, believing it simultaneously gives people comfort in “progress” – when we have not moved as far as we should have in 50 years – and, far worse, it casually and shamefully erases the work of pioneers like those mentioned above, or others, such as the great Earl Cameron or the extraordinary Nadia Cattouse.

Those discussing diversity on British television should not forget the struggles and triumphs of the past in their rush and excitement to celebrate the present. To do so is a distortion that, in the end, only serves to flatter ourselves. 

James Cooray Smith is freelance writer specialising in TV and film history.