Bonnie Greer: 'TV needs to wake up to minorities or end up in a museum'

The last original black-authored drama was made more than 25 years ago. Bonnie Greer delivers her damning view of current British television

I recently came to the realisation that I haven't watched television in years. This is interesting because not only do I have two flat screens, but they're on from close to the moment I wake up until I fall asleep. I buy the Saturday papers for the weekly TV listings and I also read the crits. I do all of this out of pre-historic habit because actually I don't pay attention to any of it. That's because practically all of my TV viewing is "on demand".

I haven't seen any, and I mean zero, scheduled television – aside from the news – in ages. There are entire channels and time slots that haven't been visited by me in eons. My viewing is 99 per cent my own creation, for me and by me. It's what I want to spend my time watching. In other words, I see what I want to see when I want to see it. That distant memory of rushing home to catch a programme broadcast by same faceless controller at a time of his choosing seems really bizarre now. And what I want to see has to reflect me, what takes me out of myself, what expands me. I have my baby-boomer television reality and I live very happily there.

Of course, none of this is news to programme-makers and controllers. Most of us who watch TV are aged over 50. Of course, you wouldn't know that by watching what's on television, but heigh-ho, TV ploughs on in a world in which all of us are more and more our own controllers and programmers and instant critics. People many decades younger than I am know no other reality, and are simply not watching scheduled television, if they're watching TV as we know it at all. The sales of sets in the US are dropping fast, as viewers watch online or don't watch. Television has been in trouble for years. Big trouble. So you'd think that the powers-that-be would run to that segment of the population reared to watch the box, as well as to the fastest growing, and youngest, demographic in the land – ethnic minorities.

But you'd be wrong.

Odd that, because you'd think that this growing segment of the population along with us older dyed-in-the-wool watchers would bode well for the present and future of television. Drama, in particular, should be as diverse as possible, telling the stories of a full range of ages and abilities and ethnicities. Why not? That's the way the nation is.

But television isn't. And if this was any other kind of business fighting to stay alive while a range of potential customers are out there wanting... Yes, you're right. It's kinda dumb. First of all, to set the record straight: it's practically impossible to get produced on television. Most writers never get the chance, no matter what ethnicity, gender, age or ability you are. Television drama is an extremely expensive proposition. A drama producer aims to have as many "bankers" in place as possible, one of those guarantors usually being a writer who has had some kind of success, or at the very least been broadcast before. But even that writer had to start somewhere . And it is that "somewhere" that too many BME (black and ethnic minority groups) writers are quite simply being denied.

"Denial" may seem too strong a word because there are laws, and there is also goodwill and genuine commitment on the part of some television-makers to expand opportunity. But what word other than "denial" can be used when the last original black-authored drama series, Black Silk premiered way, way, way back... in 1985.

Those who might say that BME writers aren't "good" enough, that's the real reason why we don't get commissioned, need to ask themselves how a whole swathe of the population somehow don't come up to the mark. Not logical. The truth of the matter is that too often ethnic minority writers are only taken on when young. Sure, there are programmes for BME writers, but often the writer has to be under a certain age. Twenty five years old and above renders you into a kind of Methuselah-hood, invisible to the "greenlight brigade", living in a never-never land where no person of colour ever matures.

This eternal jeunesse is the result of custom and practice, a kind of "impification" – after the images of young, cheeky-faced black children who pop up in the paintings of the Old Masters. They are not real people, but showpieces, examples of largesse, wealth, or simply to offset the main colour themes of the painting in which they appear. They are accessories, dabs of colour, things.

Of course, young BME writers are not imps, nor are they thought of or treated as such on the various development schemes that pop up from time to time. But in the real world even people of colour move on and if television doesn't step up to the plate and fast, it might find itself in a museum before long.

It is writers themselves who have taken matters into their own hands. They are the ones who are providing the most exciting developments and innovations in bringing ethnic minority writers and their stories into television drama. Tony Jordan, Jimmy McGovern and Paul Abbott are using their companies to find, nurture and provide support. And the writer Carol Russell has, on her own initiative, set up Fresh Voices, an industry showcase for BME drama writers with a broadcast credit who are eager to write again. It has already drawn industry decision-makers such as Ben Stephenson and Kate Harwood (BBC) Anne Mensah (Sky) and Greg Brenman (Tiger Aspect) to appear as panellists. Fresh Voices gives the lie to that oft-cherished refrain of commissioners when asked why there is not more ethnic minority work on the screen:"But there's no one out there!" They could be part of the solution for more grown-up television, a television more representative of the nation we live in now.

Because let's face it: a void of more than 25 years since a black-authored drama series was last broadcast is one Jubilee too far.

Bonnie Greer moderates the second Fresh Voices event at Bafta tomorrow. It features a staged reading of 'Rainmaker', a futuristic drama by Tony Dennis, directed by Jo Johnson

 

Five to watch

Roy Williams

The playwright started writing for TV with an adaptation of his 2003 Royal Court Theatre play, 'Fallout', for Channel 4. He wrote the BBC dramas 'Offside' in 2001 and 'Babyfather' in 2002 and co-wrote the screenplay for the UK film 'Fast Girls', released last Friday.

 

Abby Ajayi

After training with the BBC Drama Writer's Academy, Ajayi worked in development in the children's drama department, before writing episodes of 'Holby City', 'EastEnders', 'Casualty' and 'The Story of Tracy Beaker'. In 2010, she wrote 'The Future WAGs of Great Britain' for Channel 4.

 

Tony Dennis

The writer and producer began writing for 'EastEnders' and went on to co-produce 'Band of Gold' for ITV, earning a Bafta nomination for Best Drama Series in 1996. He has since produced the acclaimed BBC dramas 'Silent Witness' and 'Bugs' and produced 'Jozi-H' for Sky TV.

 

Catherine Johnson

The British author and screenwriter has written several young adult novels and co-wrote the screenplay for the award-winning 2005 film 'Bullet Boy', starring Ashley Walters.

 

Jo Ho

The Dagenham-born scriptwriter created the original BBC drama series 'Spirit Warriors' in 2009 and was hired by BBC Worldwide as storyline consultant on 'Bishaash', a BBC fantasy drama set in Bangladesh. Ho won the Women in Film and Television's New Talent Award in 2010.

ALISON KING

Arts and Entertainment
'Banksy Does New York' Film - 2014

Art Somebody is going around telling people he's Banksy - but it isn't the street artist

Arts and Entertainment
Woody Allen and Placido Domingo will work together on Puccini's Schicchi

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
The sixteen celebrities taking part in The Jump 2015

TV

Arts and Entertainment
British author Helen Macdonald, pictured with Costa book of the year, 'H is for Hawk'
booksPanel hail Helen Macdonald's 'brilliantly written, muscular prose' in memoir of a grief-stricken daughter who became obsessed with training a goshawk
Arts and Entertainment
Tom DeLonge has announced his departure from Blink-182

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

    Greece elections

    In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
    Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

    Holocaust Memorial Day

    Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
    Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

    Magnetic north

    The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story
    Front National family feud? Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks

    Front National family feud?

    Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks
    Pot of gold: tasting the world’s most expensive tea

    Pot of gold

    Tasting the world’s most expensive tea
    10 best wildlife-watching experiences: From hen harriers to porpoises

    From hen harriers to porpoises: 10 best wildlife-watching experiences

    While many of Britain's birds have flown south for the winter, it's still a great time to get outside for a spot of twitching
    Nick Easter: 'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

    'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

    Nick Easter targeting World Cup place after England recall
    DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

    The inside track on France's trial of the year

    Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
    As provocative now as they ever were

    Sarah Kane season

    Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

    Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore