Three writer-directors tell Emma Daly that BBC1 will not accept black characters
Would you watch Bridgetower - a true-story costume drama about an 18th-century black violinist, the son of a slave and so talented that Beethoven wrote for him - on BBC1?

Well you can't, because Kolton Lee, the writer and director who pitched it to the Corporation, was told that a story with a black lead character was "not mainstream" and therefore could not run on the main channel.

"I've worked on `mainstream'," says Lee, a writer on EastEnders and Byker Grove, "but what I'm finding with ideas I'm putting up is that as soon as one or more of the lead characters is non-white the shutters come down, the experience is no longer universal." Still, Lee has now made it to BBC2 - not with the violinist, but as the director of Phoenix, a story of racial hatred and revenge which is part of the "Crucial Tales" series of "black and Asian" films that began last Saturday night.

Ironically, the four stories in the series - Phoenix apart - are not about "black" issues. The first, I Bring You Frankincense, is the story of a boy of mixed race, but it is as much about whites as blacks, says its director, Ngozi Onwurah. "It is a coming-of-age story, a kid who's an outsider trying to find himself." As such, it reflects the experience of many, she says: "I've only ever met four or five people who were insiders growing up ... Anyone could relate to [the film]."

Spiders and Flies is a film noir, but not a "black" film, despite the absence of a single white face. It is a thriller that could just as easily be cast with white actors. Revolver, set in a pirate radio station, also has a mixed cast with a black heroine; its writer and director, Avril Russell, has written for The Bill.

"A lot of black stories, especially black British stories, would not have an absence of white people," says Ms Onwurah, daughter of a black Nigerian father and white English mother. "My life has a lot of white threads running through it." She is evidently able to direct white casts, having worked on Heartbeat and South of the Border; she also made a feature film, Welcome II the Terrordome.

Jonti Richardson, the writer of Frankincense, finds it "uncomfortable" to be perceived as a "black" writer, despite the fact that he firmly identifies himself as black rather than half-white. "Labelling it `black drama' makes it somehow different from other drama. There's good and bad drama and that's the only criterion, surely?"

Europe Singh of the BBC education department, which helped to fund "Crucial Tales", says the series was intended to encourage black writers in television, to help them learn the disciplines needed for mainstream television. "There can no longer be the excuse that there aren't black writers to do the writing," he says.

Black writers and directors know well that they are in a difficult business, that it is never easy to have films made, that all film-makers want bigger budgets. But they also believe that the very idea of minority programming creates a vicious circle from which they cannot escape.

First, "ethnic" strands run on smaller budgets than "mainstream" shows - "I don't know why people think black film-making is inherently cheaper ...", says Ms Onwurah tartly. "Black means small budget and low production values," adds Mr Richardson. "It makes our job even harder."

Second, the bosses seem to apply lower standards to "black" projects."I just get away with so much more when I'm doing black stuff than when I'm doing white stuff," Ms Onwurah says. "We need people to apply the same rigour to us as they do to anyone else." As Mr Richardson puts it, "I'll be happy to be judged alongside everybody else ... I'd rather be a `crap writer' than a `good black writer'."

Third, "ethnic" shows are usually broadcast out of primetime, and therefore have little chance of gaining a wider audience than the schedulers expect. Ms Onwurah points out that black culture is huge in Britain, at least among its youth - black music, fashion and slang is widespread in this country. So why not "black" television?

"I actually like the BBC, there's a lot of high-calibre people at the BBC, and if you could talk to them more, and show them more ..." Ms Onwurah's voice trails off in frustration. "What we are looking for is the breakthrough programme that has a black soul and gets a white audience, and then we'll be on easy street for a bit."

There are many other examples of the Bridgetower sort - the teen soap, the black "twentysomething", the sci-fi story with a black lead - and each of the writers throws "for instances" about, describing their experiences and those of friends. But the rules don't apply to foreign programmes, such as the American imports The Cosby Show and Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, which are scheduled as mainstream. "I don't see how those can cater for a widespread audience when homegrown stuff can't," Mr Richardson says.

The exception in this country, of course, is Lenny Henry, who is not perceived as black, it seems, by the BBC or by the audience of Chef! and his other shows. As it happens, Crucial Films, the company commissioned by the BBC to make this latest series, is owned by ... Lenny Henry.

"The fact that Lenny's company was commissioned to do this is telling," Mr Richardson says sardonically. He speaks of "entrenched racism" at the BBC: white programmers still perceive black writers as "different", and still believe the stereotypes. "I'm not hip and I can't dance," says Mr Richardson, who has been asked if he is capable of writing for white characters. "As a black writer they think you have a specific voice. To be asked `Do you do white?' is outrageous."

The BBC's Mr Singh wants black writers to come through so, for example, they can write convincing black characters for soaps such as EastEnders. But the three writer-directors I spoke to don't want to write convincing black characters for soaps, but convincing characters full stop. They want the chance to make their own films and tell all manner of stories, black, white or multi-coloured.

Mr Richardson asks with a laugh if he has been whingeing too much, but his frustration is all too evident. "No wonder people think we have chips on our shoulders. We're fighting so hard and all we want is to be treated like other people."

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