Young, gifted and... lured back to Britain for key TV roles

British broadcasters are desperately trying to stem the 'talent drain' of the country's best young black actors
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The Independent Online

They are young, gifted and gone. Alarmed by the growing exodus of Britain's best black actors, broadcasters are mounting a campaign to woo them back with a glut of leading roles in new shows. For the first time black actors, who typically end up playing bit parts in police shows, are being cast in pivotal roles in a string of new dramas, starting with tonight's new work by Stephen Poliakoff, Joe's Palace, starring Danny Lee Wynter.

The BBC is leading the broadcasters' attempt to lure back black actors, which has acquired a sense of urgency after Charles Thompson, the Ghanaian producer and founder of the Screen Nation Awards, used the event, dubbed the "black Baftas", to bemoan the "talent drain" of British stars to the States.

David Oyelowo, the first black actor to play a Shakespearean king in a Royal Shakespeare Company production in 2000, Lennie James, who stars as Robert Hawkins in the successful US series Jericho, Idris Elba, best known as Russell "Stringer" Bell in the award-winning US police drama The Wire, and Naomie Harris, who played Selena in 28 Days Later, have all made the break for the US where there is more work.

Mr Thompson said 2007 had been "one of the worst years for black roles" on UK TV despite the fact that it marked the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery.

Oyelowo blamed the lack of decent parts on British broadcasters' "obsession with period dramas and our queens", adding: "It's patronising to the audience to consistently go back to Jane Austen and Charles Dickens as education of who we are now when there are so many other historical stories about modern-day Britain."

Although black actors know they are more likely to get main parts in theatre than on TV and in film, change is afoot. Nikki Amuka-Bird, who starred in the BBC's Five Days with Oyelowo earlier this year, said: "We can be proud of the characters that we're allowed to play now." The US channel HBO cast Chiwetel Ejiofor and Sophie Okonedo in Tsunami: The Aftermath, a drama that was also shown on BBC2. And Okonedo will play Nancy in a BBC production of Oliver Twist next month.

Ben Stephenson, the BBC's head of drama commissioning, said: "Coming up, we're hitting the most exciting phase in terms of getting really mixed casts on the screen." He defended television for failing to keep pace with the theatre, saying: "Perhaps the fact that so many plays are classics means that using black actors is more iconic and makes a bolder statement."

Other broadcasters were more sensitive about the issue of black acting talent. A spokeswoman for Channel 4 claimed it had "no issues because there is black acting talent in the majority of our programmes". ITV merely pointed to The Bill as evidence that it used black actors.

Nevertheless, the broadcasters were at pains to point out that they are making more parts available, and stars are being lured back from the US. Lennie James will star in Channel 4's Fallout; Oyelowo will appear in the BBC's The Passion, which retells the story of Christ's final week; and Marsha Thomason, another Briton living in Los Angeles, has also been signed up for a big role in a new series next year.

And the widely anticipated dramatisation of Alexander McCall Smith's No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, which will be shown on the BBC next Easter, features a host of young black British actors in key roles.

David Oyelowo, 31

Career high: first black actor to play Shakespearean king for RSC

Idris Elba, 35

Career high: as Russell 'Stringer' Bell in 'The Wire'

Chiwetel Ejiofor, 33

Career high: award-winning lead in 'Dirty Pretty Things'

Nikki Amuka-Bird, 31

Career high: will appear in 'The No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency'

Sophie Okonedo, 38

Career high: Oscar nomination for role in 'Hotel Rwanda'

Freema Agyeman, 28

Career high: plays Martha Jones, companion of Doctor Who