Why do our black actors need to leave to work?

There are so few good roles for black actors that they’re leaving for the US

Share

When I was still a stand-up comic in the distant past, I was once at a comedy party in East London, held at a club I hardly ever played. One of my friends asked the promoter why he didn’t book more female comics, and the promoter explained to him that they only had “one spesh act on the bill at a time”.

A speciality act, in case you aren’t familiar with the term, is someone who deviates from the comedy norm of a bloke with a microphone. So musical acts, magicians, ventriloquists and women never appeared with one another at this club (and many others) because that would freak out the audience, unaccustomed as they were to seeing a bloke with a guitar and a woman on the same stage (no Blondie fans, presumably).

By the time I left comedy in 2008, it was still the case that if there was more than one woman on the bill, it was probably International Women’s Day. Things were no better for black comics than for women: when Stephen K Amos quipped that he was waiting for Lenny Henry to die before he got more TV work, he was only half joking.

And now Chuka Umunna has spoken out against the same problem in British television: there are so few good roles for black actors that they’re leaving for the US to avoid “lazy stereotypes”. On first glance, he has a point. David Harewood – who starred in Homeland – said last year that he’d had to move to the United States to make his name. Umunna surely had Harewood and Luther’s Idris Elba in mind when he said, “It’s often only after they’ve made it big in the States that black British actors get more – and more varied – roles here. That is unacceptable and has got to change”

It’s worth pointing out, however, that Elba was only one of two British actors to have their careers rejuvenated in the UK after appearing in the mesmerising US show, The Wire. The other was white, Eton-educated Dominic West. Both of these actors managed to slip through the net in the UK until their talent had been acknowledged by American television. So perhaps another question that  needs asking is why British television is not confident about spotting and using home-grown talent.

In part, the problem is surely that we make television in a very different way from the Americans. In the United States, a season of a drama show is about 23 episodes, or 12 if it’s on HBO. That’s a lot of episodes which need to be filled with a lot of story arcs. There’s scope for a large, diverse cast in Homeland, Game of Thrones,  Elementary or CSI: Wherever because there’s time for each of the main characters to have a few episodes which focus on them. That’s just not possible with a show like Sherlock, where each series runs to a meagre three episodes. Having a major cast of five or 10  characters means you’re much more likely to have interesting storylines for more actors.

And that’s before you factor in the conservatism of some viewers. When the BBC announced a present-day version of Sherlock Holmes we may have been sceptical, but the casting of Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman filled us with hope. When the Americans announced the US version, Elementary, with Lucy Liu as Dr Joan Watson – not just a woman, but Asian – British critics were appalled (which is a pity, because it’s a great show).

And it’s not just about time, it’s about period. Our big-budget television is often set in the past: obviously Downton doesn’t offer many roles to black actors because it is set in a time before there were many black people living in the UK. Even Midsomer Murders, which is famously white, is set in a version of the present which looks like the 1930s.

So Umunna is right to suggest there’s a problem in our television schedules, though for my money he doesn’t go far enough. I don’t just want to see David Harewood playing a great lead role in a drama, I want to see more of all the actors that TV is too often blind to, in programmes made on both sides of the Atlantic, instead of an endless parade of interchangeably pretty people who I couldn’t pick out of a line-up.

When I was growing up, I could watch The Golden Girls on endless repeat. Then there was Sex and the City, and now there’s Girls. Keep this up, and the next show with four female characters talking to each other will be set in a kindergarten. Older women used to be  allowed to be funny: can we let them be in sitcoms again? And if an idea isn’t presenting itself: I’d like Frances De La Tour and Miriam Margolyes, please, as retired teachers with a stash of medicinal brandy under the sink.

We’re so used to being told that diversity is something that must be grudgingly achieved that it’s easy to forget how many brilliant programmes are made with diverse writers and performers. The glorious, anarchic US sitcom, Community (I’m begging you to watch it) is a case in point: a racially diverse cast, and a 50:50 male/female writing staff.

The problem isn’t just that actors miss out on work, it’s that we – the viewers – miss out on them. Benedict Wong gave a tremendous performance in Lucy Kirkwood’s play about the US and China, Chimerica: where’s the TV drama about Britain and China, starring Wong? Isn’t it about time we had a great drama which deals with our growing dependence on Chinese investment in British firms? I’ll swap you two footmen and a duchess for a contemporary thriller.

n.haynes@independent.co.uk

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper / Office Co-ordinator

£9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This role is based within a small family run ...

Recruitment Genius: Designer - Print & Digital

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Design and marketing agenc...

Recruitment Genius: Quantity Surveyor

£46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This property investment firm are lookin...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Yarl's Wood in Bedfordshire, Britain’s largest Immigration Removal Centre  

Thanks to Channel 4 we now see just how appallingly Yarl’s Wood detention centre shames Britain

Yasmin Alibhai Brown
 

If I were Prime Minister: I’d ensure ministers took mental health in the armed forces as seriously as they take physical wounds

James Jones
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003