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

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

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Ashdown Group: Editor-in-chief - Financial Services - City, London

£60000 - £70000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Ashdown Group: Junior Application Support Analyst - Fluent German Speaker

£25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A global leader operating...

Ashdown Group: Accountant - London - £48,000 - 12 month FTC

£40000 - £48000 per annum + bonus + benefits: Ashdown Group: International Acc...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

If I were Prime Minister: I'd shrink the gap between the highest and lowest paid

Marina Warner
 

Sorry Britain, but nobody cares about your little election – try being relevant next time

Emanuel Sidea
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power