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: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron faces the press as he arrives in Brussels for the EU leaders summit on Thursday reuters  

On the Tusk of a dilemma: Cameron's latest EU renegotiation foe

Andrew Grice
John Profumo and his wife Valerie Robson in 1959  

Stephen Ward’s trial was disgraceful. There can be no justification for it

Geoffrey Robertson QC
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas