Philip Hensher: Of Blackadder and white women of a certain age

There are voices out there which traditional media neglect through their age, ethnicity, culture, sexuality

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There are not many ways in which a humble newspaper columnist can hope to change the world directly. One of the few occasions on which this column did so – a small one, I admit – followed a visit to the opera in 2005. Going to the open dress rehearsal of Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera, I was amazed and amused that Covent Garden then still thought it all right to present singers in "black-face". I pointed out the ludicrous aspect of this still going on in 2005. Covent Garden were stung, and, responding to my argument, decided that no production in future would ask white singers to "black up" or black singers – a rarer but real historical resort – to put on white-face make-up. Whether they have successfully employed more non-white singers in a variety of roles since then, I could not tell you.

That might seem to place me on the opposite side of the argument to the comedian Rowan Atkinson. He has been, over a range of issues, a heavyweight defender of the right of the creative arts to do whatever they choose. He has argued, in the past, for the right of comedy to be offensive. In 2004, speaking against the creation of a religious insult offence, he said that "the right to offend is far more important than any right not to be offended".

This week, he waded into the long-running saga of Miriam O'Reilly and the BBC. The BBC sacked the presenter on the grounds, she thought, of her age; she brought a case and won it. Atkinson argued in a letter that "the creative industries are completely inappropriate environments for anti-discrimination legislation and that the legal tools she used should never have been available to her".

Really? The television news have, for many years, made a point of using some minority ethnic and mixed-race news presenters. These homely presences, every night, in our sitting rooms have probably done a good deal to familiarise England with new ways of being and looking English. If the BBC decided, tomorrow, to terminate the contracts of George Alagiah, Brenda Emmanus and Asad Ahmad and replace them with exclusively white presenters, would anyone think they should have no recourse through anti-discrimination legislation?

Change has to come primarily through a shift in social attitudes. To some degree, we expect our media and our art forms to reflect that. It grew extremely strange, at the turn of the century, to observe that some very popular and long-running television soap operas had no gay characters in their cast of dozens; some light social pressure was brought, and things changed in line with reality.

Of course, no one wants to promote quotas, or to demand that creative figures must include a certain number of black, Asian, or gay characters, or to include people of a mixture of ages in every single programme. But most sensitive creative figures will probably want to reflect the spread of the society they live in when they write about that society, probably not at all consciously. On reflection, I noticed the other day that I haven't written a novel for 15 years with an all-white cast, and I don't expect ever to do so again. No legislation was needed or required there – and who would sue me if I didn't? The non-white imaginary people I hadn't invented? But it just stopped seeming right to do so. As a reader, too, I started getting uncomfortable with novels supposedly set in cities in the present day with no non-white characters, or where the black characters were all drug dealers and the Asian ones all kept corner shops. Things just seemed to have passed these authors by a little bit.

Race is a special case, even for Atkinson. In 2004, he defended insulting jokes about religion, but drew a limit at the point of jokes about race, saying: "To criticise a person for their race is manifestly irrational and ridiculous, but to criticise their religion – that is a right." In the case of the older woman on television, resistance seems as hopelessly outdated as The Black and White Minstrel Show. The age when the BBC might expect its women presenters to retire into private life on marriage is long gone. Miriam O'Reilly and other campaigners were right to argue and ridicule an outdated position, but if that failed, what was left? The legal recourse shouldn't be taken away from workers in television.

The argument sometimes brought out here is that some performing roles are just too specific to be reconsidered. Rowan Atkinson brought up the case of James Bond, which Pierce Brosnan grew too old to play. Perhaps he also thinks that Bond should never be played by a black actor or an Asian one – Idris Elba or Hrithik Roshan might be worth considering, I must say. What would a female Bond look like? I think the word is "interesting". Clearly, none of this is a case for specific legislation but the world has changed, and the media with it. There is a range of voices out there which traditional media neglect through their age, ethnicity, culture, sexuality. Legal tools aren't the best recourse. But you can't blame the marginalised for using what tools they can find.

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