Bonnie Greer: 'TV needs to wake up to minorities or end up in a museum'

The last original black-authored drama was made more than 25 years ago. Bonnie Greer delivers her damning view of current British television

Bonnie Greer
Wednesday 20 June 2012 08:44 BST
On the button: Bonnie Greer
On the button: Bonnie Greer (DAVID SANDISON)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


I recently came to the realisation that I haven't watched television in years. This is interesting because not only do I have two flat screens, but they're on from close to the moment I wake up until I fall asleep. I buy the Saturday papers for the weekly TV listings and I also read the crits. I do all of this out of pre-historic habit because actually I don't pay attention to any of it. That's because practically all of my TV viewing is "on demand".

I haven't seen any, and I mean zero, scheduled television – aside from the news – in ages. There are entire channels and time slots that haven't been visited by me in eons. My viewing is 99 per cent my own creation, for me and by me. It's what I want to spend my time watching. In other words, I see what I want to see when I want to see it. That distant memory of rushing home to catch a programme broadcast by same faceless controller at a time of his choosing seems really bizarre now. And what I want to see has to reflect me, what takes me out of myself, what expands me. I have my baby-boomer television reality and I live very happily there.

Of course, none of this is news to programme-makers and controllers. Most of us who watch TV are aged over 50. Of course, you wouldn't know that by watching what's on television, but heigh-ho, TV ploughs on in a world in which all of us are more and more our own controllers and programmers and instant critics. People many decades younger than I am know no other reality, and are simply not watching scheduled television, if they're watching TV as we know it at all. The sales of sets in the US are dropping fast, as viewers watch online or don't watch. Television has been in trouble for years. Big trouble. So you'd think that the powers-that-be would run to that segment of the population reared to watch the box, as well as to the fastest growing, and youngest, demographic in the land – ethnic minorities.

But you'd be wrong.

Odd that, because you'd think that this growing segment of the population along with us older dyed-in-the-wool watchers would bode well for the present and future of television. Drama, in particular, should be as diverse as possible, telling the stories of a full range of ages and abilities and ethnicities. Why not? That's the way the nation is.

But television isn't. And if this was any other kind of business fighting to stay alive while a range of potential customers are out there wanting... Yes, you're right. It's kinda dumb. First of all, to set the record straight: it's practically impossible to get produced on television. Most writers never get the chance, no matter what ethnicity, gender, age or ability you are. Television drama is an extremely expensive proposition. A drama producer aims to have as many "bankers" in place as possible, one of those guarantors usually being a writer who has had some kind of success, or at the very least been broadcast before. But even that writer had to start somewhere . And it is that "somewhere" that too many BME (black and ethnic minority groups) writers are quite simply being denied.

"Denial" may seem too strong a word because there are laws, and there is also goodwill and genuine commitment on the part of some television-makers to expand opportunity. But what word other than "denial" can be used when the last original black-authored drama series, Black Silk premiered way, way, way back... in 1985.

Those who might say that BME writers aren't "good" enough, that's the real reason why we don't get commissioned, need to ask themselves how a whole swathe of the population somehow don't come up to the mark. Not logical. The truth of the matter is that too often ethnic minority writers are only taken on when young. Sure, there are programmes for BME writers, but often the writer has to be under a certain age. Twenty five years old and above renders you into a kind of Methuselah-hood, invisible to the "greenlight brigade", living in a never-never land where no person of colour ever matures.

This eternal jeunesse is the result of custom and practice, a kind of "impification" – after the images of young, cheeky-faced black children who pop up in the paintings of the Old Masters. They are not real people, but showpieces, examples of largesse, wealth, or simply to offset the main colour themes of the painting in which they appear. They are accessories, dabs of colour, things.

Of course, young BME writers are not imps, nor are they thought of or treated as such on the various development schemes that pop up from time to time. But in the real world even people of colour move on and if television doesn't step up to the plate and fast, it might find itself in a museum before long.

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It is writers themselves who have taken matters into their own hands. They are the ones who are providing the most exciting developments and innovations in bringing ethnic minority writers and their stories into television drama. Tony Jordan, Jimmy McGovern and Paul Abbott are using their companies to find, nurture and provide support. And the writer Carol Russell has, on her own initiative, set up Fresh Voices, an industry showcase for BME drama writers with a broadcast credit who are eager to write again. It has already drawn industry decision-makers such as Ben Stephenson and Kate Harwood (BBC) Anne Mensah (Sky) and Greg Brenman (Tiger Aspect) to appear as panellists. Fresh Voices gives the lie to that oft-cherished refrain of commissioners when asked why there is not more ethnic minority work on the screen:"But there's no one out there!" They could be part of the solution for more grown-up television, a television more representative of the nation we live in now.

Because let's face it: a void of more than 25 years since a black-authored drama series was last broadcast is one Jubilee too far.

Bonnie Greer moderates the second Fresh Voices event at Bafta tomorrow. It features a staged reading of 'Rainmaker', a futuristic drama by Tony Dennis, directed by Jo Johnson

Five to watch

Roy Williams

The playwright started writing for TV with an adaptation of his 2003 Royal Court Theatre play, 'Fallout', for Channel 4. He wrote the BBC dramas 'Offside' in 2001 and 'Babyfather' in 2002 and co-wrote the screenplay for the UK film 'Fast Girls', released last Friday.

Abby Ajayi

After training with the BBC Drama Writer's Academy, Ajayi worked in development in the children's drama department, before writing episodes of 'Holby City', 'EastEnders', 'Casualty' and 'The Story of Tracy Beaker'. In 2010, she wrote 'The Future WAGs of Great Britain' for Channel 4.

Tony Dennis

The writer and producer began writing for 'EastEnders' and went on to co-produce 'Band of Gold' for ITV, earning a Bafta nomination for Best Drama Series in 1996. He has since produced the acclaimed BBC dramas 'Silent Witness' and 'Bugs' and produced 'Jozi-H' for Sky TV.

Catherine Johnson

The British author and screenwriter has written several young adult novels and co-wrote the screenplay for the award-winning 2005 film 'Bullet Boy', starring Ashley Walters.

Jo Ho

The Dagenham-born scriptwriter created the original BBC drama series 'Spirit Warriors' in 2009 and was hired by BBC Worldwide as storyline consultant on 'Bishaash', a BBC fantasy drama set in Bangladesh. Ho won the Women in Film and Television's New Talent Award in 2010.


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