Breaking the mould

Breaking the mould

By Andrew Billen,
Monday, 15th February 2016
Channel 4, television, diversity, RTS, BAME, Ade Rawcliffe, Chewing Gum, Creative Diversity Manager,
Ade Rawcliffe (Credit: Channel 4)
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Will Ade Rawcliffe play hardball to bring about long-overdue change at Channel 4 and its suppliers, wonders Andrew Billen.

Back in the late 1990s, Ade Rawcliffe was working on Ainsley Harriott’s show, Party of a Lifetime. They were in Teesside, filming with children from a housing estate. They all had a question: was Rawcliffe Harriott’s wife or was she his “girlfriend”?

Ade (pronounced Addy) thinks that they were not used to seeing two black people in the same place at once. They might, it occurs to me, have been equally puzzled by the spectacle of two black people working on the same television programme.

Rawcliffe is now Channel 4’s Creative Diversity Manager, at the vanguard of challenging such assumptions about and within the industry. So how much has changed since then, I ask her.

“I would say we are definitely out of the blocks,” the former pentathlon champion replies. “We’re improving. Not there yet, is what I would say.”

We meet the week after a successful couple of days for Rawcliffe. At a meeting in Parliament to celebrate the first anniversary of Channel 4’s 360° Diversity Charter, actor Idris Elba hit the evening news for his speech. In it, he described how he left for the US because he felt he was about to hit the glass ceiling for black actors in Britain.

The next day, at a diversity “festival” at Channel 4, research was presented on social mobility. Writer and actor Jessica Hynes lambasted television’s “flabby mainstream” and Baroness (Oona) King, Channel 4’s Head of Diversity, revealed the Communication Research Group’s finding that there were five sexist “incidents” an hour
on mainstream, prime-time TV.

But, I protest, isn’t that just a reflection of our culture, of the jokes we currently find funny, the attitudes ordinary people have? Should we really be doing anything about it?

“I think the thing about it is that television operates in a unique space, in that it is beamed into everyone’s homes, every night of the week. I think that, with this, comes an extra responsibility about how we shape opinions.”

At the conference, Grayson Perry spoke of white, middle-class men being saddled with a “rucksack of privilege”. As one of them (privately educated and middle aged), I wish I could shed my rucksack for this interview with the formidable Rawcliffe, a black Nigerian woman adopted by white, working-class parents in Macclesfield. But if I spend the next hour checking my privilege, we shall get nowhere. I challenge Rawcliffe when I can.

“What we’re not, is a police force – and that’s really important because the creative process needs to happen. What I’m about is increasing the range of voices that get the opportunity to tell their tales.

First, I want to know what the main argument is for encouraging, if not quite enforcing, diversity. The alternative is only to let creative people work with whomever they want.

“For me, the strongest pull for diversity is the creative argument,” says Rawcliffe. “I’m all about creative people, but I think those creative people should be from a diverse range of backgrounds, because I think talent is evenly distributed across the nation. And I think our job is to make sure that the opportunities are the same.”

So, she explains, you get Shane Meadows (white, working-class, Midlands) writing This Is England and you get Michaela Coel (black, Ghanaian, East London) writing Chewing Gum – and you could have an even wider range of stories. At their best, they feel universal, as with the documentary Muslim Drag Queens, which came down to a son’s relationship with his mother.

The question, it seems to me, is not how far you open the doors to these new stories but how prescriptive you are about the old ones.

Last year, for instance, Rawcliffe recruited the former Big Brother producer Ramy El-Bergamy to help increase on-screen minority representation and sent him off to help Studio Lambert find a disabled sofa-dweller for Gogglebox.

What happens if he finds a disabled regular who is a bit racist? It strikes me that this campaign is not really to provide a perfect reflection of Britain but a perfected one.

“It’s a really good question,” she says. “We’d want someone disabled who could give an authentic view of their perspective but… I wouldn’t want some­one racist on Gogglebox, if I am honest.”

We then get on to the tricky problem of casting and editorial freedom. This is an issue that Channel 4’s own Chief Creative Officer, Jay Hunt, fell foul of in her previous job, when Miriam O’Reilly won an age discrimination case against the BBC for dropping her from Countryfile.

Rawcliffe may be pleased that Strictly Come Dancing has broken the cliché of an older male presenter being paired with a younger female one, but is she really suggesting that on-screen recruitment should be conducted as blind as an early round of The Voice?

“It’s a tricky question because, clearly, television is a visual medium. I understand that. But I also think that, sometimes, we get into a situation where we underestimate what the viewer wants.

“Sometimes, what the viewer really wants is expertise at handling a situation as much as they want to look at someone who is attractive. I think it probably depends on the genre of the programme.”

The real problem is probably the pool of talent from which to fish. She certainly believes that the biggest change needs to come in recruitment.

Channel 4 has pledged that a fifth of its staff will be BAME (black, Asian or minority ethnic) by 2020. It also intends the proportion with disabilities to triple to 6%, and for 6% of staff to be LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered), up from 2.4%.

Internally, the “Diamond” monitoring survey is also working on finding how many of its staff are from poor backgrounds. I wonder how many in this building were on free school meals growing up. None?

“It wasn’t zero,” she says, but she does not think the figures are being made public. She offers that she went to a state school herself but prefers not to say what type of school her two sons, 13 and 9, attend.

Meanwhile, in the wider industry, too many jobs are not advertised: familiar faces are hired at the last minute. Oxbridge continues to exert its magnetism; unpaid work experience goes to chums’ kids.

She is encouraging production ­companies to meet talent in calmer moments, and she holds pop-up career days. Channel 4 has launched an apprenticeships scheme in Glasgow and has invested in “BAME” companies – defined as ones whose owners are BAME.

It is, she says, a five-year project. What, however, if Channel 4 were privatised before 2020 and a new owner was less sympathetic to the cause?

She believes the remit would stay intact but admits: “My own personal view is that it would be difficult to satisfy the remit if we were a commercial organisation. That would be my concern about it.”

Some might say there was enough to concern a creative diversity officer about the present Channel 4. It is not only the home of the Paralympics but of Big Fat Gypsy Weddings and Benefits Street. In each case, she says, she likes the programmes and refuses to criticise the titles.

That only provokes the question of whether there is a conflict between her as a campaigner and as an employee of a TV channel looking for market share. She assures me that she would let any discomfort she felt about a project be known.

“What we’re not, is a police force – and that’s really important because the creative process needs to happen. What I’m about is increasing the range of voices that get the opportunity to tell their tales.

“I really don’t think that I should be a police force saying, ‘You can’t say this, you can’t say that.’ I don’t think that’s the role of me and my team.”

This sensible, truly liberal stance comes from a woman who was called a “Paki” by other children as she was growing up in Macclesfield, as much an indication of their insularity as of their racism. “It is not even the right continent. So when you get into that, it’s sort of ludicrous.”

Did it hurt her? “I found it sort of tiring by the end, but I think that being in a community where I was one of not very many also had advantages for me. I think that the teachers probably looked after me quite well.

“I think that I had opportunities. There’s negatives, but positives as well that probably, in the end, make it a neutral experience.”

Did it make her stronger? “It probably did make me stronger, but I think that when you speak to anybody about their life, we’ve all had adversities that have made us stronger.”

In fact, she describes her childhood as very happy. She was adopted when tiny by Peter, a plasterer, and Elaine, a hairdresser. Later, two biological daughters joined the family. It was a racially homogeneous town.

People would ask her if she had ever seen snow before. “Every winter,” she would reply, for this was Cheshire. Her self-confidence was boosted by not only being good academically but also excellent at sport.

For 13 years, Peter would take her training 22 miles away in Stoke-on-Trent. At 15, she represented England and won her first national pentathlon championship. She was very good, but not quite good enough to make athletics her profession.

It was in 1994, while studying communications at Loughborough, a sporty university, that she was approached on a night out in Manchester to be on a game show. She notes that the glamorous blonde she was with was not asked. “I think that, even then, people were aware that we needed to get more diverse people on television,” Rawcliffe muses. The show was Sabotage, shown on Channel 4, and she ended up on three editions.

“I thought, ‘Do people really get paid for this?’ It was amazing. My dad would come home dirty because he’d been plastering all day.”

Sabotage was made in Manchester by Action Time, one of 30 companies she next wrote to for work experience and the only one that offered it.

She worked on Mum’s the Word and was hired as a runner on Stars in Their Eyes. She followed one of its researchers to work in London for Bazal on Ready Steady Cook. Intending to stay for three months, she never left.

She worked on Big Breakfast and Right To Reply as a producer-director, and then at the BBC for four years, producing A Question of Sport and working on the Athens Olympics. From there, she arrived at Channel 4 to work in talent and diversity as Media Project Manager.

Has she ever personally experienced discrimination in the industry? “I wouldn’t say I have experienced racism in my career in television, but I would say that people have made assumptions because I am a black woman. I once arrived at an interview for a job with a major broadcaster. I was asked by the receptionist if I was there for the debate on racism. I got the job!”

If Rawcliffe’s career is still exceptional for a black woman from a working-class background, it is made no less so by the fact that her two sisters have made it, too. Katie Rawcliffe is Creative Director at ITV Studios, while Rebecca Rawcliffe is an Account Manager at BBC Studios.

Ade Rawcliffe swears she never gave any help beyond suggesting names to write to. But then, of course, Katie and Rebecca are white.

Rawcliffe’s resumé


Ade Rawcliffe, Creative Diversity Manager, Channel 4


Married To Jeremy Kemball, teacher, Westminster School; two sons

Lives Pimlico, London

Born 27 December 1972

Parents Peter Rawcliffe, plasterer; Elaine Rawcliffe, hairdresser

Brought up Macclesfield

Education All Hallows Catholic College, Macclesfield; Loughborough University (communications studies)


First jobs Runner, Stars in Their Eyes; researcher, Ready Steady Cook; producer, Big Brother, Right To Reply, A Question of Sport, 2004 Athens Olympics


2006 Diversity and Talent Manager, Channel 4

2009 Works with Oona King, overseeing Channel 4’s chairmanship of the Creative Diversity Network

2011 Creative Diversity Manager, reporting to Stuart Cosgrove

2014 Commissioning Editor, Features

2015 Creative Diversity Manager. Appoints two diversity executives, one for on-screen and one for off-screen diversity


Commissions Ainsley Harriott’s Street Food, Britain’s Youngest Carers, Don’t Blame Facebook

Source of pride Adam Pearson, who is facially disfigured, being appointed a reporter on Tricks of the Restaurant Trade

What she’s watching Deutsch­land 83, Downton Abbey, Empire

What her dad says ‘You work all these hours and there is still nothing on the telly’