A lack of roles for black and Asian talent in British TV is increasingly forcing BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) actors to seek work in the US where they can land big roles.
A panel discussion, produced by the RTS at the Diversify one-day conference held in London on 13 November, heard how opportunities for non-whites working in areas such as UK high-end TV drama and comedy had diminished in recent years.
Lenny Henry, nowadays an actor more likely to appear on the British stage than on the small screen, said action is needed to reverse the situation
He suggested introducing the kind of quotas for BAME representation in UK TV that regulators had adopted to force broadcasters and producers to make more programmes outside London.
Asked by session chair Lorraine Heggessey, executive chair of Boom Pictures, why the situation had gone backwards for non-white talent on both sides of the screen, Henry replied: “We had a good 1970s. That was because of patronage… Whatever minority you come from there’s often a bloke, generally white, male, middle-class and Oxbridge-educated who says [imitating white, male, middle-class Oxbridge accent] ‘I like you, I’m going to take you under my wing and look after you.’
“The problem is when they go, you go too – or you have to realign or find another mentor.”
To applause from the audience, Henry added: “We need to be in a position where we can say, ‘I’m going to write a script and say let’s go.’”
Asian actor Sudha Bhuchar, who once starred in EastEnders, highlighted the problem that middle-aged female actors like her experience in getting TV parts.
She said: “People say to me, ‘You’re really successful,’ but as an actor I find every day a struggle. I haven’t had a single audition all year.”
Asked by Heggessey if it was true that BAME talent had to cross the Atlantic to find work, Bhuchar said she knew a lot of young actors who had headed west, but they were still a minority.
Kwame Kwei-Armah moved to Baltimore, where he is artistic director of CenterStage, two and a half years ago following a celebrated career in the UK as an actor, writer and director.
He told the Diversify conference that while there has been a rise in roles for young black actors in underclass narratives, such as Channel 4’s Top Boy, the depiction of adult, middle-class non-whites on UK TV is virtually non-existent.
Kwei-Armah said: “While we’re all doing so well in America, here we’re punching the glass ceiling that is possibly lower than it used to be.”
He agreed with Henry that quotas need to be introduced in the UK to address the problem of a lack of diversity in roles for non-white talent in British TV.
“In the US they did the thing we’re afraid to do here. They set quotas,” emphasised Kwei-Armah.
The final member of the panel, casting director Des Hamilton (who worked on Top Boy), said a more diverse range of writers was needed in the UK in order to ensure a greater diversity of parts for BAME actors.
"Flight of the Black Actor" was produced for the RTS by Marcus Ryder, editor, current affairs BBC Scotland
The Diversify conference held in London was organised by Broadcast and Screen International. Please click through to watch this session.
A full report will be published in the January edition of Television.
Report by Steve Clarke