Friday, 17 June 2011

Is it ‘cos I is black? Two British actors notice it’s a white-majority country

 The London actor and playwright, Kwame Kwei-Armah, if off to Baltimore to take over as artistic director of Centrestage. According to today’s Daily Telegraph, he and another black British actor, Paterson Joseph, have warned that our black actors are heading off to work in America as a result of Britain’s “failure to fully embrace multicultural casting”.

Kwei-Armah – who was born Ian Roberts in Hillingdon, but changed his name after tracing his ancestral roots back to Ghana - tells us: “There is a strong sense among black actors that there is a glass ceiling and that you can only get so far, which means people start looking for different marketplaces”. He points out that Lenny Henry was the last British performer to become a household name. (If there is anti-black prejudice in broadcasting, this may, of course,  explain why.) Paterson Joseph (yes, I know – I’m thinking of changing my name to Grønmark Scott) claims black actors face special challenges in Britain because they work in “a country that is a majority white country”.

My heart bleeds for both of them, of course. The loss of Kwei-Armah, in particular, will be a bitter blow to many of us. Who will they now get to fill the “pretentious prat dressed like a vibrant intellectual spouting utter bollocks” slot on the Newsnight Review programme? Let’s just hope that the portrayal of Baltimore in The Wire was pure fantasy and that Kwame manages to avoid being being shot or stabbed long enough to eventually reoccupy his central position in this nation’s cultural life. 

As for Joseph Pat… sorry, Paterson Joseph – I genuinely hope he stays here, because he’s on TV a lot, and he’s an excellent actor. It’s hard to figure out how, exactly, he would be able to pursue a lucrative career in acting in a country that in a non-white majority country. China? South Africa? Barbados? New Guinea? Tower Hamlets? 

Many things confuse me about these claims of careers being held back by Britain’s failure to embrace black actors. First, they were made in a week which saw the return of the rather ropey BBC One detective series, Luther, starring Idris Elba, who was born with a real African name – Idrissa Akuna Elba – in Canning Town, and is best known for being brilliant as “Stringer” Bell in The Wire. As they say in TV promos, “Idris Elba is Luther, a maverick cop who….etc.” No racist TV producer is giving Idris the Elba, apparently.

This week also saw the final episode of BBC Two’s five-part The Shadow Line, which starred Chiwetel Ejiofor, who was born in Forest Gate (with that name, by the way, rather than, say, Bob Scruggs). Despite pursuing his career in two white-majority countries – Britain and America – Chiwetel has enjoyed major roles in all sorts of marquee movies and TV dramas, has been festooned with major acting awards (including a BAFTA and a Laurence Olivier) and many nominations. Oh, and he just happens to have been awarded the OBE.  

Some glass ceiling!

The second thing that confuses me is that the British broadcasting and film industries are undoubtedly the most liberal, left-wing industries in the known universe. My experiences at the BBC suggest that commissioners, writers and directors continually bust guts in order to wedge in as many ethnic actors as they can possible manage.

That brings me to my third point. The liberal mania for affirmative action in casting sometimes leads to credulity being stretched. I mean, how many senior black detectives can the Met accommodate? (Mind you, those of us who live in the Great Wen – according to cop shows – stand a 50/50 chance of being butchered by a stupendously cunning serial killer before we get to collect our pensions, suggesting reality’s not much of an issue.) It’s screamingly obvious to anyone who isn’t a liberal loon that, if anything, ethnic actors are over-represented on our screens.

Finally, acting is a notoriously insecure profession. The actor Tony Anholt, who played business bastard Charles Frere in the hit BBC TV drama series, Howard’s Way(1985-1990), lived next door when we first moved here. The series had just ended, and, professionally, he was riding high. I met him on New Year’s Eve, 1999 (ironically,Space:1999 was the title of another TV series he appeared in.) He’d moved house a year or two previously. He looked depressed, and when I asked how things were going, he said he hadn’t had any real acting work for four years, and that most of his friends in the profession were in the same boat. He was looking into retraining for some other line of work. (He died in 2002.) 

As Anholt was a white actor with an impressive and lengthy track record, why do Kwei-Armah and Joseph imagine that lack of recognition or meaty roles (or whatever they’re complaining about) has anything to do with their skin colour or the racial make-up of this country.

Perhaps the makers of Midsomer Murders should be planning to cast them as the next Inspector Barnaby (or Bama-Abi) and his sidekick. (But I expect Lenny Henry’s already being groomed for the lead role).


  1. Paterson Joseph is never off the screen...didn;t know his name but recognise hium from the what is he on about? As for ian Roberts, have you seen him "act"?
    If you lived next to a successful TV actor does this mean you ended up in a vast mansion in Chiswick? Not that Ii'd be bitter or anything you understand.
    Wednesday, June 22, 2011 - 03:22 PM

  2. You are sniping again at Lenny Henry - comedian, classical actor, Radio4 commentator and the face of Great Western Hotels. What I value most about "our" Lenny [apart from his warm and exaggerated Brummie accent] is his habit of breaking into loud shrieking laughter whenever he runs out of things to say [which is frequent]. It's a habit he shares with his equally lovable ex-wife Dawn French [who says women can't do comedy?], Ricky Gervaise and Chris Akabusi [or is that "Kris"?].
    Thursday, June 23, 2011 - 08:56 AM