Sunday, 23 June 2013

Lenny Henry says “get a grip” – or more black actors will flee abroad! Why are we supposed to care?

On a semi-regular basis, a black British actor will surface and complain about how the lack of roles for black actors in Britain is causing a mass exodus of talent to foreign parts. I last addressed this phenomenon two years ago, when Kwame Kwei-Armah (silly made-up “rootsy” name – he was born Ian Roberts in Hillingdon) and Paterson Joseph (a genuinely terrific actor) whined about Britain’s “failure to fully embrace multicultural casting” (read it here).

And now one of our leading thespians (in his own estimation, at least) has decided to join them in playing the race card. In Lenny Henry’s case, this is ludicrous, given that his acting career feels like (a) the longest on-the-job-learning placement in British history, and (b) one of the most obvious examples of positive discrimination in a decade that included “Baroness” Warsi as Deputy Chairman of the Tory Party – no white actor would have been afforded the sort of opportunities the BBC has lavished on Henry for the past ten (make that twenty) years. I just don't believe he's that popular or that good - he simply ticks an awful lot of PC boxes.

At one stage, Henry was so ubiquitous on BBC Radio 4 that I began to scream when I heard his name mentioned yet again. My lowest point was when the station gave the Brummagen comic a two-part series entitled Lenny & Will, which featured the man giving us his insights into Shakespeare. There are many people I’d like to hear talking about Shakespeare – Lenny Henry isn’t in my Top Ten. To be honest, he isn’t in my Top Ten Thousand.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row a few days ago (I presume he has his own office at the BBC’s new headquarters) he made the following comments:
“It’s rare to see a person of colour in charge of anything. I’m talking about commissioning, directors, it’s rare. Shake it up a bit. We’ve got a major black flight going on at the moment, where actors are leaving to get work in America because there’s nothing here… It’s incredible there’s such a lack of black and Asian talent in our drama and comedy on television at the moment… The sheer fact that we weren’t even nominated for anything [at BAFTA] let alone winning anything is a massive standout, a massive anomaly… It feels like we need to get a grip on this and figure out how to make the playing field a bit more level. At the moment we walking up a wall, like Batman used to.” 
As far as I remember, Batman walked up walls quite easily. But, leaving that aside, there seem to be several major assumptions underlying this preposterous gobbleydook: (1) That only black and Asian actors go abroad to find work, (2) that the most achingly politically correct left-liberal bunch of people in this country – i.e. theatre and TV folk – are somehow being deliberately racist, (3) that there is some natural law that says blacks and Asians automatically deserve a certain level of representation in these fields, (4) that it actually matters a damn to anyone but themselves whether black and Asian actors have to go abroad to find work, and (5) “we” need to jolly well do something to – wait for it – “level the playing-field”.

Well, sod that.

First, as any fule kno, American television drama has been thoroughly invaded by British and Irish actors of all colours during the past ten years (I wrote about it here). American actors are getting testy about it. As the vast majority of these invaders are white, are we to infer that white British actors are getting a raw deal at home?

The suggestion that white Labour-voting luvvies are cruelly ignoring talented ethnic actors and production staff is ludicrous: broadcasters, in particular, are obsessed with what they used to call “representation” – if the talent was there, believe me, it would be hired.

The idea that every field of human endeavour should somehow reflect the racial make-up of the country in which it is undertaken is popular these days – but, of course, it is sheer unmitigated bollocks. Aren’t people from different ethnic backgrounds allowed to be good at different things? If not, why not?

If actors find they need to go abroad to find work, that’s entirely a matter for them – and if they end up in a hit American TV series (as so many of them have done), well, great! Acting really is one of the most difficult professions to succeed in.  The very best actors (unless they’re on that BBC list of preferred suppliers to which Lenny Henry evidently belongs – the proof can be found here and here) can spend an awful lot of time resting. When we moved to our current house, the chap next door was in his seventh year as a major character in a successful BBC TV series, Howard’s Way. Michael Grade cancelled it (a decision he now says was his biggest mistake) and our neighbour found himself on the scrap-heap, and eventually had to sell up, move to a small flat in Ealing, and undertake re-training. And all this despite the fact that he was white!

As for the need to “get a grip” – well, leftists (and I presume Henry is a member of the breed) always assume that something must be done to eradicate perceived unfairness and inequality wherever it’s found. I suppose Henry wants some sort of luvvified quango to impose an ethnic actor quota on broadcasters. But I’d suggest a Royal Commission be formed to investigate Lenny Henry’s near monopoly of black parts on Radio 4 – if the chap wants more work for black actors, why doesn’t he stop hogging the limelight and throw his fellow thesps the occasional bone? Greedy, I call it.

But, as I’m a white person, I really have to ask – what’s in it for me? The son of one of my oldest friends is a talented white actor in his early thirties who’s been busting a gut for a decade to make it in mainstream theatre. Why should I – or his father – support moves to make it harder for young white actors to get a toe-hold in their profession in order that young black actors get more roles? Why don’t actors simply carry on competing on merit, which is largely what happens now (apart from BBC favouritism, of course). Black British actors are amongst the most impressive of their generation – to suggest they need special treatment is an insult to their talent.

By the way, Idris Elba is returning to BBC One for the third series of the UK-based crime show, Luther, on 3rd July. He has apologised for making us wait, but, as he explains, he’s had to juggle his UK TV work with his Hollywood movie commitments. Fortunately, Lenny  is unlikely to have to juggle his career in the same way - he made a Hollywood film, True Identity, in 1991, in which he played a black person pretending to be a white  in order the escape the Mob. It failed. Racism, I expect.

1 comment:

  1. Would it not be a good idea if some clever person invented a device for TV, radio, computers etc which allowed you to nominate a list of unacceptable persons and topics and which activated the switch-off button just before they appeared. Channel hopping is fraught with danger these days [ because of the Radio Times I managed to stay clear of a Channel 4 programme last night about a chap suffering from scrotal elephantiasis].

    Talking of scrota, I suspect one day soon Shami Davis Chakrabarti will interrupt the great comedian/thesp [perhaps in the middle of a great, vibrant laughing attack or traipsing sadly through an Ethiopian village with a red nose stuck on his face] and say: " On behalf of the nation, I forgive you for being Lenny Henry." She did it for Mark Oaten on "Question Time" so why not?