How the past becomes present in British television
I happened to catch part of the finals of last year’s BBC young musician of the year award. Usually I would have continued to channel surf, but my eye was caught by the sight of the black finalist, Charlotte Barbour-Condini. Regretfully, I’m old enough to remember the days when the appearance of any black person on television, except for the news, was a ‘down tools and huddle round’ moment. That this appearance would occur on a classical music programme would have been unprecedented. Conscious of this, I casually pointed her out to my two young children, gently suggesting that perhaps we should watch the show.
Not entirely surprisingly, they were not particularly impressed, which I guess is a good thing. Children’s TV is generally light years ahead of its adult counterparts when it comes to its portrayal of diversity and we as parents have also made a real effort to take them to a broad range of shows, where the performers include people from all races. So the sight of a black person playing in front of an orchestra, on television, was simply not that big a leap for them.
I’m explaining this generational difference because it wasn’t until I read about Lenny Henry’s diatribe in the Telegraph (strange choice but there it is) that I realised that black actors, writers and producers were pretty much absent from the nominee list of this year’s Baftas. However, what disturbed me most about this absence was that I hadn’t actually noticed. Because, let’s be clear here, the problem with their omission from these proceedings wasn’t that their work wasn’t being recognised, but rather that their work simply wasn’t there in the first place.
While the debate in theatre around colour blind casting continues, and in some ways reached its natural conclusion i.e. ‘OK then, I guess we should’, the conversation in the TV world has barely begun. The reasons for this seem based mainly on British television’s obsession with period drama and the subsequent conclusion that audiences wouldn’t accept a black actor in these historical roles.
But why should David Oyewolo be able to play Henry VI for the RSC 13 years ago, or Idris Elba play a Norse god in the Thor movie, while the black actor Paterson Joseph currently contends that ‘it’ll be a cold day in hell when I’m even in the room for the Mr Darcy auditions’. Please note that I’ve only referenced men here, as the situation for black British female actors remains considerably worse, as I’m sure Marianne Jean-Baptiste would testify.
It seems somewhat tenuous to suggest that the suspension of disbelief required when we enter a theatre or cinema is any greater than that mandated when we plonk ourselves down on the sofa in front of our 40” flat screen. Yet we appear to have sleepwalked into a position where this view is largely uncontested, and in my own case, barely even noticed. It cannot remain so. In many ways, the depiction of diversity on television has changed beyond recognition in the past 40 years but when we take our eyes off the ball, institutionalised power always finds a way to reassert itself. And in some distant future, I have no desire to find myself hauling my grandchildren to the TV, simply because I’ve managed to spot a black person.