Elizabeth-Anne Wheal: Talent is Everywhere

27 February 2017 Elizabeth-Anne

As the awards season climaxed on Sunday with the Oscars and the shambles of Envelopegate, the debate about diversity in the creative industries is headlining again.

It’s an issue that’s been running hot in the US since #OscarsSoWhite threatened to upset Oscar on his big night last year, and over the same period there’s been a parallel conversation going on in the UK about whether there are too many posh, white men doing the acting, writing, producing and directing for British TV and film.

There’s no avoiding the short answer. If we ask ourselves the question “are we wide-ranging and inclusive in our representation of modern British people on TV?” the answer is absolutely not (read Adrian Lester on his role with Sophie Okonedo in Undercover last year). Advertising and the soaps offer us a regular if meagre diet of non-white faces and families and, even more occasionally, the odd wheelchair-bound actor, but across television as a whole we seem to get more varied (if not more equal) social reflections back from the imports we buy from the US. If we then ask “is our writer, director, editor and producer pool socially and ethnically diverse?” the answer is an even more resounding no.

A year ago, Idris Elba made a role-busting speech to Parliament on the eve of an industry diversity conference hosted by C4. He began by making it clear that he wasn’t there just to talk about being black. “Diversity in the modern world is more than just skin colour – it’s gender, age, disability, sexual orientation, social background, and – most important of all, as far as I’m concerned – diversity of thought.” And this is one of the strongest points he makes. It’s worrying enough that our screens reflect a narrow world back at us and that Elba had to leave the UK to get cast as anything but ‘an athletic type’ or ‘a best friend’ or simply as ‘a black male’. What’s at least equally concerning is that we have so little diversity of talent behind the cameras. Content, and how it’s presented to us, remains in the hands of the few.

Image © DFID - UK Department for International Development

The sad truth is that it’s been way worse, even, than this. One of my first TV commissions was for The Bill, back in the early 90s when it still went out in a 30 minute format. I was interested in television drama but I was writing a book about the Second World War at the time – an opportunity, by the way, that had essentially come through contacts of my father’s, who was also a historian and writer. One day I heard from my agent that The Bill was looking for new writers to join an informal training programme. At the time the show was distinctive for a number of reasons: the shooting and storytelling style was modern and innovative; it demanded a high level of first-hand research from its writers; and although it transmitted with the frequency of a soap, each episode was self-contained and the writer had complete freedom over what stories to tell.

I called the production office and got an interview with a (middle class, white, male) script editor. On the appointed day, I was offered coffee while we chatted about the show’s ethos, and my interest in it. He (Oxford-educated) asked me almost nothing about myself except where I went to university. My answer (Cambridge) seemed to satisfy. Then he told me that the programme was looking to increase its appeal to female audiences by developing ‘women’s’ stories. I nearly spat out my coffee. Did he mean I was going to be sidelined into writing kitchen-sink material? Either I get taken on to write stories for and about women and men, I challenged him, or I’m not interested. To his credit, he took my point.

"in almost ten years of writing for The Bill I can only remember working with one non-white writer"

A few hair-raising ‘shouts’ and a lot of thought-provoking research encounters later, I joined a band of regular writers who were all male, middle class and white, and a large cohort of studio-based production staff, from executive producer to casting director to script editor to scheduler, who were almost exclusively white and middle class too, although there was a small number of women among them. The actors appeared to come from a slightly broader class range, but the entire regular cast (and there were around 20) was white. The few Asian characters appearing on screen tended to be shopkeepers or curry house owners, and the black, male actors I encountered were mostly playing gangsters, grasses or babyfathers. Black women were barely cast at all, except very occasionally as their floozies or victims. I never met a single disabled, or short, or trans-gender person either side of the camera. And in almost ten years of writing for The Bill I can only remember working with one non-white writer – a Sikh.

"...if I wanted to cast a character who just happened to be Asian or black or disabled, the question was always – why?"

I can still remember the incredible frustration I felt when I encountered middle- aged, middle class, white, male directors and producers who could only read ‘young, self-confident, female’ as ‘white girl in mini skirt, thigh boots and boob tube with cascading locks and an up-for-it smile’. I was advised more than once by editors to steer clear of writing for gay characters, women in particular, because the casting department would offer nothing but ‘frumpy, angry dykes in dungarees’. And I quickly discovered that if I wanted to cast a character who just happened to be Asian or black or disabled, the question was always – why? I had to offer a specific justification in the story for my decision. The ‘aren’t we progressive’ excitement that rippled through the production offices a couple of years later, when my editor and I suggested creating the show’s first regular, black female detective was cringe-making… and this wasn’t the dark ages, it was 1994!

As time went on, and I worked on other series, some things changed somewhat, though more progress was made in front of the camera than behind it. The variety and size of roles for women and for non-white actors increased slightly. The Bill and other shows began to cast occasional regular characters from ethnic minority backgrounds, and a small group of female writers were getting regular writing credits. By the end of the nineties, I had even worked with three female directors, one of whom is black. But I never worked with a non-white producer or executive producer, and that, incredibly, remains true today.

Paradoxically, the biggest change I observed during that period seemed to follow on from the BBC’s restatement of its commitment to ‘nations and regions’. The Beeb, along with the commercial TV industry, had finally fully woken up to how alienating it was that all TV content was originated and controlled by a narrow coterie of people in southeast England. The realization sparked a sudden trolley-dash, a hectic trawl by the broadcasters and the indies alike for new talent – mostly young, male, white, able-bodied– with regional backgrounds and accents. Even better – in my world of crime drama – if they’d also been to prison or were products of some other gritty life experience. The impact of this new blood on the content of British TV was patchy. A few strong, new voices – Paul Abbott and Russell T Davies for example – got heard, and massively enriched the content and character of British TV on offer. But you could argue that employing a few more white Welsh or Mancunian men from different backgrounds as writers, editors or producers only went a small way to addressing the bigger question of how far British television, on or off screen, reflected all of British society. None of these new voices fundamentally altered the cultural superstructure of the TV industry. The same old establishment simply responded to the competition, the Commentariat and the markets.

In his speech to parliament, Elba discussed why real change is so important. He pointed out that drama on our screens has the power to shape reality. I’d add that it also has immense potential to educate and enlighten while it’s entertaining you – take a look at the Helen Titchener Rescue Fund. Elba reminded MPs that the creative industries are worth more to the UK economy than the car industry, but that to stay healthy, they really need to enlarge the talent pool they draw on. He warned that television would lose any hold it retains on a youth audience if it didn’t speak to their worlds. He also appealed to Britain’s track record for giving everyone a chance, and reminded MPs that Britain has been greatest when it’s doing exactly that. And I’d second all of that.

So what’s being done, and what’s not being done, when it comes to representing diversity on or off screen? The BFI’s diversity standards require British filmmakers looking for funding to engage seriously with the issue, although some have criticized any kind of compulsion of this sort as a potential brake on creativity. On the small screen, if you listen to the program makers – check out the diversity pages of Sky and the broadcast channels, or look up the website of the Creative Diversity Network – you might believe that the industry had already solved the problem.

The sheer volume of worthy words they’ve devoted to diversity and equality of opportunity in television is oceanic, but on the evidence you could argue that, apart from a few stand out initiatives, it’s all just words. In this context, the progress of CDN’s much-publicised project, Diamond, seems almost emblematic. It was announced back in 2014, due for launch in 2015, then delayed again until its final launch in August of last year – and it was still advertising for Project Managers last month. Diamond is “…a new industry-wide diversity monitoring system created by broadcasters BBC, Channel 4, ITV and Sky, and supported by Pact and Creative Skillset, through the CDN. It will provide detailed, consistent and comprehensive monitoring and reporting of diversity… [and] …will allow us to answer the key questions “Who’s on TV?” and “Who makes TV?” with greater confidence and precision than ever before.”

"...how do you support yourself while you go for endless failed auditions, or spend months and years trying to get someone, anyone, to watch your short film or read your screenplay?"

But don’t we already know the answer to that, in quite a lot of detail? It’s hard not to conclude that as far as the TV industry goes, diversity is a tick box they’re filling and filing. Unfortunately the government isn’t doing anything either. In fact, as of last autumn, it’s doing less than nothing, including withdrawing funding from some of the few organizations, such as Creative Access, that are actually making a difference (read their chief exec’s recent article in Huffington Post). With all the other calls being made on the public purse at the moment, we shouldn’t expect any of the government’s cash to come back any time soon. And although I’m concerned about the implications for creative freedom raised by any direct government regulation, the alternative of doing nothing really shouldn’t be an option.

Technology and new platforms for content have broken down the broadcasting hegemony, pushed the globalization of the market, generated a huge increase in competition and output, and with it, lots more opportunities for writers, actors, directors and producers. This should be good news, but there are caveats: it’s a ruthless and fast-changing environment and newcomers to the creative industries are in greater need of support, advice and representation than ever, if they want to avoid professional exploitation and abuse. And while there’s also increasing evidence to suggest that there’s a straight business case for making content genuinely representative of the markets it serves, the big sticking point is still opportunity.

To quote Idris Elba again, “talent is everywhere, opportunity isn’t”. Today there’s even less open access, on-the-job training available for writers, for example, than the little that existed 20 years ago. Most academic courses, whether short or long term, are prohibitively expensive for the majority of people. And even if families can afford it, supporting a budding writer, director or actor doesn’t just mean getting them through the college course. Like doctors and lawyers, actors, writers and directors can’t apply for proper paid work until they’ve got quite a lot of working practice under their belt. Unlike doctors and lawyers though, actors and writers are often paid nominally or not at all during their apprenticeship years. So how do you support yourself while you go for endless failed auditions, or spend months and years trying to get someone, anyone, to watch your short film or read your screenplay? Answer is that you can’t. Unless you’ve got parents or partners or friends with enough money, resources (and in many cases contacts in the industry) to help you jump the chasm between learning and earning.

Anecdotally I’d say that the young television writers, actors, radio dramatists and journalists I know represent a slightly broader slice of modern British life than did my colleagues of 20 years ago, although I’m not sure that’s true of directors, editors or producers. And the people with the power and the cheque books in British television have, with very few exceptions, remained the same.

"Any vision we entertain of an open, confidently outward-looking, inclusive society is, I fear, collapsing."

Working together and purposefully, the industry has the power and the resources to transform the content, colour and catchment of British film and television almost overnight. But it will have to invest some of its profits to do so. It will have to actively seek out talent from outside its comfort zones. It will have to develop properly paid internships, apprenticeships and traineeships. And, crucially, it will have to take risks: with new faces, new voices, new controllers and new content.

Will it or won’t it? AMPAS, the body that runs the Oscars, has been run by an African-American woman since 2013. Last November, another African-American became the US Television Academy’s CEO. At this year’s awards, 20 actor nominations went to minority actors. Of the nine best picture nominations, four featured non-white stories and actors, and the best picture (when they finally sorted it out) was about being black and gay. This all looks like progress, but I’m less sure whether it’s being reflected over here. I don’t want to sound too gloomy a note, but the UK creative industries don’t operate in a vacuum. Lurking stage-left of the powerful ‘X Factor’ fantasy that fast-feeds the aspirations of the millennials is a scary and depressing reality: British society as a whole is arguably more divided, more unequal and more engrained with prejudice – across the whole political and social spectrum – than it’s been in more than a generation. Years of ‘me first’ consumerism, rampant corporatism, squandered social visions, Bullingdon club cabinets, Brexit and a financial crisis later, I believe that we have fallen victim to a 21st century version of the same old, savage, shameful lie that British society has clung to in various forms for hundreds of years: that not everyone is worth respect or an equal shot; that background, postcode, colour, ethnicity, gender, age, and even accent, manners, language or physical appearance are not only windows on people, but walls between them that are best preserved. Any vision we entertain of an open, confidently outward-looking, inclusive society is, I fear, collapsing – and with it, so is opportunity. The fact is that in Britain today, if you can’t tick at least three of the following – white, male, wealthy, healthy, young and connected – there are closed doors, as well as class and glass ceilings, everywhere.

At the end of his speech, Elba returns to the idea that TV can make and shape the world, and reminds the industry again of its responsibility and its power. I’m doing the same here. But I’m not beautiful, bankable Idris Elba, I’m a middle-aged, mid-career female writer. So I just hope someone, anyone, is listening.

Comments

Jamila Elizabeth Gavin 14/09/2017 10:35:04
" As an idealistic children's writer of colour, I was so keen that every child should see their own mirror image, and there was such a dearth of images for the non-white child. As I became a regular visitor to schools and libraries, I would automatically glance round the displays of books - even in schools and neighbourhoods which were distinctly diverse - and see mostly none, and occasionally some. As was noted by Elizabeth-Anne Wheal's excellent blog, there was a period in the 60s and 70s when there seemed to be real initiatives to address the issue - and not just out of duty - but with the realisation that there were terrific stories out there to be told; stories which shed deeper layers of light on British society. So what did happen?

I would cynically say the market happened. The BBC - who still, despite everything, remains our one great hope to reflect truthfully, innovatively, and bravely our multicultural, multicomplicated society, is always under pressure. And yes - bravo to our Culture Secretary, Karen Bradley - for not rolling over under the demands of the Murdoch empire (yet!) because, in my view, that's what happened; the BBC, really ever since its inception, has been pressurised, bullied, egged on, to become less critical and ever more competitive, and its precious independence thoroughly challenged. The bottom line is the market; the viewing figures and the money; follow the money, as was famously said. The same threats exist in publishing. I've always known that black faces and disability don't sell books. That was the mantra. But maybe we're seeing another upturn, as for sure, there are some wonderful voices coming through in all sorts of areas of the arts.

All I hope is that if democracy means the will of the majority, that it doesn't also mean the neglect of the minority - and I don't just mean in skin colour. I mourn the fact that Radio 3 is gently sliding into another version of Classic FM."
Lucy Tomkins 18/03/2017 13:13:14
" As someone who grew up in a multi-racial household - my father ran a tutorial establishment where we had 11 students living in our house from all over the world - of all colours and religions - I don't recognise your picture of England today. I think people are much more aware of diversity but people do get fed up of having it thrown down their throats. Yes you could appropriately have a black boy playing Romeo and a white girl playing Juliet or vice versa and I reckon Shakespeare is brilliant enough to work well with different types of actors in the way that music can be transcribed for different instruments. I'm not sure other writers have the same skill. All writers are advised to write about what they know and it is beyond the experience of many writers to write about other people with other backgrounds.
You should not always judge people as racist by their reactions. When I was about 7 years old, an Indian student at my father's house chased me down the road and caught me by the arm. He asked me why I always ran away from him. Was it because he was brown? I could't reply because what frightened - nay terrified me - was his pockmarked face, although I had been assured by my doctor mother that Singh's misfortune was to have had small pox as a child and there was nothing wrong with him now. I stood there denying I was frightened of him which fortunately he accepted with a good grace, unable to say I was used to men of all colours, and it was his scars which upset me."
Sabrina 18/03/2017 07:55:56
" Such an important argument, and in a time where technology allows people to be more visible, individuals and groups alike are pushing big and small mountains to be recognised as important enough to be seen too."
Elizabeth-Anne Wheal 03/03/2017 09:36:17
" This year's C4 speech to Parliament on diversity by Riz Ahmed makes some strong points: https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2017/mar/02/riz-ahmed-warns-lack-of-diversity-on-tv-will-drive-young-to-isis?utm_source=esp&utm_medium=Email&utm_campaign=Media+briefing+2016&utm_term=215780&subid=10568975&CMP="
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