I've been neglecting my blog recently, mainly because I've been pushing forward with my novel-in-progress. It certainly isn't for lack of blogworthy material. What about the government's plan to make creative writing courses redundant by requiring all 11-year-olds to be able to write "a coherent short story"? I should take that class! Meanwhile I've been keeping up my monthly supply of pieces to the Bangladesh Daily Star, but failing to republish them here. This is November's piece, so there are a couple more to follow.
A headline in the London Evening Standard caught my eye recently: “BBC in race row.” The Corporation has been getting a lot of bad press and I feared another damaging scandal. But as I read on, this one began to look like a storm in a teacup. The BBC was under attack “for casting a white actor in a role originally written as black for a new thriller.” It seems the author of the new 5-part series London Spy, best-selling novelist Tom Rob Smith, was still writing the script and the identity of the lead character was fluid when casting began. The black actors who auditioned all lost out.
I can’t help feeling sympathy for Smith, whose mind was probably on art rather than demographics, but I sympathise with the rejected actors too. In the novel I’m currently struggling with, a character I had thought was West Indian turns out to be Kurdish. Another I had conceived as a native Londoner has become a Hungarian immigrant. The cultural impact of these changes, outside my own head, is precisely zero. But perhaps the writer of a high-profile TV drama has a wider responsibility. There are two distinct issues here: how will the diversity of modern Britain be reflected on our TV screens? and what work opportunities will be offered to black, Asian and ethnic minority actors?
There’s no doubt that white actors are over-represented in British TV drama. If you’re inclined to blame the writers, you should probably start with Jane Austen and then move on to Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell and Anthony Trollope. You might also blame a viewing public that seems to have a bottomless appetite for classic adaptations, lapping up weak substitutes such as Downton Abbey when the real thing isn’t available. This includes viewers in America, where this kind of programme finds a lucrative market. The focus on the picturesque past keeps the British acting establishment busy dressing up in corsets and frockcoats but leaves thin pickings for minority actors.
Commissioning editors must also take responsibility. The success of Luther, a crime drama that ran for three seasons between 2010 and 2013, and for which the star Idris Elba won a Golden Globe, demonstrated that viewers are ready for compelling stories about non-white characters. But we can only choose from what’s offered. Speaking in June at the launch of Act for Change, a project designed to address the lack of diversity on British television, actor and writer Meera Syal made an eloquent plea for a fresh approach to a problem that people have been talking about, she said, for 30 years. So Tom Rob Smith’s artistic choices take place in a broader context.
In some ways it’s a relief to know that the changes I make to my own story won’t affect anyone else’s career. Meanwhile diversity is working for me. The south Asian character I’ve just introduced looks set to have a significant impact, unless the plot takes an unexpected turn – or I decide to make her Norwegian.