Politically Suspect

British TV producers love the ethnic minorities but don't give them any work

In an analytical moment, Bertrand Russell examined the faults of those who marched with him in favour of liberal causes, and concluded that they had an unerring ability to fall for “the fallacy of the superior virtue of the oppressed”. They could not just say that oppression was wrong, and leave it there. They had to imagine that the oppressed were virtuous; that their noble struggles raised them above the mass of compromised humanity; that their poets were geniuses and their leaders were the most principled statesmen on earth.

Ever the philosopher, Russell worried that the fallacy’s logical conclusion was that, far from causing harm, oppression was good for its victims and the more oppression there was the better the human race would be.

The sanctification of Nelson Mandela is a modern example of the fallacy at its most cloying, while the assumption that we would not have had a banking crisis if women had been in charge of high finance shows its timeless ability to generate comforting delusions. Nothing however illustrates its unintended consequences more regularly and blandly than British television drama’s treatment of ethnic minorities.

Take as a minor instance the following scene from Lewis, the series ITV span off Inspector Morse after the sad loss of John Thaw. I should explain that Lewis was Morse’s sergeant. To keep a lucrative format alive, ITV promoted him to the rank of inspector, and removed his wife to allow love interest to sneak into the plots.

Lewis investigated a murder during a reunion of former students at an all-female Oxford college. He was convinced that an attack at the college a decade before held the key to the case. He questioned an attractive ex-policewoman, who worked on the original crime. Their eyes met, and they arranged to go out for a drink.
“Why did you leave the force?” Lewis asked. “Oh,” explained the woman, “Someone accused me of being a racist. It was all lies, but I had to go.”

Viewers knew as soon as she spoke that she was a wicked woman. In television drama, if a member of an ethnic minority says that a character is a racist then she is a racist.  Sure enough, the murderer bumped her off and Lewis discovered that she was a blackmailer who used incriminating information she had collected on the force to extort money from her victims.

If I had black or brown skin, I might welcome media executives, who saw me as virtuous by definition, and admire their determination to oppose those who would oppress me. I might then register that for all their fine sentiments, they did not allow anyone who looked like me on to the screen. A black actor played a doctor Lewis visited, but had just one line. In a certain light and from certain camera angles, one of the glamorous women returning to the college looked as she may have come from an Asian family. I had to stare at her so long and hard to decide if she was white or not, I worried I was developing the obsessiveness of an Apartheid-era policeman — never a healthy symptom — and turned away.

Media people hate the accusation that they deny work to ethnic minority actors as a matter of course. ITV executives said they were “shocked and appalled,” by the boast of Brian True-May, the creator of Midsomer Murders that he wanted to keep them out of his “last bastion of Englishness”. They required him to resign, but their outrage was synthetic. True-May could not take casting decisions alone. In any case, the black exclusion zone does not just cover Midsomer but virtually all historical dramas along with Miss Marple, Poirot, Kingdom, Doc Martin and, as we have seen, Lewis. The middlebrow hits that draw audiences of 8 million, and whose makers sell them overseas as representations of “quintessential Englishness” are all white, except for the subordinate roles. Commissioning editors might say that they cannot hire ethnic minority actors for historical dramas — although the RSC and National Theatre have practised colour-blind casting for years — but how can they justify excluding them from contemporary stories?

When True-May’s superiors continued that his sentiments were “absolutely not shared by anyone at ITV,” they inadvertently provided an explanation. The dominant culture in broadcasting is not True-May’s creepy notions of Englishness but an unthinking liberalism that combines political correctness with a colour bar. They love the ethnic minorities in theory, but don’t give them work in practice.

I cannot imagine a British television writer producing a script in which a black police officer made a false accusation against a white colleague to settle a score, or writing a comedy about the hypersensitivity on matters racial in the workplace. Nor can I imagine a thriller in which the murderer was a black man, unless, of course, white racism pushed him to kill. Producers do not think that they are denying black or Asian actors work as villains or as any other tainted character. They think, when they think about it all, which I am sure is not often, that they are combating racism by refusing to use plot lines that might appeal to prejudice, real or imagined.  

Doubtless, you can think of exceptions to this general rule, but the rule still holds, and explains why contemporary American dramatists outshine their British rivals. There is a schoolmasterly didacticism about British television, and much of British theatre. Writers or their commissioning editors believe that the first priority is to repeat approved pieties or deliver the required moral uplift rather than provide convincing contemporary narratives.

The great Adrian Lester, who played Henry V and Hamlet on stage without the audience storming out in protest, once complained about writers of soap operas who wrote characters as “blacks” rather than individuals. “As soon as anybody ceases to see you as an individual, it’s problematic,” he said. “They stop seeing you as you.”

His cry brought Russell’s argument up to date. The point about ending prejudice is not to inject wholesomeness into the previously prejudiced mainstream by admitting allegedly virtuous outsiders, but to stop treating people as blocs by allowing women, gays and ethnic minorities to be like the rest of compromised humanity: corrupt or honest, shifty or straight, left wing or right wing according to the dictates of their characters.

British television is now an obstacle in the way of this modest advance. The wonder is that so many who work for it feel so good about themselves as they build barricades across the road to a better country.

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