British television is still far too white, the black comedian Lenny Henry has argued at this year’s BAFTA television lecture.
The programmes he singled out as examples of this woeful failing include Broadchurch, Miranda, and Midsomer Murders. Which is a bit like accusing Porgy & Bess, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air or The Cosby Show of having an insufficiency of white character parts: true but entirely beside the point.
Take Midsomer Murders: this bears about as much relation to modern Britain as do Sylvanian Families to real woodland-dwelling badgers, foxes and squirrels. It’s a murder-mystery series watched mostly by retired folk who like it because it’s a fantastical approximation of the rural England they think they remember from their youth: clipped hedges, vicars on bicycles, lengthening shadows on the village cricket pitch. What does Lenny Henry imagine would happen to its ratings if a host of ethnic characters were suddenly inserted into the mix? Does he even care?
Well as an entertainer who has done rather handsomely out of showbusiness he jolly well ought to care. This is, after all, the essence of the deal: you pull in the audiences, your show does well and you get more money; you drive away the audiences, your show does badly, your career dies.
There are, I would concede, alternatives to this arrangement. For example, I imagine that on North Korean TV it’s quite possible to enjoy a career by not being talented or funny but merely by being a favourite of Kim Jong-Un. But the free market model is the one we generally prefer in the West and it’s quite astonishing that someone who has been in the business as long as Lenny Henry has doesn’t appreciate this. What is he: thick or something?
Does he imagine that – to use another of his examples – Miranda would have been half as popular a sitcom as it is if Miranda’s BF had been called something ridiculous like Sayeeda Warsi and her on-off boyfriend Winston Udongo? Isn’t the whole bleeding point of Miranda is that it is so ineffably, impeccably, irredeemably middle/upper-middle class? Yes, it’s true that in modern Britain people of Miranda Hart-Dyke’s age and background (she went to Downe House; her grandfather was governor of Aden) do occasionally fraternise with people of an ethnic persuasion. But it’s not the norm and this has nothing to do with insidious racism. It’s a simple question of the kind of social circles in which different kinds of people move. I’m sure were you to visit an Indian household in, say, Southall, you would find a similarly strong social bias towards fellow Indians. That’s just how life is in a world where freedom of association is still down to personal choice.
None of this would matter of course if Lenny’s musings on this score were confined to a pontification session with a bunch of similarly PC luvvie mates over a plate of squid’s ink polenta or two at the Groucho Club. But unfortunately, because he has been given a platform to spout such drivel at the BAFTA television lecture, we’re somehow expected to sit up and listen and take his ravings seriously.
He claims that the most talented black actors are abandoning Britain to seek work in the US. Well of course they are. So are the most talented white actors: it’s where the money is.
He cites Breaking Bad as an example of the kind of US show which has more multi-ethnic casts. Has he watched Breaking Bad? Yes there are lots of ethnic characters in it, Hispanics mainly – but virtually every one of them is a killer or a drug dealer or an illegal working in the (black) drug kingpin’s laundering operation. Positive role-modeling? I don’t think so.
If Lenny Henry really wants to seek out a new career in America, I’m sure he would receive rapturous encouragement from many of his compatriots. Perhaps even as much as Piers Morgan got when he too went West to seek his fortune.
One of the great things about America, Lenny, is that even now, even post-Morgan, a British accent will get you quite a long way. It might even enable you to overcome shortcomings like the near-complete lack of comedic talent so cruelly identified in this scene from the Ricky Gervais series Extras on the theme of “name one funny black English comedian.”