BBC Controller of Drama Series and Serials Kate Harwood recently told The Telegraph that “there are more black faces on television than when she started”, but “she has heard criticism that many of the black actors who come to auditions are “posh Africans” and not representative of all social classes.”
Harwood’s remarks came on the heels of former Blue Peter presenter Andy Akinwolere’s complaint to The Telegraph that “many talented black comedians and television presenters . . . just don’t get the big breaks” they rightly deserve.
Akinwolere’s sentiment is, of course, not a new one. He’s only the latest of many black actors to openly criticize the British TV industry for the lack of opportunities afforded to them. Many of the actors who have spoken out before him have opted to take their talents abroad, rather than wait for their own big breaks.
Now, let’s get back to Harwood’s statement (and I know she was quoting someone else, but she put it out there, so she’s gonna own it) about these “posh Africans” who audition for TV roles, yet lose out on them due to their inability to represent “all social classes”. To me, that’s just code for “these black actors come to audition for roles that represent upwardly-mobile British citizens, when all we have in mind for them to portray are downtrodden immigrant council-estate residents. The nerve of them!” Because, in my opinion, if you’re not playing the role of a “posh” upper-middle class Brit, you’re likely to be playing a “Top Boy”. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, or course. But how many times can you play “a vicitim of your environment” before you start to get the itch to play something else?
So what exactly are they saying over at the BBC? That there are no “posh” blacks in that country? That a black actor who goes to an audition and delivers his or her lines using the Queen’s English is not believable? That many black actors are not talented enough to dumb down and “ghetto-fy” themselves for the roles offered them?
Or, perhaps, they’re simply saying “This is honestly how we see you. Take it or leave it.”
It all kind of makes sense now, the exodus of black actors for America. What Harwood shared only confirms what many black actors have been complaining about for years– that despite significant gains for a small few over the years, generally, black actors in the UK have been relegated to portraying “undesirables”, just for a chance at any recognition at all.
It’s almost like the black actor is invisible, unless he’s playing the low-life, or the slacker. Golden Globe-winning actor Idris Elba had to come to America to play a murderous, drug-dealing business-man in HBO’s The Wire, before the BBC invited him to come home and play the titular role of a troubled, near-genius detective in Luther, for which he received the aforementioned award. On the contrary, actor David Harewood’s incredible performance as a prominent and influential senior-member of the CIA, on the Golden Globe-winning Showtime drama Homeland, didn’t even make it into the conversation when BBC Radio 4 program frontrow reviewed the show last month.
Harewood has publicly advised black actors in his homeland to seek work elsewhere, or remain a struggling actor in the UK. Judging by some of the information I’ve gathered through social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook, some black British actors have done just that, spending time here in the U.S. during the ongoing TV-pilot casting season, auditioning for key roles that are up for grabs. Hopefully, all will succeed; but undoubtedly, some will not. Those who don’t will have to go back home, pick up the pieces, and try again to navigate their way through an industry that isn’t conducive to their success as actors.
If I was a black actor living (and attempting to work) in the UK, I’d be hurt by the statement shared by Harwood. Because despite all of the good and positive contributions blacks have made to that union; despite the many cultural influences of Africa and the Caribbean that have shaped the UK and helped it to become the global attraction that it is today; despite all of the formal education, training, and experience in drama and theatre that helped many of these black actors to behave and sound so “posh”, when it comes to something as simple as being open-minded in casting a television role, none of that seems to matter.