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Attention, Black British Actors . . . Apparently, You’re Not Ghetto Enough For TV, Says One BBC Exec

Attention, Black British Actors . . . Apparently, You're Not Ghetto Enough For TV, Says One BBC Exec

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.

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Sharon Cullars

I meant to mention in my prior post that the only way this would be right if there was some reciprocity. Like Canadian actors come to the states but I can only count one time an American actor was in a Canadian production. I would venture to say the same thing about other countries. When did the US become the go to for every damn body? And don't cite Hollywood because India (Bollywood) and Nigeria (Nollywood) have proven that they can make good movies without investing a whole GNP. The only equitable avenue are web productions where you have a world audience and everybody can provide a voice (if they can provide a script, actors and seed money)

Sharon Cullars

The influx of foreign actors has intrigued me of late, not just black actors but actors hailing from Australia and New Zealand (like the Hemsworth brothers; seriously, they couldn't find blondes on this shore?). I see this as a microcosm of what is actually going on on a larger economic scale where jobs are shipped out or foreign workers shipped in because the PTB seem to think anything american is subpar. I'm not in the industry but I've been talking about this subject the past year.


Being a British born American, I was raised on British TV. I thought that Desmond's in the 1980's would be the start of more diverse programming in England, but from what I can see the progress has been glacial. It seems the closer you are to your Caribbean or African roots the more criminal or dysfunctional you get. I do enjoy most of the performances even though they are few and far between the seem to be better written than many of the American roles. It also enjoy the fact that there are plenty of white criminals on British TV too, where in America white criminals are always good people trapped by circumstance. Black male actors are making some small headway, but black actresses are nearly invisible since white women are almost always cast as love interests black mane. Chiwetel Ejiofor started in the series The Shadow Line last year both his wife & his mistress were white!


…cont What needs to happen- in an ideal world is that middle class blks need to start a movement stop making white films with token blk characters (IM talking to YOU steve mqueen!) and start making movies and tv shows with an all blk affluent cast a la cosby show that would show producers that this type of blk person ACTUALLY EXISTS!


Alot of the problem is that alot of afro carribean people have complained that some of the roles blacks took in past were "unrealistic" For example when they did an all black comedy show called the crouches blacks literally cried foul 'this was a white show with black face they sneered!' so the show was cancelled. Instead of black people insisting on black writers or better still waiting to see whether it would improve -the powers that be just said "oh well they dont like it lets get it off our tv screens" never to return again and since then there has been NO BLACK representation in terms of more than one or two token charatcers on the bbc so i dont really blame this woman. Afro carribeans have determined what "black" is and anyone that doesnt fit this sterotype is automatically assumed a coconut or inauthentically black and with tv shows like top boy and films like kidadulthood its clear that an all blk cast represents the "hood" and the odd blk perosn dotted around a tv show just blends in and is "assimilated" so nobody really seems to know that there actually ARE black middle class people in england with their own identity. Afrocarribeans via newspapers like the voice have shut down ANY possiblity of a multifacaeted black british experience so the only other option is nollywood we cant even rely on black british people to give a "voice" to the middle class blk experience becuase when they get the chance they do cr*p like annnvahood, bullet boy etc…
It seems to be easier to sell this underclass version of blk now its cool, with brit rap artists dominating the charts this culture seems to resonate with ALOT of people.


@jug im pleased you have seen how america is putting out all these foreign actors im happy they are making waves as a fellow brit but i know if they tried that in englamnd with the small roles we have- there would be an outcry so im surprised you guys are ok with it. Having said that, the real reason they are getting brit actors in is that 9/10 are drama school and theatre trained and have made inroads in their OWN countries so they are very experienced if you are prepared to go to another country for work its shows how dedicated you are and that is now being rewarded. How can aa actors who have done a few comercials, school plays and soaps and have barely done any theatre let alone attend the best drama schools in the country compete with that? the ones making it over there are the BEST of the best! Plus, another thing to consider is that they dont have the same baggage that aa's have i.e aa history with whites so whites dont feel guilty in their presence can you imagine naomi harris saying the things that viola davis said in that infamous roundtable interview- no i cant either!


Of course the BBC will type cast as do most casting agents as many are busy or lazy or both.
The discussion seems to be developing into a Brit actor vs an American actor discourse.
But check the evidence Eamon Walker’s most famous recognizable piece to date is his part in Oz – a jailed Blackman. Although, having played numerous characters, from Police chief to Othello (of course Othello).
Walker has often credited his OZ success to the white female writer Linda La Plante whom he had worked with him in 96/97. It was she who had told him to make the leap to the States for fear of growing stagnant in the U.K.
Idris Elba’s most memorable piece was his role as a down and dirty gangster in the rather ‘type cast, Wire.
Yes we had multi-prismic Blak folk, dealing with blak ghetto politics..blah blah.
Neither of these men are products of a criminal past but both have played roles, which have perpetuated a certain, ingrained stereotype of Blak men but which the Blak community (to most part) applauded and gave props to the white creators with little mention about Chiwetel Ejiofor and Marianne Jean Baptiste as they're not grimy enough for us.
Looking at the highest grossing Blak American actor on earth-Will Smith.
Would he have made the cross over from dodgy rapper/comedian had he not kissed a guy in 6 degrees of Seperation (check ‘disexulization of the Blak man’). Or Halle Berry showing her expensive boobies to John Travolta in Swordfish, before sleeping with a murdering racist and receiving an Oscar for her troubles in Monster’s Ball.
Or more recently, Octavia Spencer’s oscar for “The Help’. Thankfully Viola Davis didn’t win also or people would have written ‘Blak women sweep-up at the Oscars’
The Afrikan-American writer Jim pines (Black and White in Colour, 1992), once told me, the main reason why American movies do so well globally is that American films(to the most part) are story-led, whereas in the U.K they’re character-led. Which means if you think Primrose Hill, you think white. and Nottinghill…??
If you think Brixton, you think Blak. Despite the fact that London is one of the most culturally diverse places on the planet.
Franz Fanon once wrote ’’What does the Blak man want?’’
Tyler Perry is clear. His films gross in excess of 20 million and he retains half of gross of profits and control. He remains without an Oscar but his niche marketing to a specific sector means he has become a trusted brand and a very wealthy man. But I know blak folk will say his movies are too flossy as we too want our characters to have a gun in one hand and a sexy lady in the other so as to' keep it real' as the BBC’s Kate Harwood implies.
French and African films tell rich, multi-prismic stories but we’re often too lazy to read the subtitles so we get what we pay for…Masha I don't have a licence…
..Btw whose playing Whitney in Whitney Houston up-coming movie?

Masha Dowell

Looking for Kate's email — but found this other link on the BBC website
I do like how they stood up for what they believed in…

Masha Dowell

I'm not a Brit, but I just recently auditioned for a project in NC ( a commercial). I could feel that the producers wanted someone loud, crazy, and funny — no character development or what not. I really needed to book, I needed the money — but I just would not 'go' where they wanted me to go with their project. Thus I was not cast.

I say this to say, before you begin your career — decide where you want to be. What stories do you want to help tell the world. In my mind, I just was not the right actress for this project, however, when I looked at the project — it did not fit me as well.

I do not appreciate this BBC executive's comments, and I will be complaining. It make no since that we are living in 2012, and people do not see multicultural storytelling as it is…


Wow. Again, a great bit of journalism on behalf of Shadow and Act. I am appalled. Just when you have tricked your mind in to thinking we are making progress here in the UK, something like this comes along. I love the UK, and the work that I've done here as an actor feels cutting edge and ambitious, but I've always made sure that there is a hint of activism in the roles I choose to play. However, I leave for LA this Saturday and am extremely excited by the opportunities that await, especially as there has been so much encouragement in the press recently for Black British Actors to flock over the pond. I will also point out that Idris Elba – post Golden Globe win – was not included in the BBC line up the following day.


This reminds me of a scene from Robert Townsend's "Hollywood Shuffle".


I agree wholeheartedly with the comments detailed in this piece. The BBC has a reputation around the world that suggests it is 'forward-focussed' on issues of equality and diversity, but it isn't. Just like other high-profile national institutions within the UK Culture, Media and Arts sector the BBC stereotypes, homogenises and essentialises the lived experiences of black British people – choosing to peddle racialised mythologies that relegate us to positions of radical alterity instead of seeking to offer balanced representations that reflect the complexities, variations, pluralities and nuances of our multiple and heterogenous identities and lifestyles. If perceptions about black British life have been collectively 'othered' in reductive and negative ways, is it surprising that those in the business of fictionalising representations of 'reality' perpetuate the same racist tropes and imaginings. Furthermore, if (like me) you were born in the UK, you might be appalled, but certainly won't be surprised to read BBC executives' comments in the Telegraph that suggest the only roles deemed relevant for black (male) actors in BBC pogrammes are those featuring negative characteriations of dysfunctional "undesirables". For British women of African (diasporic) descent the situation is EVEN WORSE! Don't expect to be cast in any role outside of the following 5: prostitute; junkie single mom on an urban council estate; aspiring wannabe R&B (and, if a period piece, 'jazz/blues') singer; cleaner/housekeeper; or religious fanatic (usually asked to play the role with a heavy 'West African' accent, hammed up for laughs and accompanied – to comic effect – by a wardrobe of cheap, brightly coloured, ill-fitting, mis-matched clothes). And, aside from (so called) 'acting' roles, if you are a journalist, broadcaster or presenter you had better focus all your attention on "light entertainment" and get your ghetto/street 'patois' down pat, otherwise – just like Henry Bonsu, Josie Darby, Rageh Omaar, Darren Jordan, Wesley Kerr, and too many others to mention – you will be deemed "too posh to be black" on British TV…AND, even if you start out at the BBC, the executives who 'police' the (unofficial) quotas that restrict the number of black faces in prominent front-of-house positions to less than a handful at any one time (as, remember, any more than 3 black faces on screen in a single instance constitutes a "race riot", or the nation being "swamped" by immigrants)…you won't progress to see out your career there. Your name isn't Dimbleby after all, is it?


Years ago, while in Grad School, I had the opportunity to have 2 film producers read one of my scripts. They claimed they liked it immensely (they had already set about trying to label what genre it could possibly belong to) but told me I would probably have better luck going to England, where they felt I'd encounter more open minds. Now I've studied in London and I know darn well that England was not open to backing 'foreigners', their priorities are with their homegrown talent. Of course, the definition of priority is obviously not the same for everyone. Nor is it here. Especially if you write scripts that are not defined as quintessentially African American. It's difficult all the way around.
I'm glad I decided from the beginning to focus on writing for the theatre. Yes, it is somewhat elitist, but there is less of an attempt to pigeon-hole content/theme. Therefore, one feels a bit more liberty.
Unfortunately, this is not something unfamiliar to me. In the U.S. I've already heard it myself.


It will be interesting to see what sort of dynamic this creates if most of Britain's black actors decide to cross the pond for better opportunities. Will black American actors welcome them with open arms or will they see them as a threat(i.e. rappers/athletes)?

It's one thing for a few Brits to come over and get a role here and there, but what if there is an influx and they start getting the majority of the roles "reserved" for black american actors?


So much for a post racial universe -this is so sad for too many reasons to name. We are still on the struggle


Grass is ALWAYS greener. On this very topic some months ago I talked about how I watch BBCA and see many more Black actors in lead roles, especially love interests, sci-fi & complex characters, than in the states. It wasn't until reading more articles, hearing more interviews that I wasn't kinda talking outta my ass. Yes, there are more Black actors in those sorts of roles in the UK. Problem is, they don't make as much content as the US. So there are even fewer roles to spare in the UK. Hit me in the head when I figured that one out. So the thousands of actors of color over there are fighting for even fewer spots than there are here. But they have a better shot here because, well, they're British. And it's not because "they're Better". It's because right now the S.O.P. of Hollywood is to get foreign actors. There's the business of it & the "pedigree" of it & the "keeping up with the Joneses" of it, but it's a perception that becomes fact after a while. Did we really have to go alll the way to Australia to find a Boring Blonde for ALCATRAZ? Or a middle-aged Black guy to be "the boss" on HOMELAND & the now filming CHICAGO FIRE pilot? I will concede that for many an American actor there is a "stardom" idea that they put before being an actor, but it's a cop out to say "ok, I'll go get an Australian or Brit". How about just get a different American? Because as good as David Harewood is, I'm not seeing anything an American Black actor couldn't do? Or Lenny James on WALKING DEAD & HUNG. What about Gugu Mbatha-Raw on UNDERCOVERS & TOUCH? In a happening that mirrors what I'm talking about, why OH WHY were Jennifer Hudson & Terence Howard cast as Winnie & Nelson?! Alll those South African actors out there, but you came to Hollywood to grab those two? Hmmm. You could say "They haven't been given a chance yet"..Really? Sounds like the same thing millions of American actors are saying, much less the hundreds of thousands of actors actually IN the Unions. And to make it plain, we (people) do it to ourselves. We have fun "Casting discussions" all the time that are no different than your avg production staff meeting. We throw out our "favorites" for everything or cast who we saw yesterday (this is what happens most often). Makes it easier on us-to not have to wrack our brains searching & searching & not to mention the time constraints we're under, but it's not necessarily best for the project & DAMN SURE not good for those trying to make some headway. And let's be honest, this is a business based on Relationships. Don't we "hook" our "friends" up? Yeah, what they're going thru is fucked but in order for one to make it, somebody has to not. And American actors are sure enough taking an "L"

Charles Judson

One question and two points. Why did you not address the second part of the (very short) piece? It seems odd to not point out she also said: “The bottom line is, are they good and are they convincing?” It both reaffirms and challenges some of your points, while also raising more questions of how much is a Harwood following through on that statement to cast the best people. My first point: It really doesn't help that you use a headline that is that misleading. It's your interpretation, which is fine, but you only know that when you read further down. And my second point: Representation of all classes and backgrounds is an issue. Here in the States, excluding the stage, it's difficult to find many representations of Black folks that don't rigidly fall into Upper Class, Middle Class or Poor and aren't little more than cliches or ciphers. It's near impossible to find stories featuring Blue Collar Black Folks that aren't more than a fleeting guest role on Law and Order or a part of some preachy film. THE WIRE is a good example, as it's one of the rare times you saw Black folks of various educational, social and economic backgrounds interacting on a regular basis. Yes, Idris had to come here to get that role, but even that situation is the exception and not the norm. Looking at the list of greatest U.K. sitcoms and dramas of the last 50 years, it includes shows about small villages, shows about upper class life, along side shows about shopkeepers, all featuring White leads. Outside of shows like ROC or even A DIFFERENT WORLD that featured folks who were Blue Collar, and had a differing educational and social backgrounds, it's been pretty sparse. The lack of socioeconomic diversity featuring people of color, should be a legit concern. There's a vast underrepresented range in between poor and upper middle class on screen for Black Folk.


Great piece Emmanuel. I agree…I love the last paragraph.

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