Congrats to Gambian-British actor Babou Ceesay on joining the cast of ITV’s crime drama Lewis, in what is being hailed as a significant shift in cultural practice at that network.
Lewis is a spin-off of the popular drama Inspector Morse, and stars Kevin Whately in the lead role of DI Robert Lewis. With the departure of DI Lewis’ long-time partner DS James Hathaway, Ceesay joins the show as Lewis’ new partner, DS Alex Gray.
The addition of Ceesay’s character was highlighted by several British media outlets as noteworthy, particularly due to ITV’s reported history of programming that rarely features characters-of-color in prominent roles. As many of us already know, the lack of diversity on British television is not exclusive to ITV. Networks such as BBC, Channel 4, and Sky 1 have all taken great strides in improving the disparity in television casting during the last 30 years, but there are still advancements yet to be made.
Don’t get me wrong– ITV did a good thing with this Lewis casting. But while I applaud them for finally making that move, and before we join in on the back-patting, it’s worth noting that Lewis is in its seventh and final series. And if I’m not mistaken, Ceesay’s character isn’t even introduced until the 3rd episode of this 6-episode series. So essentially, dedicated Lewis viewers will get to know Ceesay’s DS Gray, and appreciate the diversification of the cast, but just long enough to be disappointed when ITV snatches him away forever.
It almost feels like some sort of end-of-term, governor’s reprieve. As if this type of casting would not have been tolerated at the beginning of, and during, the show’s run, “so why not tack it on at the very end?”
ITV caught hell a few years ago when a producer on another of its hit crime dramas, Midsomer Murders, received a disciplinary suspension for suggesting in an interview that his show had no place for a racially-diverse cast “because it wouldn’t be the English village with them.” That producer, Brian True-May, went on to say, “It just wouldn’t work. Suddenly we might be in Slough . . . We’re the last bastion of Englishness and I want to keep it that way.” Ouch.
To his credit, though, Ceesay seems to be trying to play down the hype surrounding his casting in Lewis and remain impartial about the whole situation. In a recent interview with The Guardian, Ceesay revealed the following:
“When I started working on the show I was told about the controversy surrounding Midsomer Murders as an ethnic-free zone,” he said. “But I don’t think my role in Lewis is political. I don’t think they were ‘going black’ for the part, as the industry phrase goes.”
But the actor, who was most recently seen in the BBC4 sitcom Getting On, agrees that his casting is a positive step: “It can’t be a bad thing, although in acting you can’t get away from the fact that your colour and age and gender will affect you. It is a naturally prejudiced business.”
The show, he said, will ignore his colour, something which he finds “quite refreshing. The statement is that I am there and I am black. There is no need for them to say anything else.”
Growing up in Africa, he was part of a black majority, so race was never an issue. “At the beginning in Britain, perhaps, I did wonder why I was not getting the opportunity to try this or to try that,” he said.
He believes that the situation is improving, with a greater variety of work on offer. “It is a lot more interesting now because there is more ‘blind casting’ going on,” he said. “In the beginning there were only a couple of times per annum when I would be called for a part that was not necessarily black, but it has increased. That might be partly because I am more experienced now, though. Agents, casting directors and the big decision-makers in the industry seem to entertain the idea of experimenting.”
Ceesay even refuses to co-sign on the reasoning behind the so-called “British black-actor exodus” that has previously been discussed on S&A, specifically addressing Homeland actor David Harewood’s public comments on the issue:
“I have watched David’s career and I love his work, but I have a slightly different view. I do agree with him that the size of the industry out there makes a difference. But it is more competitive there, too. He was in a very big series, but I know several good black actors who are struggling out there.”
While I can appreciate Ceesay’s opinion on the matter, I can’t help but wonder if he’ll continue to sing the same tune once Lewis wraps for good. Will the roles keep rolling in? Will Ceesay need to dust off his passport?
ITV is the focus of discussion this time, but it shan’t be long before we’re again having this discussion about BBC, Channel 4, Sky 1, or any other network that refuses to acknowledge that the world isn’t just one color.
Only time will tell what the future holds for Ceesay’s career. Clearly, there aren’t any guarantees of steady employment with any of the major British television networks (unless they care to prove me wrong). But with a role in the upcoming, highly anticipated Biyi Bandele-directed feature film Half Of A Yellow Sun, Ceesay will, at least, remain on S&A’s radar for the foreseeable future.