Meera Syal: It might be time for black and ethnic minority quotas in British TV

The writer and star of hit comedy Goodness Gracious Me suggests that radical change may be needed to give more opportunity to non-white performers

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Meera Syal: It might be time for black and ethnic minority quotas in British TV
Written By
Ben Dowell

Actress and writer Meera Syal has suggested that British TV may need to introduce quotas of black and ethnic minority performers into all productions.

Speaking at today’s launch of Act For Change, a project designed to address the lack of diversity in British television, Syal said that the problem of ethnic under-representation in British TV had been around for too long.

“For a lot of us this is like Groundhog Day,” she said. “We were having these discussions thirty years ago and I can’t believe we are still having them.

“I’d like to examine the most radical of the suggestions which is the quota system. With all the good will in the world attitudes just are not changing. If things are not changing, you have got to lead people that way. I know people are worried about tokenism but that only happens when there is not a lot of talent out there and there is a massive amount of talent.”

Syal was speaking from the audience at today's event at London's Young Vic Theatre, the centrepiece of which was a panel chaired by the director of the Liberty pressure group Shami Chakrabarti and included writer Stephen Poliakoff and Game of Thrones actress Indira Varma.

Act for Change has already set out a series of aims including the establishment of an independent body to monitor diversity levels in TV drama in 2015.

In 2016 the body aims to publish its findings and secure a revision of the Ofcom Broadcasting Code “requiring production companies to audition at least one BAME [Black and Minority Ethnic] actor for every leading role unless an occupational requirement applies”.

The Act for Change campaign was in large part the brainchild of actor Danny Lee-Wynter who decided to act after he watched ITV’s Where Drama Lives trailer for the last winter season which did not include a single non-white face in it (see below).

Lee-Wynter, who in 2007 played the young lead opposite Michael Gambon and Maggie Smith in Poliakoff’s BBC films Joe’s Palace and Capturing Mary, told today’s event that the trailer sent out a “message” that was “degrading” adding: “To a kid growing up in Britain, regardless of their race or gender, it send out an awful, awful message. It’s heartbreaking. It stabbed me in the heart.”

ITV’s director of drama Steve November, who sat on today’s panel, admitted that the ethnic make-up of the trailer was a concern. He said: “We were concerned at the time that it was all-white, we really did care about that.”

However he said that the trailer was comprised of many “archive” shows from the past which did not include non-white actors and actresses and did not reflect the strides now taken by ITV in addressing diversity.

“It should not be taken as emblematic of what we do,” he said. “It is one of a number of trails that we do.”

November said that a joint initiative from broadcasters including Sky and Channel 4 would be announced in two weeks' time and would seek to address the problem of diversity.

Other key issues that were addressed at today’s event included figures quoted by campaigner Lenny Henry in a speech to Bafta earlier this year which show that the percentage of BAMEs working in the UK TV industry has declined by 30.9% between 2006 and 2012 and is now just 5.4%.

Also in the audience was Him & Her and Being Human actor Russell Tovey who read out an anonymous account written by a non-white actor who claimed to have been dropped from a project because of alleged pressure from an executive to cast a white person in the role. The sitcom, purportedly about British medical students, did not have a single non-white performer in it, and has not yet been picked up, the statement said.

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