What’s stranger? The sight of a black cowboy or the sight of a black cowboy fetching up in a costume drama set in the Yorkshire Dales in the 1870s?
“There were hundreds of black cowboys,” says Clarke Peters, the American actor and singer best known for playing Detective Lester Freamon in The Wire. “But because we look at what Hollywood puts out, we feel, ‘That’s the cowboys’ – hell no! Hell no!”
Jericho, which has been called Britain’s first western, is based on the “frontier” community that emerged during the building of the Ribblehead Viaduct in the late 19th century. Peters plays African-American railwayman Ralph Coates, who fetches up in the north of England.
ITV’s eight-part drama, which involved creating a settlement on the moors, was partly inspired by the 1953 Hollywood western Shane, according to Jericho creator Steve Thompson, who also worked on Sherlock and Doctor Who.
Peters, 63, in an unusually frank assessment, says that if Thompson had been “left to his own devices” then “you would have had the most amazing piece of storytelling in Jericho that you’d ever seen, I promise you”.
Perhaps hinting at top-down interference from TV bosses, he adds, cryptically: “But he has got to sit down and answer to somebody.”
However, it’s colour not cowboys that is really exercising Peters today: “We are at a point where I see that we have all been educated with certain information that perpetuates the stifling of people of colour and class. In England it is class. In American it is colour.”
Although he does point out with brutal honesty that “institutional racism pervades on both sides of the ocean”.
When it’s suggested that representations of class are more commonly explored in period dramas than anywhere else on TV these days, he loudly exclaims: “Hello! Hello! Doesn’t that sort of take your mind off what is happening here right now?
“Doesn’t that just sort of move you to Downton Abbey? Downton Abbey is nothing but Upstairs, Downstairs from the 1970s, is it not? In that world you are not thinking about where you are today. It is a good and a bad thing.”
Let’s not forget that Jericho is itself another period drama – one that is not only escaping into the past but also into the almost mythical world of the western.
Perhaps the big question mark for the drama is whether British people buy the idea of a western set in Last of the Summer Wine country – isn’t the concept a bit hard to swallow? He admits, in Jericho, viewers may question how in Victorian society a black man could become an authority figure in a small frontier community, given the racism he may have faced. But his character is, at least in part, based on a real man.
Peters says the western has been so defined by the idea of cowboys on horses that it has obscured the fact that the genre fits perfectly well into different scenarios.
He says: “I think if you just take western out of the conversation and put frontier town or pioneer town, you have got exactly the same thing and you do have a history for it here.
“As you see in Jericho, you do have the land for it, the vastness… You have gorgeous, gorgeous landscapes in England, they are just not as exploited as America did on their films.”
Peters, who was born in New York before his family moved to New Jersey, boasts a remarkable career. Although he’s widely known in the USA, he’s also a regular on British TV – recently appearing in BBC1’s Agatha Christie’s Partners in Crime and BBC2’s London Spy.