‘Why I believe British TV is discriminatory’

Man in black: British television is too white, too male, too straight, argues Idris Elba.
by Idris Elba

A British actor and musician, known for his roles in such TV dramas as The Wire and Luther, and films including Beasts of No Nation. He has been nominated for five Golden Globes.

The Oscars have come under fire for nominating no black actors this year. But when it comes to representing minorities, British television is little better, says acclaimed actor Idris Elba.

People in the TV world often aren’t the same as people in the real world. I should know: I live in the TV world.

I don’t want to talk about black people. I want to talk about diversity. Diversity in the modern world is more than just skin colour. It’s gender, age, disability, sexual orientation, social background, and — most importantly – diversity of thought.

As an up-and-coming actor, I was always asked to read the ‘black male’ part. I was getting lots of work, but I realised I could only play so many ‘best friends’ or ‘gang leaders’. I knew there wasn’t enough imagination in the British media for me to be seen as a lead. If I wanted to be on a level with Denzel Washington or Robert de Niro, I had to reinvent myself. So I went to America.

“Too often, commissioners look at diverse talent and all they see is risk. This sets a poor example to the world.”

The US has the most famous diversity policy of all: the American Dream. It says that if you work hard and you have talent, you will have the same chance as anyone else to succeed. There, I was regularly put up for roles that weren’t written for my ‘type’. American TV executives had the imagination – the diversity of thought.

There are some great role models in the USA. Take Keli Lee, head of casting at ABC, who has done so much to change the face of American TV. Keli gave Shonda Rhimes, the creator of Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal, her first break. Shonda isn’t just the only black woman in America to have three hit shows play back-to-back on TV – she is the only person in America to have that. This is partly thanks to Keli.

I want a British Dream. The Britain I come from is the most multicultural country on earth. But you wouldn’t know it if you turned on the TV.

In the 1970s, popular TV programmes like The Black and White Minstrel Show propagated what you might call ‘light-hearted racism’. At the time, people thought this was fine. Things have improved somewhat since then, but diversity still isn’t a fact. It’s shocking, for example, that only 1.5% of British TV is made by BAME directors. Too many of our creative decision-makers share the same background. Too often, commissioners look at diverse talent, and all they see is risk.

This sets a poor example to the world. To get some perspective, let’s look at the lesson of the 2012 Olympics. When Mo Farah stands wrapped in the British flag, the world learns more about diversity and tolerance. We have changed from an empire based on raw materials and military might to a cultural power exporting talent and creativity.

We don’t steal gold any more. We win it. From hard power to soft power. And the greatest soft power of all is the media, which is why everyone should care about our media industry – it’s the custodian of our global identity.

How can we embrace diversity and make our creative industries more successful? Here are some suggestions:

1. A change of mindset: get all commissioners to think about diversifying at the beginning of the creative process, not the end.

2. A different approach towards risk. The lesson we can take from Netflix is that risk-taking delivers audiences.

3. Transparency: friendly competition between broadcasters. See who’s actually doing the best in terms of creative diversity. Benchmark it. That encourages everyone to do better. (Luckily we have just the thing for this – Project DIAMOND.)

So my message is: let’s get more professional about this whole area. Our future depends on it.

You Decide

  1. Do TV shows influence the way we see the world?

Activities

  1. Write the outline of a story for a new TV series, taking into account Idris Elba’s comments on diversity.

Word Watch

American Dream
The social ideals of the USA, which include the freedom to pursue success, no matter what your background is.
ABC
American Broadcasting Company: one of the biggest TV networks in the USA.
The Black and White Minstrel Show
A show that ran on the BBC from 1958 to 1978. It featured white entertainers who performed American country and minstrel songs, often blacked up.
BAME
Black, Asian and minority ethnic. In other words, anyone from a non-white community.
Commissioners
The TV executives who select programmes to produce and broadcast on their network.
Mo Farah
A Somalian-born British distance runner. He picked up two gold medals at the 2012 Olympics in London.
Soft power
When a country extends its influence across the world through non-aggressive means – for example, by exporting its culture – it uses ‘soft power’. Contrast with ‘hard power’, which refers to aggressive (usually military) means.
Project DIAMOND
An initiative developed by the UK’s main TV broadcasters to record the level of diversity in their programmes. It will be launched in early 2016.