A friend of mine pointed me in the direction of an article on the Sun Online concerning comments that great American Actor Morgan Freeman made concerning the lack of opportunities for Black Actors in the UK (surprise, surprise).
The Article titled:-
‘Morgan Freeman slams the treatment of black British actors’
‘OSCAR-winning actor Morgan Freeman says black actors are forced to quit Britain to find work.’
The article then went on:-
‘The American star, famed for his role as Nelson Mandela in Invictus as well as in the Batman trilogy, said: “I know three actors who left Britain for the States because opportunities for them were limited.
“The British film industry need to catch up with the times.”
His comments echo complaints made by David Harewood, who starred in the hit drama series Homeland.’
The online page then went straight on to discuss how fans queued for hours for the opening of a major new Doctor Who attraction. A little surprised at how the subject changed so quickly. If you wanted to read David Harewood’s views you had to click on a link elsewhere. I will save you the trouble. David has echoed the sentiments I and many other black actors have been echoing for years and continue to do so, only for them to continue to fall on deaf ears. The deaf ears of casting directors, the deaf of broadcasters…Need I go on?
Now none of the above is nothing new. What is new is that someone of the calibre of Morgan Freeman has finally spoken out about this travesty because he recognises that there is a wealth of black acting talent in the UK, and it is just not being given a chance to break through and risks are not being taken. Yes, some will point to the recent BBC/RSC TV production of Julius Caesar with an all-black cast. How often does that happen? Very rarely. And should not Casting be like Lady Justice – Blind?
Another black British Actor Adrian Lester made similar comments. Nothing new here. David, Adrian and myself. Is there something about Birmingham-born black actors making a stand about the way things work on the acting front in Britain? I digress.
Okay, Adrian also makes his point. Nothing new, nothing surprising. What I found surprising (unbelievably,) was the comments made in response to Adrian’s comments. Now take into account, all Adrian said was ‘Working in Britain is frustrating for black actors’. Some of the comments in response to this were:-
“you poor poor man forget all those who work in the front line services it’s frustrating acting and being paid stupid money my heart bleeds for you”.
Well all I can say I have worked for stupid money. Thirteen quid (£13GBP,) for a cabaret show and my head is still spinning from that experience. Pity me ‘andychef2011’ and think of me when you are working on the front line services or whatever job you are doing. I am certain you have never paid your dues working for nothing or stupid money that comes nowhere near the minimum wage. Hope your heart bleeds for me also. Then here is another classic:-
“God you look so smug. Butter wouldn’t melt in your mouth would it? I bet you earn(ed) more in a week than I did in a year when I risked my life for this country. Stop moaning and grow up.”
Well there are certainly plenty of white Anglo-Saxon and Celtic actors who earn more in a day than you earn in a year ‘bigal340’, but I don’t hear you calling them smug or anything else. In my case you make more in a month than I make in an entire year. Am I calling you smug? No. Butter doesn’t melt in my mouth, especially during the winter months, as I cannot keep the heating on. There is always someone worse off than you ‘bigal340’ and he just happens to be actor – Me! So there is at least one actor who isn’t as smug as you like to think.
I could go on quoting comments of Neolithic idiocy from people that even the denizens of Jurassic Park would reject and while there were some counter comments to such idiocy the next comment gets my award for all-time underachiever and all-round idiot (sorry Jaci, I am taking that award from you and giving it to someone else, if only for this article). And it comes with errors in grammar and all from one ‘fastline’:-
“The fasct is, more and more period dramas are being made but black and asian people were not part of british society then. You cannot invent historical acting parts no matter badly you want a job.”
Thank you fastline. And a couple of hours after I finally managed to pick myself up off the floor, after laughing my head off and being checked over by the paramedics, I felt I just had to write this piece and put fastline and other Neanderthals straight on a few things. So here goes:-
- Black and Asian people have always been here – Recent television history taught me a few things when the BBC TV Series ‘George Gently’ set in the North East of England during the 1960s featured a Muslim community originally from ‘The Yemen’ as it was put in the episode in question. A young white lady was murdered and her body dumped on the beach. As the story unfolds (if I remember rightly,) her baby who she thought was her boyfriend’s was born of mixed heritage. The boyfriend rejects her, thinking she slept with someone else, one of the Asian lads. To cut a long story short, it turns out that her boyfriend was of mixed parentage but the relative who raised him, kept that part of his heritage from him. It was only when his Muslim father returned from overseas, was the truth revealed. A tragedy all around.
- It should be also noted as examined in a book called ‘Black Britannia’ that black people have always been here. Britain was a far outpost of the Roman Empire for four hundred years. The Empire was a diverse multi-ethnic Empire of many cultures. So was its Army, Legions and Citizens and many of them (including their black citizens,) settled here. Some of those Legionnaires patrolling and guarding Hadrian’s Wall were black. Indeed the first Black Roman Emperor, Septimus Severus, ran his Empire from the North of England for a decade before his death. He was cremated at York and his ashes returned to his home country of Libyan. He came to colonise Scotland but failed.
- What happened when the Roman military pulled out? Many of their people stayed on. Many of them black. In the recent TV Series ‘Camelot’one of Morgan Le Fey’s confidantes Vivian (played by the actress Chipo Chung,) was a black female whose ancestors stayed on in Britain after the Roman withdrawal. If one was to watch the Film ‘Centurion’ with Michael Fassbender, set in the latter days of Roman Britain, one will note one of his comrades in arms was played by black British Actor/Director Noel Clarke.
- Moving on, Andrea Arnold’s film re-interpretation of Wuthering Heights, cast James Howson, as Heathcliff. Now the fact Howson is black is significant, not just because he is stepping into shoes of Laurence Olivier or Timothy Dalton, but because Andrea, looked at the actual description of Heathcliff as a “dark-skinned gypsy in aspect” and “a little Lascar”. The Wikipedia entry for this Film Adaptation says:-
“Arnold searched for an actor from the UK’s Romani community, however, the community had some doubts. The search was then expanded to Yorkshire actors aged 16 to 21 of mixed race, Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi or Middle Eastern descent. In November, it was reported that James Howson had been cast as Heathcliff, the first time a black actor would portray the role.”
- Inspired casting. A director actually used her imagination and took a risk. Why Fastline thinks there were no black or Asian people here is solely down to ignorance and the way History is taught in our schools. My knowledge of Black History and Slavery comes not from what I learnt at school (which was hardly anything,) but what I learned via my private and leisurely reading as a child via the local libraries and via the books I bought as an adult. The way History has been taught in our schools is probably one the single most, biggest factor in why there is so much ignorance about British History and the contributions other nations as part of its Empire contributed to the British Nation. They were after all British themselves. Something British broadcasters continually fail to recognise or worse, ignore.
- Writers, Broadcasters, Film makers and Hollywood have never let History get in the way of telling a good story – Writing, storytelling down the ages has never let fact, historical or otherwise, get in the way of telling a good story. From boyhood to manhood, I read comics whether they were from DC or Marvel and later Dark Horse or Wildstorm. The writers never let scientific fact or reality get in the way of telling a good story, no more than the Ancient Greeks through to Alexandre Dumas (frère), Sir Walter Scott right up to George Lucas and Star Wars. Dumas and Sir Walter would warp History to tell an exciting story. All the characters in ‘The Three Musketeers actually existed. The Duke of Buckingham was murdered in the exact same way as he was historically. Cardinal Richelieu, The King and Queen of France all existed. There was a threat of war between England and France (there had always been,) so what was new? The whole story was based on Historical events and people but Dumas warped History to tell a magnificent story.
- This has happened with the art of storytelling as long as Civilization has been in existence. Whether it has been the Mythology of Nations or The Bible, there has always been this art of storytelling that has captivated Man’s attention and imagination throughout the ages.
- Hollywood is without doubt the biggest image maker in History. Hollywood has always (to a large extent,) ignored historical fact to make a good Western or wartime drama or some other genre. How many Westerns have been made about that great fight at ‘The Alamo’? I don’t know but what I do know is that not one has ever made mention of the fact that Davy Crockett and Company had made an incursion into Mexican Territory as Texas was then part of Mexico. Takes nothing away from those films. They were great films but how much more boring they would have been if those Noble Men were seen as invaders on foreign soil? Those films would not be half as enjoyable if that little fact came out. I could go on to name countless films where the actual historical fact was far different from one portrayed on film but I will get back to Fastline’s point on Historical Drama.
- Even if there was not one single black face in Britain until the post-war period, that doesn’t mean to say you cannot cast actors of colour in period drama. It is bad enough in the late 20th Century and this Century that ITV’s Midsomer Murders has failed to cast a single actor of colour in more than two hundred episodes and counting. The reason given was that black people don’t live in rural areas. Apparently we didn’t live anywhere in Britain until whenever – the 1960s apparently in the view of many.
- The broadcasters and bigots have one thing in common. They want to keep Britain on Film and Television as white as possible. Now I have some sympathy for the bigots – They know no better and ignorance in such cases is always bliss. The broadcaster, the film makers, the producers, the writers, those who greenlight projects, should know better. Far better. Whether I was in Birmingham or London, which is now my home, I see diversity on a massive scale. I don’t see that reflected back on me from my TV or a Cinema screen. Even if Fastline was absolutely right, just because “We” were never here, doesn’t mean that we can’t be represented in period dramas. All it would say is ‘This is the way it could have been’. But the reality is with period drama, we never ever seen how it truly was. Period drama on British Film and Television is devoid of colour. Every single character is ‘White’. This brings me to a story I would like to share with you of how I parted company with a director I had worked for in Theatre for over four years.
- He was invited to direct a play ‘Victorian Ghost Story’ for the Chelsea Players. I have never heard of them but apparently they are supposed to very influential. I auditioned for him, despite having worked on most of his productions for little or no money over a four year period, (long story for another time). I later found out that the writer had approached him and told him that she didn’t want any black actors in her play. Now as a director if someone had laid that kind of stipulation on me, I would have told them where to go. That is like me writing a play, hiring a director then at a later stage coming back and telling said director that I don’t want any white actors in my play, I want only black actors – Which happens a lot when it comes to period pieces – Whites only!
- I was quite appalled by this revelation and as a result did not go to see this Play. Quiet protest. And on further reflection decided to cut all ties with this director. I cannot stand people without backbone and the will to stand up and fight for what they believe in. Felt something of a mug for all the hard work (for no money I might add,) that I put in performing in his plays at the potential cost of actually doing paid work elsewhere. So given the above I now know where I stand and wouldn’t work for him even if he was paying me the going rate for my services. A lesson learned. This Fastline and all those other Neanderthals on the Sun’s online comments page, is what black actors and ethnic actors have to deal with in the UK. Some more than others will stand up and be counted but as always, those who have no idea and so little knowledge of their history and culture will always open their big mouths and sprout utter rubbish. But is that really any surprise?
From childhood to manhood, I have no idea why Bigots, Broadcasters and a lack of historical knowledge seem to make strange bedfellows. Maybe the bigots and broadcasters are one and the same and have a lack of historical knowledge. Not so funny if that was the actual truth of the matter. Nearly every other British production whether Film or Television has this feel, this smell about it. A lack of ambition, risk and effort. It is a real effort on my part to watch British Drama once you have watched American dramas such as ‘Mad Men’, Homeland’, ‘Southland’, ‘The Chicago Code’, ‘Sons of Anarchy’ just to name a few. Then there are the Scandinavian dramas – Okay there are hardly any actors of colour in Wallender, Borgen nor The Killing but they and their American counterparts have one thing in common. They have great deal going for them, because risks have been taken, investment made.
British Media could learn a great deal. Instead of trying to keep Britain White and Anglo-Saxon, try embracing and reflecting what is actually happening in Britain. Watching shows like Holby City, Eastenders and Casualty have become so painful to watch, I stopped watching them altogether. I can’t think of an area in East London that comes anywhere close to the one represented in Eastenders, anymore than I recognise any hospital like Holby where there isn’t a foreign legion of doctors, nurses and an army of Filipino nurses on hand to take care of patients. In fact an American friend of mine over here on holiday last year took one look at Eastenders for less than five seconds and immediately changed the channel. Kind of says it all really. And a real indictment at the lack of quality drama and film being made in Britain now.
And the above are just some of the many things black and ethnic actors have to deal with in Britain.