Tuesday, 25 August 2015

David Oyelowo's play

He featured in one of BBC-1's most popular drama series, Spooks, and starred as Martin Luther King jr in Selma. He won the latter part in an American film ahead of many US actors and the fact that he was denied an Oscar nomination for it was described as a travesty by major players in Hollywood. Yet David Oyelowo cannot interest broadcasters in this country in a fascinating and original project.

He writes in the Bank Holiday edition of Radio Times:

The story I was touting was rich, vibrant and set in the visceral world of bare-knuckle boxing. It had romance, intrigue, action and adventure - it also happened to have a black protagonist.

The project was rejected repeatedly, not because of the quality of the writing or the story, but because of the notion that a British audience might be confused by watching a period drama featuring black characters who historically walked the vibrant streets of London in the late 19th century.

I will not claim that I would pay money to see this play, because prizefighting is definitely not to my taste. However, I am astonished that it has not been picked up and cannot believe that any educated person would honestly put forward the reason given.

We now know that people of African heritage have been in England virtually continuously since the days of the Romans, when men from North Africa were among the legionaries from all over the empire garrisoning Hadrian's Wall. There were African servants in some of the great houses from Tudor times (if not earlier) on and there were freed slaves in London two centuries later.

If there is an excuse for the person in the street not realising this continuity, it is because pre-twentieth century chroniclers do not seem to have been particularly colour-conscious. Nathaniel Wells of Monmouth was dark-skinned but according to historian David Olusoga in this programme there were no more than a couple of contemporary references to the fact - and Wells was a prominent member of local society.

BBC producers seemed to be happy with the gross anachronism of Hamlet communicating by cell-phone, so why should they not be ready to put on screen the greater historical accuracy of Oyelowo's project?

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