Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Discriminatory casting

The fine actor (and it transpired, renaissance man) Paterson Joseph revealed on Radio 3's Private Passions last Sunday that racist attitudes by casting directors are still a hurdle for dark-skinned actors to overcome. (Thankfully we are not as bad as American theatre people, if this extraordinary report is typical. The point is that no part in a play set in academia in modern times should be defined by skin colour.) He expressed his gratitude to radio for giving him the opportunity to play a wider range of parts than would be available to him on the stage - an opportunity which has also been seized by Ben Onwukwe and Adjoa Andoh with distinction.

Cush Jumbo has also raised the question of discrimination against non-white actors on UK TV. In her case, though, I would suggest that the problem is the lack of good parts as such. The fact is that more good TV drama series are being made in the US now than in the UK. UK broadcasters seem unwilling to break out of the safe template of the police procedural. Good though some of these series are, few of the parts on offer are rewarding - Cush Jumbo's part behind a desk in Vera is a case in point, though one in which her very light brown complexion quickly became irrelevant, at least to this viewer.

The Good Wife gave not only Cush Jumbo and Archie Panjabi good parts, but also "white" British actors Alan Cumming, Marc Warren and Matthew Goode. US directors appreciate the technical ability and professionalism of British-trained actors. A list of US TV series which feature Brits - or Australians, Canadians or New Zealanders - would make this post far too long, but I would pick out another ground-breaking series which no BBC executive would dare to green-light these days: The Americans, featuring Taff Matthew Rhys.

Christopher Eccleston has consistently drawn attention to a more worrying aspect of UK casting: discrimination against working-class actors. His most recent attack came in the i newspaper of 17th July, but there is a more accessible and comprehensive article in the Guardian from two years ago. Eccleston's generation is the beneficiary of a breakthrough which began in the 1960s with the likes of Albert Finney, Tom Courtenay and Michael Caine, but which seems to be the last of the line. We are reverting to the situation of the 1950s and earlier when only well-off boys and gels could afford the necessary training and had the contacts, so came to dominate English stage and screen. One wonders how audiences put up with excruciating attempts at working-class accents for so long, something at least the current crop of privately-educated young actors have worked at. One hopes that we are currently going through no more than a phase, and that a proper balance will be restored, but the signs are not good.

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