BBC rejects claims of lack of good roles for black actors

The controller of BBC drama commissioning Ben Stephenson has rejected criticism that UK television does not provide enough parts for black actors, claiming that the Corporation “leads the way” in diverse casting.

His comments come as all major broadcasters – including ITV, Sky and Channel 4 – respond to warnings from leading arts figures in last week’s The Stage that black British actors are turning to the US for work because of the lack of opportunities here.

While Channel 4 and Sky have both admitted there is a lot more work to be done, Stephenson claimed the BBC is leading the way in providing work for black actors and added that “only the BBC has world-class actors like Idris Elba and Chiwetel Ejiofor currently on screen in major roles”.

He added: “This follows brilliant actors found in EastEnders, Holby and Casualty, the most diverse soaps on television, and other world-class actors like Naomie Harris and David Oyelowo who won Royal Television Society awards for Small Island.”

Actors including Paterson Joseph, Troy Titus-Adams and Kwame Kwei-Armah had warned that home-grown talent was leaving the UK for America, because not enough programmes are being commissioned that reflect the diversity of British life. America is viewed as a country where casting is more inclusive and reflective of society.

Responding, Stuart Cosgrove, director of creative diversity at Channel 4, admitted that “casting is always an area where we could do better”.

He added that he was aware of black actors looking for work in the US, where he said there were “wider opportunities” but also “more competition”.

“An area where I think we can really make progress is by casting against type and taking more risks with talent. It’s an area where agents, producers and broadcasters can do more,” he said.

Meanwhile, Sky director of programmes Stuart Murphy said the satellite broadcaster “wholeheartedly believes its programmes should reflect modern Britain and the rich diversity of our society”.

“We are absolutely committed to ensuring directors and casting directors give us diverse casts that go beyond token casting, but while we are making good progress in our original drama we still have a long way to go,” he said. “The result creatively will be a much more interesting, rich, exciting and authentic experience.”

ITV said it is committed to “ensuring the programmes we broadcast across our schedule reflect the UK’s diversity”.

A spokeswoman said: “We regularly monitor our content in terms of diversity portrayal. The results are shared with programme makers and commissioners in order to not only build on our success in this important area to date, but also to address areas that do not reflect our aim.”

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The Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, London. Photo: Noel Foster