TV and theatre is suffering from a talent drain of black British actors, with many looking to the US for work because of the lack of opportunities in the UK, leading figures have warned.
High-profile performers including Paterson Joseph and Kwame Kwei-Armah have warned that home-grown stars are leaving the country due to its failure to fully embrace multicultural casting. Others to speak out include Theatre Royal Stratford East artistic director Kerry Michael, former EastEnders actress Troy Titus-Adams, and Equity.
They argue the UK does not offer enough lead roles to black performers or commission programmes reflecting the diversity of life in Britain today. By contrast, the US is considered more inclusive in its casting and as somewhere black actors can better progress their careers.
Their concerns follow comments made by Midsomer Murders executive producer Brian True-May in March. He described the ITV series as the “last bastion of Englishness” and said that if black or Asian faces were introduced to the show “it wouldn’t be the English village” viewers know. True-May was subsequently suspended from the show, but his comments caused alarm among black and minority ethnic performers.
Titus-Adams, who has moved to the US and was among the first to raise the issue with The Stage, claimed casting is “more creative” in America, adding she always felt like a “colour in the UK”, where she said there was very little “non-traditional casting going on”.
She said she was regularly approached by black British actors asking her advice on moving to the US for work. She explained: “In the UK, most of the black characters are depicted in a negative light. Writers just don’t seem to be able to write for actors from African Caribbean backgrounds. In the US, there are white and black writers writing for all characters.”
She also claimed True-May’s comments would leave many performers asking why they would “stay in a market where one of the main producers of a mainstream, prime-time show, holds these views”.
Meanwhile, actor and playwright Kwei-Armah, who formerly appeared in Casualty and wrote Elmina’s Kitchen for the National Theatre, claimed the situation in the UK had improved and said “integrated parts” had moved on in “leaps and bounds”. But he stressed that black actors were still leaving the UK to progress their careers.
He claimed that there had not been a black British performer who was a household name since Lenny Henry, and added: “There is a sense among black actors that there is a glass ceiling and that you can only get so far, which means people start looking to different marketplaces.”
Kwei-Armah is himself moving to Baltimore to become artistic director at Centerstage theatre company. However, he pointed to Luther, which stars Idris Elba in a leading role, as proof that TV audiences “are not going to react adversely to a detective series with a black actor as its lead” and said change had to begin with audiences saying to producers “this is what we want”.
Joseph, who starred in Channel 4′s Peep Show and the National Theatre’s The Emperor Jones, said black actors had more challenges as they work in “a country that is a majority white country”, where most dramas are written by white people.
He added that, while black actors do look to the US for work, he would rather they stayed and tried to make their mark in the UK.
He said: “The fact is I want to make my profession as inclusive as possible by my presence and by my skill and excellence, hopefully, and not just the colour of my skin. I am hoping there will continue to be a groundswell of opinion that good, talented actors, of whatever colour, should be in all roles,” he said.
Joseph described True-May as a “maverick producer” and said his comments could help the UK ask whether black actors were being used sufficiently in dramas. “If not, we should look at that and wake up to the fact that casting directors and producers are not being encouraged to spread their field to the non-white actor,” he said.
Meanwhile, Stratford East’s Michael said he was aware of a “number of black actors who have moved to the US to find work” because it provided more opportunities.
He added: “There is a willingness to actively celebrate diverse casting in the US, unlike in the UK where it’s all very tokenistic still. Look at our soaps, for example – we only have one black or Asian family and no more. And that’s meant to represent east London or Manchester.”
However, speaking to The Stage, Chiwetel Ejiofor – currently appearing in BBC drama The Shadow Line – said all actors travelled to find work. But he added that producers had a “responsibility not to marginalise people”.
Speaking about True-May’s remarks, he said: “England is a multicultural place full of diversity, and that is one of our great strengths. That should be represented in every aspect of our cultural life.”
Equity, meanwhile, said it was “extremely serious for the entertainment scene if talented black actors feel the only way they can build a decent career is to leave the country”.
Union spokesman Martin Brown said: “I am sorry to say that I am not surprised by what Titus-Adams, Kwei-Armah and Michael have said to The Stage, as minority ethnic actors have been saying the same to Equity. The UK industry has got to take urgent action to address this. Our TV screens and stage must do more to reflect UK life as it really is and avoid trading in stereotypes.”