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Julian Fellowes defends all-white casting in Half a Sixpence

Julian Fellowes. Photo: Nick Briggs
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Julian Fellowes has claimed period stage productions have less of a responsibility to employ diverse casts than shows set in the modern day.

He also said he looked forward to a time when both black and Caucasian actors could play the lead in Othello and “nobody bats an eyelid”.

The book writer for the musicals Half a Sixpence and School of Rock was responding to a recent Andrew Lloyd Webber report that claimed the industry was “hideously white”.

Fellowes stressed he felt “quite strongly” that more needs to be done to increase diversity on the stage, and said there was no reason why modern dramas should not feature diverse casting.

But he disagreed that period dramas had a duty to feature diverse casts.

“I feel quite strongly that ethnic minorities don’t get a sufficient look-in. The way to get a better balance in our artistic community is in casting. We need much more adventurous casting,” he said.

Fellowes added: “When you are doing a modern drama there is absolutely no reason why anyone can’t play most of the parts. In every contemporary drama, there is a completely realistic option of a much more variegated cast than we are usually being given.”

However, when pressed on the all-white cast of Half a Sixpence in the West End he said the musical was set “in a different period”.

“You can’t make something untruthful. My feeling is about contemporary drama and there is absolutely no reason [why there shouldn’t be diverse casting]. But Sixpence is set in 1900 in a seaside town – you’re in a different territory,” he said, but claimed “you can work at it”, before adding that he had managed to feature a black story in Downton Abbey.

Fellowes also said he looked forward to a time when a black or white actor could play Othello.

“I think at times you have more latitude on the stage than you do on camera – particularly in the great classical roles. If you saw Henry V played by a black actor you would not give it any thought. These roles are not dealing in a kind of filmic reality. You are trying to explore emotions and go through a process, but you are not saying this is camera reality,” he said.

He added: “Funnily enough, at the moment, I think you can’t go the other way. It isn’t right any more to have a white Othello – but I look forward to the time when we have a black Henry V and a white Othello nobody bats an eyelid.”

He also commented on the recent protests surrounding the Print Room in west London, where a play set in China was cast with Caucasian actors.

“You must concede something to the zeitgeist. In one way, logically, if you can have a black Henry V you can have a Caucasian Chinese play, but this is a period of struggle… I think you simply have to respond to the era in which you live,” he said.

Fellowes was speaking to The Stage as he launched his new musical, The Wind in the Willows, which will open at the London Palladium in the summer.

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