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BBC criticised for under-representation of British East Asian writers on TV series about Chinese family

Signatories to the letter include, clockwise from top left: Kumiko Mendl, Inua Ellams, Lucy Sheen and Morgan Lloyd Malcolm. Photos: Suki Mok/Oliver Holms/Sarah Lam
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Actor Lucy Sheen and playwright Inua Ellams are among the signatories of a letter slamming the BBC for the “unacceptable” shortage of British East Asian writers on a new children’s TV series about a Chinese family running a restaurant.

More than 200 people from the theatre, TV and film industries have signed the letter, which calls for all scripts on the series, called Living With the Lams, to be authored by British East Asian Writers and raises concerns that the series risks being “regressive and perpetuating, rather than challenging, racial stereotypes”.

According to letter, the series was created by Helen Soden at Twenty Twenty Television, with the CBBC having greenlit 10 episodes, almost all of which are written by non-East Asian writers.

The letter has been published by British East Asians in Theatre and Screen, a new organisation that aims to increase the visibility of British East Asians on stage and screen, and is undersigned by the British East Asian Actors and Artists Association, the British East Asian Media Network and the Equity Minority Ethnic Members Committee.

Other signatories include artistic director of Yellow Earth Theatre Company Kumiko Mendl, Emilia Playwright Morgan Lloyd Malcolm, actor and writer Daniel York-Loh and playwright Amy Ng.

The letter says: “It is unacceptable that a television series about the day-to-day lives of a British East Asian family will not be fully authored by British East Asian writers, especially as Twenty Twenty is benefiting from a commission that is supposed to be supporting diversity.”

It adds: “We are aware that Twenty Twenty attempted to counter the lack of British East Asian input into the series concept by enlisting a Chinese writer, but only in the capacity of a “cultural consultant”.

“With the Chinese diaspora worldwide numbering in excess of 1.5 billion, the idea that a solitary consultant could possibly advise on such a vast and diverse group of humanity only reinforces the racialised pigeonholing at the heart of the show’s concept.”

The letter goes on to state that Twenty Twenty and the series producer “claim there are no [other] British East Asian writers experienced enough to write children’s comedy”, which it argues is “patently untrue”.

Daniel York Loh: British East Asian theatre has come a long way in six years

Following the publication of the letter, BEATS released a further statement stressing that it did not want the series to be scrapped, adding: “We want any story with British East Asian leading characters to succeed. But not at the expense of perpetuating orientalist and regressively racialised tropes.”

The Writers Guild of Great Britain also raised concerns that “experienced writers from under-represented groups are being used as cultural consultants rather than being engaged as part of the writing team”.

General Secretary Ellie Peers said: “If broadcasters are unable, for whatever reason, to contract writers from black, Asian and minority ethnic groups to tell their own stories, then we believe they should do the following: Nurture and support the next generation of screenwriters by providing paid opportunities led by more experienced writers on these shows. Or, if that is not possible, either rethink and redevelop the show with BAME writers at the heart of the story.”

A BBC spokeswoman said: “We always seek guidance, advice and expert input for culturally sensitive content. We’re still in the development stages of Living with the Lams and so the editorial process is on-going. We do not appoint comedy writers or producers based solely on their cultural affiliations or nationality, but we’re confident that we’ll create a show that successfully reflects and celebrates this community.”

A Twenty Twenty spokesperson said: “Living With the Lams is still in the development phase of production, and there are inaccuracies in the letter distributed about the development process. Raymond Lau, Series Producer, and the production team are committed to hiring a diverse group of writers, including Chinese and East Asian talent, and continuing to work with the East Asian communities to make sure the stories in Living with the Lams are authentically and sensitively told.”

Daniel York Loh: British East Asian actors deserve better than The King and I

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