We don’t need quotas to get more black actors on screen

Lenny Henry, who will be hosting the Olivier Awards, in a scene from Fences. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Matthew Hemley
Matt is news editor for The Stage, having started as the newspaper’s broadcast reporter. He covers all areas of the industry in his role, but has a particular interest in musical theatre. Matt studied acting at Bretton Hall and presents a monthly theatre news round up on BBC London Radio.
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Lenny Henry wants to see the BBC ring-fence money to produce content that makes better use of talent from a black, Asian or minority ethnic background.

In a speech given this week at BAFTA, the performer stated that, just as the BBC has quotas to meet regarding content that is produced outside of London, so it should have specific targets to meet in terms of commissioning programmes that feature a specific number of BAME people both on and off screen.

[pullquote]let’s not create a situation were we cast and produce shows just to meet quotas[/pullquote]

He suggests that a “BAME production” could be defined as such if it meets two of the following criteria: A) At least 50% of production talent (not performance talent) are black, Asian or minority ethnic B) the production company itself is 30% controlled by BAME people and/or where 30% of senior personnel involved in the production are BAME C) 50% of on screen talent must be BAME.

These are extremely ambitious, and, some might say, a little impractical.

England and Wales, according to 2011 official statistics, is 86% white, with mixed/multiple ethnic groups making up 2.2% of the population, Asian or British Asian people forming 7.5%, black people making up 3.3% and other ethnic groups forming 1%.

To impose quotas such as Henry is describing does not tally with the actual breakdown of the population in England and Wales. Surely – if we are talking quotas – programmes should be representing the population using statistics such as these? Maybe every drama programme should strive to represent reality using these figures.

Clearly more needs to be done to make better use of our black actors – I have written before that many have turned to the USA for work because the UK doesn’t provide them enough opportunities here. Henry too expresses concern about this, but when I spoke to him recently, he also admitted that white actors are moving to the US too. Perhaps work opportunities – given the size of the country and its industry – are just better there, regardless of skin colour.

That said, there is evidently more that can be done to increase the representation of BAME people both on and off camera. I am just not sure forcing a company like the BBC to meet quotas is the way to do it. To do so has the potential to commission programmes not based on their artistic merit, but because they tick certain boxes. That, to my mind, does not seem the best way forward.

So what is? Clearly, casting could be more inclusive across the board – and that doesn’t just apply to BAME people, but to disabled actors too. But, at the end of the day, as clichéd as this may sound, casting must surely come down to who the best person for the job is.

So what else? Do you force writers to include BAME characters in shows? Or should commissioners be sourcing more work from BAME people? Perhaps it is the commissioning itself that needs to change?

Certainly the people I come across who are running channels and ordering programmes are white and middle class. The situation could be helped if more commissioners and TV executive themselves were from a BAME background. But it’s a vicious circle, isn’t it? When BAME people don’t see themselves on screen or in high-profile TV jobs, they don’t aspire to those roles themselves.

Change, particularly in television, can be slow. Fair play to Henry for trying to do something about it. But let’s not create a situation where we cast and produce shows just to meet quotas.