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Maggie Brown: The show’s the thing, so TV producers should be allowed to cast who they want

Bryan Cranston at the Olivier Awards 2018. Photo: Pamela Raith Bryan Cranston at the Olivier Awards 2018. The actor was cast as a wheelchair-using character in the film The Upside, to the dismay of many disabled actors. Photo: Pamela Raith
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After Channel 4 had picked Leeds as its new national headquarters, earlier this month it broadcast live from the city for the first time. It provided an interesting lesson. The key reason for the government’s insistence it relocated one in three jobs from London was the conviction that the broadcaster must not pick all its programmes from the capital, never mind how efficient that might be.

The Leeds broadcast was a live Brexit debate, featuring a group of local students.The underlying logic was that younger people unable to vote in 2016 were probably more inclined to be Remainers, unlike the wrinklies selling Britain’s youth down the English channel.

But the debate did not reflect that, which seemed to surprise presenter Jon Snow, who worked hard to rouse the Remainers in the audience. I watched it after making a fact-finding visit to Leeds, and it made me chuckle. Channel 4 is about to divert many tens of millions of pounds from programming (at a time of advertising uncertainty) into resettling 300 jobs, including commissioners for drama and entertainment, in Leeds, Bristol and Glasgow.

Should Christian Bale be required to put on several stones to play Dick Cheney in the film Vice, or is that denying a lead role to larger actors?

But it’s often clear that outside interventions to steer creative content can backfire. A current mantra is that people prize programmes that reflect their areas. I am sure that is only partly true, because viewers also prize well-made, well-acted, entertaining and absorbing shows wherever they are made. So Bodyguard, the top-rated drama of 2018, reflected the life of a government minister and her protector, inevitably based in London. And normally, if factual programmes cover geographical areas that I know (such as sheep markets on the Welsh borders) I’m invariably disappointed.

When it comes to representation, diversity on and off screen and tackling discrimination, I would much prefer persuasion and voluntary initiatives (rather than closely monitored, prescriptive measures). What matters is that the end product, the programme, is the best it can be, with producers free to cast who they want; the interests of viewers should be of prime importance.

I am sympathetic towards disabled actors who queried whether Bryan Cranston should play a wheelchair-using character in recent film The Upside, but most big-budget productions demand mainstream stars. Consider less questioned areas: weight or age. Should Christian Bale be required to put on several stones to play Dick Cheney in the film Vice, or is that denying a lead role to larger actors?

There has been a campaign to end age discrimination against older women. But should the women in hit comedy Derry Girls actually be of school age? Is it unfair that certain actors who look younger than their real age take on roles more justly filled by ambitious children?  Should make-up age young actors for elderly roles? The more you go down these paths, the more absurd it becomes, since actors’ jobs are to inhabit roles and take on new personas. That’s the job.

Maggie Brown contributes to the Guardian, Observer and the Media Podcast and is the author of The Story of Channel 4. Read more of her columns at thestage.co.uk/author/maggie-brown

Mark Beer: ‘We need to integrate disabled actors in film and TV and stage, and until we get to that point I won’t stop’

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