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British Actor Lenny Henry Tells BBC: "There Will Be A Call To Arms. Diversify Now"

Photo of Tambay A. Obenson By Tambay A. Obenson | Shadow and Act April 21, 2014 at 11:31AM

British Actor Lenny Henry Tells BBC: "There Will Be A Call To Arms. Diversify Now"
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Lenny Henry
Lenny Henry

There will be a call to arms. Nothing happens without conflict and this is our time to stop moaning to ourselves and to take the argument public,” said veteran British actor Lenny Henry, in a recent statement as he continues his diversity push, after delivering BAFTA's annual Television Lecture for 2014 last month, focusing his discussion on the opportunities for black and minority ethnic groups in the UK TV and film industry today. 

During his hour-long speech, Henry argued that funds should be set aside to boost the presence of black, Asian and minority ethnic people in the British broadcasting industry, describing the situation as "appalling" because "the majority of our industry is based around London where the black and Asian population is 40%," compared to the 5.4% representation in the industry that the black and Asian population currently sees.

Further, Henry, added that the "situation has deteriorated badly" in recent years.

Henry, who won the best actor prize at the Critics' Circle Awards earlier this year for his role in stage play Fences, also expressed concern that "our most talented actors are getting increasingly frustrated and having to go to America to succeed," echoing a *problem* that's been in conversation in recent years, and certainly continues to be.

This has been an ongoing fight that Henry continues to be at the front of, and he certainly is proving to be resilient. You might recall that, last year, Henry called for an initiative similar to The Rooney Rule - a racial quota system implemented by the NFL in the USA, which requires that football clubs interview ethnic minority coaches for vacant jobs.

In high-end drama, there’s no faces that look like me. We need to lobby the government. Maybe quotas isn’t the right language, maybe we should call them shared targets,” said Henry.

Kwei-Armah, now artistic director of theatre company Center Stage in Baltimore, added, “The US set quotas. They did that thing that we’re so scared to do here [...] In the UK, there’s very little diversity of the roles for men or women of color, but in the US there’s a diversity of opportunity [...] I’m in a permanent state of maudlin that one has to go to the States,” referring to actors like Idris Elba, David Harewood and others who had to move to the USA to work consistently.

I should note, however, that I don't believe any "diversity" on the screen here in the USA is due to a quota mandate.

Asked by session chair Lorraine Heggessey, executive of Boom Pictures, why the situation had gone backwards for non-white talent on both sides of the screen, Henry replied: “We had a good 1970s. That was because of patronage… Whatever minority you come from there’s often a bloke, generally white, male, middle-class and Oxbridge-educated who says, ‘I like you, I’m going to take you under my wing and look after you. The problem is when they go, you go too – or you have to realign or find another mentor."

He cited the case of the BBC which, in 2003, made structural changes to address a lack of representation in the nations, with budgets and quotas to match the populations of each one.

"The result is spectacular. There's been a massive increase in programme-making outside the M25. By 2016, half of the BBC's network spend will be made outside of London. But what about the communities, more precisely the BAME communities?" he asked. BAME being black, Asian, minority ethnic.

In a statement in response, the BBC said: "Danny Cohen (the director of BBC Television) has made it clear that BBC Television is committed to diversity both on and off screen but we're always looking at how we can improve, including the recent launch of apprenticeship schemes with both the Mama Youth project and Stephen Lawrence Trust for example".

Kwame Kwei-Armah, who moved to Baltimore two and a half years ago following a celebrated career in the UK  as an actor, writer and director, said, while there has been a rise in roles for young black actors in "underclass" narratives, such as Channel 4’s Top Boy, the depiction of adult, middle-class non-whites on UK screens is virtually non-existent.  

He agreed with Henry that quotas need to be introduced in the UK to address the problem of a lack of diversity in roles for non-white talent in British TV.  

I can only imagine what how a similar call for racial quotas, or some kind of legislative mandate in film and TV would be generally received in the United States.

But Henry has been campaigning for a reported six years for a more varied representation of black and ethnic minorities (BAME) on UK screens, and he has now revealed that he has been having private talks with senior broadcasting figures to address the issue, and has called for the general public to join his campaign.

There will be a call to arms. Nothing happens without conflict and this is our time to stop moaning to ourselves and to take the argument public, he says.

Further, he will be part of a committee that includes 50 key UK TV industry executives, that will meet to tackle the diversity issue head-on. But it certainly doesn't end there, as Henry hopes to inspire the regular viewing public to put pressure on politicians to force change, and do so with speed.

 “All of those people in the audience who watch those shows and complain that there aren’t enough black and Asian (people), and gay and women and people with disabilities and transgender…they need to start lobbying, to start writing letters, they need to start emailing,” he said in an interview with The TV Collective. “At some point soon there’s going to be a campaign and we want everybody to get behind it, write letters to parliament, write letters to government, write letters to your MP and say we think it’s time there was a change.” 

He also said he had been encouraged by his talks thus far with senior level broadcast executives, and the meeting on the subject (mentioned above) which was originally scheduled for July has been fast tracked. 

When I met Tony Hall at the BBC he said ‘Let’s talk at the end of April’,” he said. “Tony Hall wants to be seen as leading from the front and the BBC needs to lead from the front because they’re the main game in town. If the BBC decide they are going to do something everybody’s going to follow.” 

A luta continua Mr Henry...


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