Great Britain

We need a proper debate about TV diversity, instead we get ludicrous arguments | Ellen E Jones

Luther first aired on BBC One more than a decade ago, yet it’s still the focus for debate about Black representation in British television. Why? Because it’s still one of a handful of examples of a major British drama series with a Black lead character. That scarcity is the crux of the issue, however misleadingly it is currently being framed by headlines such as “Idris Elba’s Luther ‘isn’t black enough to be real’, says BBC diversity chief”.

The “diversity chief” in question was the BBC’s head of creative diversity, Miranda Wayland. She was speaking this week at an industry conference and was making an entirely different point about Luther. But to understand that you’d have to read beyond the many misleading reports that followed. All of them served to turn this into a widely repeated viral story that erroneously suggested that Wayland – a Black woman – was making the patently ludicrous argument that there is only one way to be Black.

For context: in 2010, Luther launched starring Idris Elba as a brooding cop who invests so much in his job he neglects his personal life. This type has been played by white actors so often that it’s a well-worn, if beloved, TV cliche. Yet for a Black actor, a lead role in a British TV series – especially one in the ever-popular detective genre – remains a vanishingly rare opportunity. Even this opportunity wasn’t being made available to Black actors in general, but to Idris Elba in particular. That is to say, the character wasn’t written as Black and, based on precedent, would have been played by a white actor had an actor of Elba’s international status not been in the mix.

It also shouldn’t escape our notice that the east London-born Elba was only able to establish his star power by first crossing the Atlantic, where he won notice playing sagacious drug dealer Stringer Bell in The Wire. Such complex, textured roles aren’t exactly plentiful for Black actors in US television – The Wire is an unusually good show – but there are certainly more there than in the UK. Take Downton Abbey, the hugely exportable hit with a nearly all-white cast which also launched in 2010. They did eventually write in a recurring Black character – jazz musician Jack Ross, played by Gary Carr – but he was ditched when Lady Rose lost interest, whereupon Carr was snapped up (again in the US) to play manipulative-yet-appealing pimp CC in The Deuce, another superior series from The Wire’s creator, David Simon.

With allowances made for genre, there is a qualitative difference between a character like Jack Ross and a character like CC. It’s to do with the specificity and authenticity that exists in great TV writing, whatever the racial identity of the writer (David Simon is white, though he works with a writing team which has included Black writers). So it’s a matter of quality but also a matter of quantity, because the more storytellers from non-traditional backgrounds are allowed past TV’s gatekeepers, the less pressure there is on any single show or character to be all things to all people. That’s what Wayland was really getting at about Luther in her panel discussion, when she referenced the lack of “Black friends” and “Caribbean food” in the character’s world: it’s the difference between a sprinkling of diversity-lite as a casting afterthought, and truly diverse storytelling where Black creatives tell their own stories as writers and directors.

Almost anyone who gives the issue of on-screen representation more than 30 seconds’ thought can appreciate this distinction. I suspect Luther writer Neil Cross gets it, despite him being positioned now as the injured party. His remarks regarding race in Luther (“It would have been an act of tremendous arrogance for me to try to write a Black character”) have been widely quoted as though he was responding to Wayland. In fact, they derive from a 2012 Radio 4 interview and omit another relevant remark he made moments later: “I suspect that there’s a dearth of decent roles for Black actors because most writers are white.” This is the kind of open-and-shut case that DCI John Luther would have wrapped up in the opening scene.

The more intriguing mystery is why numerous news reports have carefully selected words from a longer discussion to make it seem like Wayland was arguing an entirely different point about on-screen diversity than the one she intended. Certain sections of the press never miss an opportunity to give the BBC a good kicking, of course, but there’s also a more insidious message being pushed. The suggestion is that anyone who saw Elba playing a cop in 2010, and didn’t immediately consider the matter of racism in Britain to be forever closed, must be some kind of trouble-making ingrate. The goal, as usual, is to discredit any meaningful discussion of racism, how it manifests and what might be done to tackle it.

What is it actually like to be a Black man working at a senior level in an “institutionally racist” organisation like the Metropolitan police? (Or, for that matter, a Black woman working within a white-dominated one like the BBC?) How would you square your professional identity with family and friends who likely have their own complicated relationships with your employer? Luther was never going to be the series to explore that territory, however dramatically fruitful the terrain. But that’s OK – let Luther do Luther.

It’s OK, because last year we finally did get to hear a version of that untold story, and several others besides. John Boyega starred in Red, White and Blue as real-life Met officer Leroy Logan, part of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series of films, commissioned and broadcast by the BBC. This cultural landmark, a towering piece of televisual art, exists only because at some point, some people surveyed the media landscape of the 2010s and thought to themselves: “You know what? We can do better.”

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