Whitewashing the walls of period dramas


With Poldark back for its second series and Victoria’s ratings going through the roof, it seems that the surge in British TV period dramas is not waning. Frills and thrills clearly go hand in hand, especially considering the amount of revenue they’ve generated for UK television companies. The story seems to be different in the US, which depends on the UK for most of its period drama output. So, we have a one-up on our rivals, right? Wrong.

We are being exploited for our talents like a cow milked dry. We are mass producing for a conveyor belt of endlessly monotonous content. While we’re stuck in a rut, the US is free to create whatever it wants, but more importantly, cast whoever it wants. Because of the UK’s tendency to produce shows based at some point in our long, “colourful” history, fewer black actors have the chance to grace our screens. But are period dramas so popular solely because the global audience enjoys them, or are they conveniently comfy armchairs into which production companies fall back as they write worlds where no one worries about the ethnicities of actors?

David Oyelowo, star of the Martin Luther King film Selma, expressed his frustration with historical drama casting in British television last year.

He said: “Look at the beautiful buildings in London – the blood of my ancestors [is] in those bricks. Why is that story not being told when we love a period drama? It doesn’t make any sense. Black people did not turn up in the UK at Windrush.”

And he’s right. Though much of British history is dominated by white individuals, most popular period dramas (Downton Abbey, Mr Selfridge, The Paradise, the list goes on) are set in an age when black people were part of Britain. These shows, however, have maybe one black actor in a guest role over a five or six season series. The lack of black people in positions of authority during the eras depicted doesn’t mean there can’t be period dramas about them; rather, it means there should be dramas explaining this lack of equality.

This summer, I interned at a theatrical agency, which is essentially where the casting process begins. My bosses were really lovely people. They were generous with pay, walked me through everything and asked me if I needed any help. While I was copying information onto the system or editing CVs, however, I heard snippets of phone conversations with casting directors that made me feel uneasy.

The conversations went something like this: “Oh, you want an Indian, do you? I have this girl …yes, she can speak Urdu, I think, let me check … actually, it’s Hindi, but it’s the same thing, isn’t it? [Laughs] Yeah, no one will know the difference.”

Now, I know there’s been controversy for centuries about whether Hindi and Urdu are in fact the same language, but it was more the tone of disrespect I heard and the fact that this was not an isolated incident that made me feel uncomfortable (and I don’t even belong to an ethnic minority). Many of the agency’s clients were from an ethnic minority; they constituted half of the agency’s paycheck. The only conclusion I could come to was that casual racism was the norm in this industry. If racism operates at this level, it is not unreasonable to believe that it pervades everyday workings, albeit subconsciously.

Selma, dir. by David Oyelowo

It is strange that there is not widespread indignation about the lack of roles for ethnic minorities in historical dramas. Compare the situation to Hollywood, however, and it’s a different story: whenever the slightest racist comment is uttered, or an awards ceremony is filled with white nominees, outrage ensues and movements are created, probably because Hollywood events are found in a much more internationally exposed format. Many may see these responses as pedantic, but in fact they are an effective policing tool that makes filmmakers and judges think twice about who they cast or nominate. This is essential to diversifying future projects.

Preceding this year’s Academy Awards, British actress Charlotte Rampling felt the row over the lack of black nominees was “racist to whites.” National treasure Michael Caine even suggested that black performers should “be patient,” as if they haven’t waited long enough already.

It is not merely a shame that the two most outspoken British actors on the subject hold these views; it also reflects badly on the perception of Britain as an accepting and diverse nation. In Hollywood and film, changes are afoot: 12 Years a Slave and Belle told the stories of the abolition of slavery, and Selma Martin Luther King’s march to Montgomery. The forthcoming A United Kingdom depicts the marriage of a black Botswanan prince to a white woman from London. Clearly, British television needs to follow film’s example.

There is something in common with these titles, though: they are all projects that needed already prominent black figures to give them the green light. Oyelowo picks up on this, citing Oprah Winfrey as the driving force behind Selma and pointing to his own role in the production of A United Kingdom. Steve McQueen and John Ridley spurred the creation of 12 Years a Slave, and Amma Asante did the same for Belle. But don’t assume all of this name dropping means there is an abundance of black media giants. These directors, actors and writers all have to rely on each other in order to get any project concerning race or a non-white cast off of the ground.

What Oyelowo suggests is that contemporary dramas like Luther and Undercover have set the bar for British television, which now needs someone to head up period projects inclusive of black actors. It is sad that these ideas aren’t being backed by anyone outside of a specific ethnic group. But all is not lost. Period television is gradually becoming more reflective of the diversity of our current population. John Ridley, Misan Sagay and Idris Elba are all involved in Sky’s upcoming Guerilla. The series will relate the tale of a radical underground cell seeking to end the Black Power Desk, which aimed to crush black activism in 1970s London. Channel 4’s Indian Summers was a proven hit that managed a two series run and consisted of an almost fifty-fifty Indian to white ratio.

Shakespeare has also crept into TV with the popular The Hollow Crown. Sophie Okonedo portrays Margaret of Anjou, who in the past was played by white actresses such as the Belgian Veerle Baetens in Philippa Gregory’s The White Queen. But has the part actually always been played by white women? Dominic Cooke, director of The Hollow Crown, justly mentioned that “in the theatre, we’ve been doing this for donkey’s years,” and it indeed has become common practice in the RSC: Oyelowo himself played Henry V in an RSC production. Obviously, theatre has set an example, too.

Like theatre, film and other genres of TV, British period drama producers and casting directors need to make a conscious effort to create content that includes more racially diverse actors. Otherwise, the genre risks alienating and losing some of our best talent. Laziness and a sense of security (that we should just keep making what “we’re good at”) are not excuses when the livelihoods and representations of Britain’s ethnic minorities are at stake.


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