I haven’t seen the new series of Top Boy on Channel 4 yet, but the reviews are asking if it could be Britain’s version of The Wire. I really enjoyed the first series so this has definitely whet my appetite. Among the legion publicity interviews, I came across one in which Ashley Walters chides black actors for leaving the UK for the US. Even though I’m sure this was probably overstated for a juicy headline, he did say:
“It’s obvious that it’s more difficult for black actors than it is for white actors over here. So you can run away to the States or you can stay here and try to change things.”
He has a point. And yet, I wonder if it’s that simple. So many actors have crossed the pond and returned to the pick of roles, in TV – Idris Elba, David Harewood, Chiwetel Ejiofor spring to mind – or in theatre – Marianne Jean Baptiste who was recently in The Amen Corner at the National Theatre. Film roles continue to be scarce, but then British film is under the cosh at the moment and this affects film roles for actors of all colours. The path to the US is well-trodden. However, I wonder if Walter’s is overlooking the importance of what goes on behind the screen?
Earlier this year I went to panel talk at the National Theatre featuring Paterson Joseph and other black actors on the state of Black British theatre. We discussed the Black Audience (does it exist?) and the shortage of roles for black actors. One of the problems identified was the dearth of black writers, producers and directors. They are there, of course, but it is clear that until you have more people of colour behind the scenes in positions to commission and produce content, we won’t see any tangible change. And this isn’t to say they would only create “black” productions – though there’s nothing wrong with that – progress will be when we have those productions but we also have black actors in roles that aren’t “the black character” – in other words, they’d pass the Shukla Test.
Just a thought.