by Martin Sarreal
On the morning of the 30th of June, 2014, the Act for Change project held its first official launch event at the Young Vic Theatre, gathering a large group of creatives from all over the country in support of bringing more diversity to UK television.
On behalf of Shades of Noir, as well as a BAME member in the acting profession, I was absolutely delighted to attend the event and show my continuing support for this very relevant cause.
The event, spearheaded by actor and writer Danny Lee Wynter (please click here to view an interview we conducted with Danny, filmed several weeks before the launch) consisted of testimonies submitted by people working within the industry, an open discussion with a panel of actors, writers and executives (including Steve November, the head of ITV Drama and Julia Crampsie, head of BBC Casting), as well as a presentation of statistics underlining the severe lack of BAME representation over the last few years.
Being a part of a community that has been continuously marginalised for decades, the strong sense of urgency and need for change was felt through out the 2 hour event. As real life accounts of BAME artists were being read out – many detailing how they were shunned from various opportunities simply because of their race or disabilities – one can’t ignore the sense of outrage and familiarity shared by many of those in the room.
The shocking revelation of a 30.9% decline of BAMEs working within the industry (between the years 2006 and 2012, leaving a current statistic of 5.4%) truly highlighted the growing concern of the increasing invisibility amongst minority ethnic artists, begging us to ask: how did we regress so far as we moved forward in time? And what, exactly, is the immediate course of action for change?
The answer may just be the introduction of quotas in British television. Actor and writer Meera Syal expressed her disbelief at how the lack of BAME representation is still an on-going discussion. Having worked in the industry for 30 years, Syal suggested that the quota system might just be the answer for evening the playing field for BAME artists, a notion shared by many referring to America as having utilized it to much success.
In a taped interview shown at the event, actor David Harewood remarked, “It’s become the norm, for me, to turn my TV on and see aspirational Black characters [in America]’…then I get off the plane in London, I turn my TV on and it takes me 3 weeks to see one person of colour.”
The idea of the quota system has been met with a level of controversy in the past, with many arguing how ‘positive discrimination’ will affect the quality of the output on television, as those behind the camera will be forced to compromise and will no longer be casting under the angle of simply picking ‘the best person for the job’.
I, myself, along with a group of other BAME actors have also had concerns of ‘tokenism’ and how this might actually hurt our representation in the long run. However, with things evidently worsening, Syal suggested that the idea might lead to people exploring other areas in terms of casting and employment, and that tokenism will only take place when there is a lack of talent, which is certainly not the case in the industry today.
Desperate for more steps of development in diversity, I was moved by Syal’s comments and found myself having a new stance towards the idea. I believe that, under current circumstances, the quota system is the appropriate immediate plan of action that will help widen the path for a stronger BAME presence on British television. This notion was clearly shared by many others in the room, with almost every single person raising their hand when asked to show support for the idea. Perhaps most encouragingly, head of ITV drama Steve November himself agreed with the suggestion, and mentioned a forthcoming announcement of an initiative that will address the issue of diversity.
Only time will tell whether any significant changes will take place in the rest of this year. However, one definitely can’t ignore the fact that the Act for Change project and event has not only left a great mark on those who attended, but also those in the industry who has the ability to bring upon greater change – which hopefully means we will all begin to see a movement forward very soon.