The Racial Pecking Order in British Theatre and TV

Structural Inequality In UK Theatre & TV

by Daniel York

I’ve been reading a book recently by the American sociologist David T. Wellman with the frankly terrifying title Portraits Of White Racism. I say terrifying because it conjures all kinds of images of Aryan skinhead fascists with big boots and arm-bands. I find myself hiding the lurid green cover of the book so people won’t see it when I’m reading it on the tube.

In fact the book isn’t about skinhead fascists at all. Rather its premise is to refute the popular notion that all “racism” is born of ignorant prejudice. Instead Wellman’s subject is

culturally sanctioned strategies for defending social advantage based on race”.

Of course the very word “racism” is now so incendiary it actually seems to have become worse to call someone a racist than actually be one. But leaving aside Wellman’s terminology there is something clearly and fundamentally unequal in UK society and particularly in the industry I work in, that of screen and stage, something that black British actor and playwright Kwarme Kwei Armah recently referred to as “structural inequality” .

The book (written in the 1970’s) features quotes  along the lines of

“I’m not opposed to mixed busing ; I’m opposed to the time it takes” and “I can understand militancy but it’s self-defeating”. My industry is full of these kind of rationalisations:-

Yes, there should be more opportunities for actors/writers of colour. But it won’t happen overnight” (Why ever not?)

“There should be more roles for actors of colour. But we need the writers from those communities to write roles for minority ethnic actors” (Well, a) You could commission some and b) Do we have to be from a separate and foreign “community”?)

We definitely need to put more training initiatives in place”

(In other word we’re going to continue side-lining you now whilst we tick our boxes running workshops for people with no experience thereby diminishing your experience and expertise)

Daniel York

Daniel York

Then my particular favourite: “Well, I never even consider someone’s race when I’m casting/commissioning”. But you can only not consider someone’s race from a position of deeply ingrained privilege. A privilege which affords no awareness of the societal and structural limits placed on performers of different backgrounds. Only then can you loftily pronounce that you “simply cast the best actor for the role” based on a “merit” that’s absolutely impossible to quantify.

The vast majority of the actors at a company like the Royal Shakespeare Company (and particularly those cast in the leading roles) come from what I would call the British “classical theatre circuit” (Chichester Festival Theatre, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Manchester Royal Exchange etc), those which make up the Arts Council’s “centres of excellence”,  and what I would call mainstream TV – Downton Abbey, Midsomer Murders, Call The Midwife – as well as sundry classic novel adaptations such as the recent Great Expectations and Death Comes To Pemberley.

In other words “period drama”. Name me a leading classical British actor and you can bet your bottom shilling they’ve done “period drama”. A genre that is all but off-limits to actors of colour. Some might well protest that Downton Abbey recently featured a black character. One. And the news of his casting made headlines. So we can easily see what a major decision and talking point it is to introduce any actor of colour to a production of this kind. Producers have to make the kind of conscious decision they simply don’t have to when they’re casting Caucasian actors.

This type of high-quality /high production values TV drama offers the best opportunities for actors in the shape of the most nuanced, carefully written roles, with the best constructed emotional arcs, and with the most technical demands.  Compared to this if an actor of colour is only able to garner roles playing Chinese Take Away Man, Prostitute, Hoodie With Gun or Indian Waiter then the actor of colour surely won’t have the same showcase opportunities as their Caucasian counterparts playing Matthew Crawley or Trixie Franklyn. Nor, crucially, will the actor of colour have access to the same networks.

Ethnic roles are often very clichedly “ethnic” and badly written. They are also cast with a completely different criteria by people who are literally picking exotic flowers for their garden. The number of times I’ve been told “they didn’t think you looked Chinese enough” (I’m of mixed descent) is simply too often to be arbitrary. My agent was once told “we specifically do NOT want any Eurasians”. On the other side of the coin, I’ve seen casting breakdowns calling for African-Caribbean actors requesting they not be “too dark”. In addition we’re often expected to be de facto cultural “experts”, to speak a range of languages and have all manner of physical “skills” at our disposal.

In fact it’s probably fair to say that our TV and theatre industry is still all too often locked in some kind of ghastly 1970’s parody of inappropriateness.  Surely it’s clear that in the face of this kind of cultural impasse anyone who posits the line that they “never consider race” is being at best naïve or at worse wilfully disingenuous.

Jung Chang's Wild Swans at the Young Vic

Jung Chang’s Wild Swans at the Young Vic

There’s also stark contrasts in the way that actors of colour are treated and the environments they work in. I can vividly recall watching the Young Vic’s adaptation of Jung Chang’s historical-autobiographical Wild Swans and, while  heartened that the Young Vic had, in the end, used an entirely East Asian cast (though with Eurasians at a premium as usual) I was also struck by how hard the actors were having to work: moving scenery, clearing earth, shifting paving stones. It was most definitely what is known in the trade as a “physical production”.

 The fact is I have never seen white, middle-class actors in this kind of production. They are, by contrast, treated with kid gloves in a terribly gentile and delicate world where their concerns about safety are taken extremely seriously. Everything is geared for them to literally arrive on stage and act. Once there, they recline on chaise-longues and “nuance” the text whilst critics and audiences admire their technical brilliance, other classical theatre makers and casting directors flock to watch them and the whole cycle is perpetuated ad infinitum.

White middle-class actors arrive at auditions where directors are terribly keen to meet them and thank them for coming. They read from the script and discuss “character” with directors who are eager to hear their thoughts. When this doesn’t happen they often complain (rightfully so I hasten to add) that they’re being treated as “commodities”.

I know all this because(being of mixed race) I’ve slipped the net just a few times and observed how the “other half” live.

The awful truth is that all too often even our “own kind” treat us as second-class citizens. I can vividly remember attending an audition for what was, at the time, the only funded East Asian theatre company in Britain. I was at fairly low point in my career. I had amassed a solid theatre CV (including the RSC, Royal Court and National Theatre) but that’s often of no interest to casting directors looking to cast rubbish Chinese TV parts. In fact you’re probably better off without it, classical theatre chops being often regarded with suspicion when what is desired is spurious “authenticity”. There’s a section in Bob Dylan’s autobiography where he talks of his career in the 80’s and that his previous achievement were like a “college diploma that doesn’t get you in anywhere”. Well, that’s exactly how I felt at the time.

At the said audition for the only funded East Asian theatre company I was ushered into a room full of about 35 other East Asians. We were made to perform speeches in front of each other which were then redirected by a voice coach. We were allotted something like three minutes each. The assistant director sat at the side with a clip-board and stop-watch which he never once took his eyes off. When the stop-watch reached three minutes he shouted “next!” and you had to stop there and then and the next person began. It was difficult to escape the notion that we were little more than “yellow cattle”. This was the company the Arts Council chose to sponsor to develop East Asian talent and the rest of the industry were happy to use as their ethnic tick-box.  

Believe me, this is not the way the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch or Felicity Jones are treated.

Daniel York

Daniel York

The interesting thing is no one ever complained. Amongst each other perhaps, but not “publically”.

The racial pecking order in British theatre consists of whites on top (“posh” ones above “working class” ones), blacks next, South Asians after with East Asians firmly at the bottom and, within that, “pure-blood” Chinese, then “pure-blood” Japanese streets ahead of mixed race and other South-East Asian diaspora.

Perhaps those of us in the room that day were simply too accustomed to our place in the pecking order.

_____________________________________________

Daniel York is an actor, writer and film maker. He recently appeared in The World Of Extreme Happiness at the National Theatre. His full-length stage-play The Fu Manchu Complex was directed by Justin Audibert at Ovalhouse. His short film Mercutio’s Dreaming: The Killing Of A Chinese Actor was commissioned by BBC Writersroom. He is currently Chair of the Equity Minority Ethnic Members Committee. Find him on twitter @danielfyork

 

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31 replies

  1. Not all of your umbrage is justified; “It was most definitely what is known in the trade as a “physical production”.The fact is I have never seen white, middle-class actors in this kind of production.” Well then, you’ve never seen a Cheek by Jowl show or a Shared Experience Production, anything directed Phyllida Lloyd or Max Stafford Clark. Theatre, in which artists move props and scenery, as well as playing instruments, serving as chorus, etc., has long been part of the production scene, so much so that, as you state, it’s “known in the trade as a “physical production”. ” That such “physical productions”, cast from all backgrounds and frequently benefitting from integrated casting, are not part of your own theatrical experience, may indeed be true, if a remarkable omission, but your personal ignorance does not mean they do not exist.

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    • Daniel York: I’ve seen productions by all of the above and have even been in one directed by Max Stafford Clark. Shared Experience I’ll give you and trust me the outrage expressed by several white middle class actors at the what was expected of them was palpable. As for the rest nothing I’ve ever seen has approached the physical intensity of what I’m talking about. This is not “moving props” it’s proper physical labour that I reiterate I have never seen a cast of Eddie Redmaynes, Felicity Joneses or Dan Stephenses engaged in.

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      • As you state “I have never seen”, that’s not your experience, and though valid as personal anecdote, your experience reveals no greater truth other than opinion and personal frustration in this particular example. How about a cast of Marian Jean Baptistes, Chiwetel” Ejiofors, Sophie Okonedos or David Oyelowos? All of their careers have originated in the UK in leading roles on stage and screen, their American careers would not exist without their British careers (and the great exodus of black talent only mirrors that of white talent – the UK is parochial and offers no career continuity beyond soaps), why are they not part of your selective discourse? The outrages, irritations, entitlements and complaints of actors, however palpable, are not restricted to any particular ethnic group, ego is not a genetic trait, whatever the background of the complainer. In using a 1970s text as your staring point you miss the advances and greater nuance of the contemporary performance scene. Actors of colour were restricted to Chinese Take Away Man, Prostitute, Hoodie With Gun or Indian Waiter in the 1970s but much has happened since and when did you last see that form of casting on UK screens or stages? is Idris Elba playing “Hoodie with gun”? There are indeed serious matters of representation to be addressed, offstage, in production offices, development offices, but perhaps better that you start with contemporary facts and examples rather than nebulous opinion and outdated texts, this piece says more about you.

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        • I’m afraid you really are talking a lot of rot now. I can indeed think of plenty of productions full of black actors doing hard physical work of the type there really is no equivalent of amongst white middle class actors. I’m not sure what articles you’ve been reading about the black talent exodus to Hollywood but not has featured quotes from any of the actors saying “yes, I’m so grateful to the UK industry for giving me the fantastic opportunities I needed to go and make it in Hollywood” and it’s a well-known fact that Idris for one felt he could never get a decent break here. Why don’t you look at all the other comments to my article from actors of colour who’ve agrees with everything in it? I think it’s you that’s frustrated in all honesty. You read an entire article, got so defensive you picked out one point you thought you could split hairs about and now you’re struggling to even prove that.

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          • No. that’s not a true assertion at all, just smears about my motives, which aren’t any truer of me than those you smear in your article. It’s hard to know of the ups and downs of the professional lives of others. It’s nonsense to say that non-white casts are made to physically exert themselves on stage above and beyond the efforts required of white casts, you cite no body of evidence. That those UK actors, both black and white, lucky by accident of birth to speak American, who have international careers, have them because of the work which brought them to prominence and notice domestically first, is obvious, otherwise they would not be there in the first place. We need only check their CVs for the actual chronological facts and examples, not just IMDB, their theatre work too. Black and white, there is no difference to the mechanism but there is a huge difference in the commercial markets subsequent projects serve. That you claim you don’t understand (or more to the point, ignore, or just divert from the point), that connection is surprising. That doesn’t mean that some of your points aren’t true and that there aren’t problems of representation, but your errors undermine your better points. Improved representation is needed, most notably amongst the decision makers who commission productions, develop them and then put them into production. If there were representation at that level then opportunities would exponentially increase. That said, the subsidised sector, which has to reflect the electorate, is not the commercial sector. Don’t cite your good reviews here and ignore your bad – the truth has to be somewhere in the middle. Clearly it’s very difficult being a Eurasian actor, but citing genuinely out of date second-hand 1970s tropes in support of slurs obscures argument. Sometimes, discussion and disagreement is just debate.

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  2. When you train as an actor, you train for years to be able to play *any* role that comes along, whether it’s male, female, black, white, human, non-human – but once you start going out to auditions you rapidly realise that if your “look” doesn’t fit, that’s it.

    It works the other way as well. I recall walking into auditions to big smiles, only for those smiles to drop once I open my mouth and out falls my west London accent…

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  3. I had a tistaste for training,? I was a great pupil,
    I did not disrupt class, but I hated the way all my teachers other than one didn’t
    enable me to experiment, to permit my curiosity to wander cost-free, they fed views down
    my throat and did not let me to speak my mind.
    They stated how items take place but I desired to know
    why items the way they are. I hated stuff getting forced on me rather than allowing any interest to expand.

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  4. Very interesting! I didn’t know it was such an issue in England as well – but now looking at the British shows I watch, I can definitely see that it’s true. Do you think it’s at least getting a little better, albeit gradually?

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  5. I did a Theatre Design course in the 1970s and was the only PoC on the course. If, during our regular ‘crits’ we were asked to be critique a piece of work I was continually slammed and was told I ‘had a chip on my shoulder’ if I was ‘disprespectful’ to the piece. I was a very average student but did not even get average work when I left. With decent encouragement I might have been a good student but, at job interviews I not once saw another PoC applicant. I later became an environmental consultant and the situation was very similar.

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  6. Stunning piece, Daniel. Felt every line because although I’m a screenwriter its the exact same experience. My CV is like a college diploma and I am better off without it. Without it I might get to be someone’s “discovery” and a five minute talking point over a dinner table I’ll never sit at. Because with it, my continued exile from TV and inability to simply be read is the stuff of madness.

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    • I’ve only just seen all these comments here, I’m so sorry. A.E. I completely get what you’re saying. I think it was Bonnie Greer who talked recently about how the industry gate-keepers like to keep BAME’s in a state of perpetual “development” with entry-level training intitatives etc but always resisting the idea of us as experienced professionals.

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  7. Brilliant article Daniel, very excited and stirred by your courage to write it down, so many truths that I’ve never quite processed, particularly that of the “physical [East Asian] production” in comparison with what we normally see on stage. Intriguing. I’ve recently written an article for BBC Front Row about the “too dark” issue and black actors so was a bit relieved to see it here! And absolutely loved World of Extreme Happiness.

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  8. Interesting and informative post. Also reflects the narrow band of history represented in mainstream media. Whole swathes of the past that are ‘missing in action’ – a bit more thought and less reliance on old historical tropes might result in better roles, more interesting drama and a more thoroughly informed public. Maybe?

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  9. I agree with some of the sentiments here. There is indeed a lack of “colorblind casting” in the UK, and too many cliched roles for Chinese (takeway man, triad member, hooker etc). But aspects of this article are flawed. Complaining about an absence of Asian faces in period dramas is a bit like bemoaning the lack of Caucasian roles in films like “House of Flying Daggers”.

    What never gets mentioned is the number of performers who call themselves “British East Asian”, but are happy to lie about proficiency in (for example) Cantonese/Mandarin if it gets them a casting. In those instances they are happy to benefit from the producer/director/casting peoples’ ignorance.

    If a white actor was cast as a Japanese character, and wore prosthetic makeup, there would likely be outrage from British East Asian actors. Quite right too. But how many actors in Britain of Chinese decent are happy to audition for specifically Japanese character parts, and vice versa?

    There are actors of East Asian descent working and making a decent living in the UK – sometimes they cast for or play race-specific parts, other times not. Perhaps if the author was working as much as them, he wouldn’t bang his drum quite so loudly and frequently.

    The author’s photo does not look like that of an Asian man, nor does his surname. Maybe that’s partly why he doesn’t get the “rubbish Chinese TV parts”. Perhaps his racial background has nothing to do with why he doesn’t get “non Asian” roles.

    Actors will always moan about work. York cites Benedict Cumberbatch. Cumberbatch himself has complained that he is only considered for “posh” roles, and is unlikely to be asked to play a working class character.

    Things aren’t perfect, but they are getting better. Especially if the UK follows the States’ example where multicolored casts are common in TV dramas.

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    • This is Daniel York replying to Joel Grey-

      I don’t think my article is anywhere near as flawed as your attempted critique of it.

      You try the obvious cheap shot that I’m probably “banging on” because I don’t work very much but (as you mught glean from the article) it’s probably fair to say I’m one of the busiest “East Asian actors” in the country. Certainly in terms of stage work I’m not sure there’s many who’ve been fortunate enough to enjoy the depth and variety of work I have. I dislike terms like “first -ever British-Chinese whatever” (let’s just make sure we’re not the last!) but if you can find another East Asian actor who’s played leading roles at the RSC, National Theatre and Royal Court amnogst others then you’ve obviously looked hard. Unfortunately there’s an obvious glass ceiling in place and TV work is very tricky.

      “Complaining about an absence of Asian faces in period dramas is a bit like bemoaning the lack of Caucasian roles in films like “House of Flying Daggers”.” Well, yes, actually, if there was sizeable Caucasian presence in China who’d lived there for generations as “Chinese citizens” and spoke Mandarin I personally think they’d have every right to complain about that (I do also campaign for Caucasian actors in Singapore). If you’re reducing everything to leaden “historical accuracy” then you’d better make sure the actors have dedcaying teeth and pock-marked skin as well as requisite sexual diseases. According to you I don’t look like an “Asian man” (thank you for your expertise). In that case why indeed would I never be considered for period dramas. You forget, I’m a writer as well. I’ve sat on the other side of these conversations. Believe me, it’s an issue.

      Benedict Cumberbatch complaining about only playing “posh roles” is like a man with a free pass to all the gourmet restaraunts in town complaining that he can’t go to the local fish and chip shop for free as well.

      Whilst we’re at it,your line about Chinese actors playing roles that are “specifically Japanese” only serves to reinforce the point about structural inequality. A Caucasian actor has Europe in its entirety open to him as well North and South America as well. Hell, they even get to play US. But you think East Asians have to be “specific” because you simply can’t accept the idea of us being able to “act”.

      You do make a good point about actors lying about their ability to speak Mandarin/Cantonese but isn’t the point that they’re in a position where they have to? Again, we’re not considered as ACTORS. And that’s the point.

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  10. Thank you for all your comments. Leepinkerton, black people may be second in the pecking order but they’re still a LONG way behind white people LOL. Kiruna, the situation for actors with disabilities is appalling and desperately needs addressing. livesindreams, I think we’re just a little way behind you in speaking up about it.

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    • So black actors not only have to advocate for themselves but for you too? When have others ever advocated for blacks, ever?

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  11. Thanks for your piece Daniel. Black actors spend so much time complaining about being below whites in the pecking order, we rarely stop to think that there are other racial groups below us!!

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