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Under-Representation, Colour-Blindness & Racial Stereotyping: Why British TV Still Has A Long Way To Go

When I was growing up in the 70s and 80s, it was rare to see a black or brown person on TV. When non-white people were on the screen, they were being racist towards other black people, such as Lenny Henry, who appeared on The Black and White Minstrel Show (although he has since redeemed himself massively by becoming a serious actor and champion for TV diversity), being a pop star, or being racially abused by white people, as in Love Thy Neighbour.

There were exceptions – I remember Floella Benjamin’s beautiful smile on Play School, and the sophisticated Philip Smith in Rising Damp, played by Don Warrington. Generally, however, British TV was extremely racist. We have made huge strides since then, of course, but issues ranging from the BBC’s ethnic pay gap, the number of all-white (or mainly white) programmes, limited opportunities for black actors, tick-box attempts at diversity to stereotyping, show us there is still a way to go. 

The lack of ethnic diversity on TV is an issue which has been widely discussed, yet one that has failed to be adequately addressed. There is a spectrum of under-representation, which ranges from completely excluding non-white people, to tokenism and stereotyping. Sir Lenny Henry spoke in the 2014 BAFTA lecture about the lack of BAME actors on British TV. In January 2016 Idris Elba, Luther star, told MPs in Westminster that TV was ‘at risk of not properly reflecting society’, and that black actors in the UK were struggling to progress. Elba, like many other BAME actors in recent years, felt he had to move to the States in order to land lead roles due to the glass ceiling that exists for black actors here. Elba also said that the balance between the audience and those making TV needs to be readdressed.