A people denied its great expectations

June 25, 1999

Why do so few black actors land the top parts in television dramas? Stephen Bourne investigates

In 1996, a young journalist asked me who Paul Robeson was. My heart sank. I remembered something I had been told by Pearl Connor, who came here from Trinidad in 1948 and once worked as an agent for black actors.

She said: "In Britain there is no record of the contribution we have made to the performing arts. There is no memory in Britain for us. There is a hole and we fall into it." Even the great Paul Robeson, feted for his 1959 performance in Shakespeare's Othello, had fallen into that hole.

Over the years I have found plenty of material on jazz musicians and African-American entertainers who have long enjoyed publicity and celebrity status in this country. But black British actors seem to have received scant attention.

Today, the British film and television industries systematically fail to offer a wide range of parts to black actors. It is also rare to find Britain's pre-1948 Windrush black presence acknowledged in historical dramas, apart from an occasional glimpse of an extra in the background. Shakespeare in Love may have scooped Oscar and Bafta awards for best picture, but it is historically inaccurate because no black actors were cast. Some historians have argued that the black presence in Elizabethan England was so insignificant that it is hardly worth acknowledging. But by 1601 the black presence was large enough for Queen Elizabeth I to have made two attempts at deporting and repatriating her black citizens. She failed, and from about 1555 to this day, the black presence in Britain has been growing steadily.

While recent historical dramas and literary adaptations, such as A Respectable Trade and Vanity Fair have begun to include black characters, they are exceptions. Perhaps television's most glaring omission of the black presence occurred in BBC2's adaptation of Great Expectations. By the time Charles Dickens's classic was published in 1861, many thousands of black people were living and working in London. In fact, several early British film adaptations of Dickens's novels acknowledged this, with black extras appearing in David Lean's Great Expectations and Oliver Twist. So would it have been too much to expect the BBC to have cast a black actress as Estella in their 1999 adaptation of Great Expectations?

The idea of a mixed-race Estella in such a television adaptation remains revolutionary, even in 1999. But Estella's mother could have been black and married to the convict Magwitch. After all, black women existed in all strata of society in London in the 1800s, including Mary Seacole, the famous Crimean nurse. And Estella, who was born into poverty, was accepted into English society because of Miss Havisham's wealth and patronage.

No one complained about black actresses playing Juliet and her nurse in Shakespeare Shorts for the BBC three years ago, a significant example of "colour-blind" casting. So why could this not have happened with Great Expectations? Is it because television producers and directors are afraid of upsetting the literary establishment?

While more and more historians are uncovering information about the lives of Britain's black population since the 1500s, such as Jeffrey Green in Black Edwardians and Susan Okokon in Black Londoners, younger generations are practising integrated casting in school plays. Some of our black youngsters will become professional actors, and may avoid the familiar stereotypes - villains, prostitutes - by playing more respectable characters, such as doctors, lawyers and police officers. But until there is a radical change in thinking by producers, directors, casting directors and actor's agents, we will never see black actors play a range of roles - or a black Estella in Great Expectations.

Stephen Bourne is author of Black in the British Frame: Black People in British Film and Television 1896-1996, published by Cassell, Pounds 15.99.

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