By Laura Wood – current GoThinkBig work experiencer. Lenny Henry thinks black and minority ethnic actors need more representation on TV: we spoke to Darwood Grace and Femi Oyeniran, both working actors, to find out what they think.
Young black men have been hit excessively hard by the recession and youth unemployment crisis. And one industry where black men seem to be suffering significantly is in television – young black men appear on screen less frequently than their white counterparts and are less likely to be involved in the production side of things too. Lenny Henry spoke at the annual BAFTA TV lecture a couple of weeks ago and shared some ideas of how the BBC and other broadcasters could increase ethnic diversity in the workplace.
So what did he actually propose? In a speech titled ‘I have a screen’ Lenny Henry suggested there should be a law to make sure there is fair representation in programmes, especially in drama productions. He wants to see 50% of production staff and on-screen talent being from black, Asian, or other ethnic minority backgrounds and for production companies to be at least 30% controlled by people from the same group.
How does this look in England’s top drama school?
We investigated this further and had a look at how black, Asian, or minority ethnic (BAME) actors are represented in the leading drama school RADA.
We found that just 23 of the 187 students on the BA Acting course and the technical theatre courses were of black or ethnic minority origin, which is only 12.5%.
Vicky Taylor, a communications and PR manager at RADA said that the academy chooses students on talent alone. “As a registered charity, our scholarships and bursaries scheme means that we are able to support students who have the talent to train with us,” she said.
What do the actors have to say?
Those who have made it know the reality of the industry and how hard it can be to break into. We talked to actors Darwood Grace and Femi Oyeniran (they are also directors, producers and writers – talk about doing it all!) about their thoughts on the proposal, the struggles they have faced and any tips they have for others trying to get into the TV and film industry.
A step in the right direction
Both Darwood and Femi agreed that Henry’s proposals would be a big improvement for BAME actors. “It’s definitely a step forward,” Darwood said. “It would be better if it was ten years ago when Lenny Henry was big – I’m not sure what influence he has [now] regarding the government and.” And let’s be honest: Lenny Henry is most known nowadays for Comic Relief and those good old Premier Inn adverts (who hasn’t jumped on one of those beds like him).
Britain’s entertainment scene is generally multicultural, as Femi points out; “In music you’ve got the likes of Tinie Tempah, Neyo, Dizzie Rascal, there’s a nice balance of multicultural talent. Whereas with TV it’s probably worse than it was back in the 90’s and early 00’s.”
Some critics of the scheme have said that legislation will push production companies to just see BAME actors as ‘filling quotas’. This might be the case but Femi agrees with Lenny as it “is a way that guarantees jobs, if you don’t do it by legislation and make it optional then it might not happen.” Darwood thinks this may be what BAME actors need, “I think people will get better when they have more practice. It’s great because it means we will get work even if it is just a five year plan or something.”
What doesn’t hurt you makes you stronger
Femi and Darwood both agreed that as actors they hadn’t felt any particular struggles but as Femi pointed out it doesn’t mean they aren’t there, “I can’t sit here and say because I’m black I haven’t had that many opportunities but I am very aware that there isn’t that much out there for black actors.” Femi decided to pursue a career in writing and directing to make sure there is a gap for BAME actors especially in TV.
Surprisingly Darwood struggled as a director more than an actor. Working on the film It’s A Lot, which he directed alongside Femi, he felt that their colour affected the success of the film, “it was three black guys, and we didn’t get as much coverage and publicity as we might have done if we were white.”
Get on YouTube
According to the guys, if you want to be a successful actor, director or producer then YouTube is your best friend, like seriously get on YouTube NOW. As Darwood said, “Go for it. Get yourself out there. Grab a camera phone and some mates and go film and write your story down – don’t expect someone to write a character or story for you.”
YouTube is vital for BAME actors and directors as it provides a platform that you can create content on and gain a following, which really can only be great for your career. Femi believes that “you don’t wait for TV to come to you; you make your own TV. If you’re frustrated about young black and ethnic minority people not being on TV find your audience on YouTube, prove that there is an audience and then people will come knocking.”