As a powerful new wave of protests against systemic racism floods the streets of Britain, Black creatives within the TV industry have become increasingly emboldened to speak out and share their experiences of workplace microaggressions, othering and discrimination.
In the last week, “Hollyoaks” star Rachel Adedeji — who is exiting the show — tweeted her disappointment with the Channel 4 soap’s response to the Black Lives Matter campaign by revealing several examples of on-set racism, while an Instagram account called Black in TV has been sharing horror stories from sets. Elsewhere, TV production manager Richie West posted a list of microaggressions experienced by Black people that has now gone viral.
“Being Black and working in the TV industry means toeing the line…it means being one of the only black people in the office,” West lists in the statement. “It means not having your CV considered if you have a traditionally ‘ethnic’ name…it means having to listen to people discuss diversity in hiring and diversity in casting as if it’s a chore.”
Several Black creatives have now spoken to Variety about their uncomfortable experiences navigating a predominantly white TV industry that has made it more difficult for some to feel seen or be heard as more than token hires.
“When I was coming up through the [theater] Royal Court, everyone was a woman. There were lots of black women, so it was very comfortable,” award-winning playwright and screenwriter Rachel De-lahay recalls. “Then, when I got my first telly gig, I went into an all-white writers’ room and was very much there to tick a diversity box.”
De-lahay is Black biracial and has written for series including Netflix’s “The Eddy” and BBC’s “Noughts + Crosses,” an adaptation of Malorie Blackman’s alternative history novel, which sees Black people ruling over white. The dystopian series boasted an impressive cast of majority Black actors and was originally commissioned in 2016 with Levi David Addai, who is Black, and Matthew Graham serving as writers.
However, in 2018, white writer Toby Whithouse was announced as the new showrunner after the two left the production. De-lahay claims he was promoted because, on paper, he had more experience than the Black writers Lydia Adetunji and Nathaniel Price, who had been hired for the writers’ room. De-lahay was then brought in as an additional writer to pen the finale, but Whithouse — whose credits include BBC series “Being Human” and “Doctor Who” — wasn’t clicking with the material. It was only when he walked that Adetunji was promoted to lead writer.
“We don’t have time for you to hire the assistant that one day is going to become the boss. We need the boss right now.”
“[Producers Mammoth Screen Productions] were trying to do the right thing in the first place, but it proves that when s–– hits the fan, they don’t have the backup, and so they promote a white writer,” she explains.
“Because no one’s hiring any Black people, there are far less ‘experienced’ Black people seen as ready to do the more senior jobs, and those that are, are busy,” says De-lahay.
A Mammoth Screen rep confirms to Variety that the production “amicably parted ways” with Whithouse and took the show “in a different creative direction with Lydia.”
“It was a long development and production process and people naturally had to move on to other commitments,” says the rep. “Lydia, Nathaniel and Rachel ultimately [became] the only credited writers who were advised closely by Malorie Blackman. Lydia is now lead writer for the development of a potential series two.”
Dominic Buchanan, the two-time BAFTA-nominated producer of Netflix and Channel 4’s hit show “The End of the F**king World,” echoes De-lahay’s sentiments. “Hire more of us,” he says. “Whether they’re junior, mid-level or senior, there are not enough of us across the board.”
Buchanan has been working across TV and film for over a decade and has yet to sit down with a commissioner in the U.K. “who is Black or brown” except for Anne Mensah, VP of original series at Netflix who was previously head of drama at Sky.
“It’s great she went to Netflix after what she did at Sky, but where’s the next Anne Mensah?” he asks. “Who are they grooming? The truth is, they’re not grooming anyone because they don’t care. We don’t have time for you to hire the assistant that one day is going to become the boss. We need the boss right now.”
For years, Buchanan has been teaming up with Kharmel Cochrane, one of the few senior-level, non-white casting directors working in the U.K. So few, in fact, that when Cochrane was first coming up, Google had linked a picture of another Black casting director to her name.
After the Black-Indian casting director secured the talent for the hit dark comedy series, and season one was nominated for various awards in 2018, she thought people would be knocking down her door for work. “I said to my boyfriend, ‘I’m gonna buy a Porsche this year because I’m gonna get so many job offers, it’s gonna be crazy.’ But then I didn’t go into any meetings,” Cochrane says. “The meetings I did get I felt like I was just the token.”
Ever since she was asked to cast a “mulatto” woman on her first casting job 15 years ago, Cochrane has done her best to push back against racist casting and productions. She recalls an incident on a prominent TV series in which the white producers wanted to solve its diversity problem by casting “the one deviant character with a Black actor.” She pushed back and eventually won the argument, but earned the “difficult” label in the process.
De-lahay recalls a similar experience on a premium TV series where the white writers wanted to kill off one of the only Black characters, and lynching was suggested as the method. “When you point it out, everybody looks at you like you’ve ruined the show,” she says. “Everyone stands there uncomfortable and they’re like, ‘Cool so we’re not allowed to have a fun show because Rachel says it’s racist.’”
TV and stage actor Obioma Ugoala has been dealing with microaggressions ever since attending Drama Centre London, where the white students in his class were given make-up tutorials and the black students were told: “black actors don’t wear make-up.” The former “Hamilton” star of Black African and Irish heritage says he’s constantly having to weigh up which types of othering to push back on so he doesn’t use up his “professional capital” on smaller racial issues.
“You’re already laden with coded words like ‘aggressive’ and ‘difficult’ so If I kick off about a bad wig I might be wasting the goodwill that I might need to make use of in a scene the next day,” says Ugoala.
“If we responded to these microaggressions in the moment, every single time, it would become a very volatile session,” Buchanan adds. “The perpetrator doesn’t notice it’s a microaggression and even when they’re called out on it, they don’t care, so we are burdened with them. It is taxing on the brain.”
However, there are encouraging signs across some productions. When Ugoala shot an episode of Sky’s “Britannia,” he met with a wig specialist who took the time to fit him with the most suitable options for his hair, skin type and tone. “That was a weight off my shoulders,” he says.
Cochrane recently worked with producer Iona Vrolyk on the upcoming Sky series “Intergalactic” and from the beginning, it was clear diversity had informed the production. “She wanted a mixed-race actress for the lead, so we did, and the character was actually a similar mix to me so we cast one of her parents as Black and the other as Indian,” she says. “When I said, ‘You need to get proper hair and make-up teams,’ they were already on it. It was one of the first jobs I’ve done where they never queried the amount of non-white actors cast in roles.”
This week, Philippa Childs, head of entertainment union Bectu, said the organization is in “listening and planning mode” and “the onus is on the white majority to educate itself and speak up on behalf of their BAME [Black and Minority Ethnic] colleagues.”
Similar pledges have been made over the years by various production companies and broadcasters in order to support and bolster underrepresented talent, and due to the Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of the death of George Floyd in U.S. police custody, social media is brimming with renewed promises from these organizations. However, Ugoala says the Black community needs more than words and black boxes.
“I’m grateful for all the noise, but moving forward, I need you to realize how multifaceted this is and how you, in your big or little lane, can make it that bit easier,” he says. “Like having skin-tone underwear for Black actresses or casting directors, [to] writers and HR departments asking if there are enough Black people on shortlists. Reminding yourself that the best person for the job and the most diverse person for the job are not mutually exclusive.
“It’s by making those changes in different departments that we can really begin to combat this problem,” says Ugoala.