Plans for a more ‘British’ TV could threaten the industry’s potential for diverse brilliance
What makes a British TV show? Former Media Secretary John Whittingdale had some ideas when he recently announced the government’s plan to require UK public service broadcasters to produce ‘uniquely British’ programs. Speaking at the Royal Television Society convention in Cambridge, he noted:
Britishness is, of course, a nebulous concept. It means different things to each of us in this room. And yet, we all know it when we see it on our screens. The kind of stuff we all grew up with. Only madmen and horses, daddy’s army, go on. Most recently, The Great British Bake Off and Line of Duty.
While such shows undoubtedly have lasting appeal, Whittingdale’s announcement, intentionally or unintentionally, placed the government’s vision for entertainment firmly in the current cultural wars. His hypothesis of a common “us” represented by these shows and who benefits from them is, without doubt, where the problem begins.
The programs Whittingdale is referring to speak of a distinctly white, masculine, able-bodied, English Britain. If, as Whittingdale insisted in his speech, “our national identity is built on the cultural industries”, it is important to see why such attempts to define and control the identity of the United Kingdom are sinister and to know who s ‘erased in this vision of “britishness”.
In the past two years alone, British television has presented soap operas that speak to a more modern Britain. The amazing We Are Lady Parts, directed and produced by Nida Manzoor, was a riot, featuring a diverse group of Muslim women themselves front and center. It’s A Sin by Russell T Davies told the story of the AIDS experience among gay men in the 1980s with such joy, power and political force that he garnered 19 million views on the All 4 streaming platform.
Michaela Coel’s Emmy Award I May Destroy You broke the mold, with Guardian reporter Lucy Mangan proclaiming it “an extraordinary and mind-boggling exploration of consent, race and millennial life that works at all. levels “. Most recently, Sophie Willan’s semi-autobiographical sitcom Alma’s Not Normal explored the life of a newly single born in Bolton, trying to pay her bills, pull herself together and support her addicted mother. The humor of the series is exuberant and deliberately over-the-top, a throwback to the genius of Paul Abbott’s early Shameless.
What all of these shows have in common is a diversity of real-life experiences drawn by their creators and writers to create brilliant television. These shows are neither dull nor dull. They are bold, tense and turn audience emotions into a dime. They speak and represent in a way that feels familiar to them, as the stories and characters are based on the real modern Britain, rather than an imaginary version of it. They represent a country that is far from the examples of Whittingdale.
The cultural crisis
Yet they do not represent the typical production of the television industry, nor most of the people who run it. The crisis of contemporary and even future television is not, I would say, a crisis of “britishness” as Whittingdale suggests, but a crisis of inequality and diversity. As Michaela Coel, historian and host David Olusoga and, more recently, screenwriter Jack Thorne have pointed out in their respective MacTaggart lectures over the past three years, the one constant in the ever-innovative sphere of British television is the structural exclusion: women, the working class, people of color, the disabled.
This has been confirmed by many other academic researchers, as well as by my own recent study which showed that the social mobility of screenwriters in the UK is inherently different and unequal from that of their male counterparts.
As part of my recent research into UK TV performance and production cultures, I interviewed people with experience working in screen industries. This involved working with professionals from across the UK and independent production company Candor to create a series of short films called Industry Voices.
As research-led films show, people of color, people with disabilities, women, mothers, working class people and those living outside London do not have the same opportunities and disadvantages are worse if they fall into more than one of these groups. Obstacles to their progression are built into the structure of the industry and, if they get a starting break, remain so throughout their careers.
Television needs more diverse voices and stories. He claims it both on screen and on screen. Yet the evidence shows that British television remains predominantly white, wealthy, able-bodied and masculine, even when those in front of the camera are not.
Whittingdale’s vision on and for Britain may seem certain to him, but it does not reflect the present or the future of the country. Plans for a ‘distinctly British’ quota in this mold only perpetuate the exclusion we see today.