Lenny Henry accuses TV industry of racism

Comedian Lenny Henry has accused the TV industry of racism.

Comedian Lenny Henry has accused the TV industry of racism.

Little has changed since the era of Alf Garnett, he said, arguing that affirmative action was needed to ensure more black faces both on screen and behind the camera.

“When I started, I was surrounded by a predominantly white workforce. Thirty-two years later, not a lot has changed,” he said in a speech to the Royal Television Society.

“How many black British comedians are working on mainstream TV today? One? Two? Ethnic minorities are pitifully under-served.

“Is there anybody going out to the comedy clubs with their diversity goggles on? Are the researchers casting their net far and wide? This is an area that needs a massive kick up the bum.”

Henry accused drama bosses of leaving out black and Asian faces, singling out period drama. His wife, Dawn French, is currently appearing in BBC One’s 'Lark Rise To Candleford'.

He said: “By the time Queen Victoria was on the throne, this country had a sizeable black population, so where are they? You can’t move for bonnets and crinolines and the people wearing them are all white.

“There is still so much work to do. When you can cast a Somalian girl in your piece simply because she’s the best actress or when you can cast an Asian girl, and she is not playing the victim of an arranged marriage, or cast a bloke with dreadlocks not playing a drug dealer, then we will have something to work on.”

Recalling the days of 'Till Death Us Do Part' and 'Love Thy Neighbour', Henry told the audience: “TV producers of the 1960s and 1970s missed a great opportunity. Rather than reflect the reality of multi-ethnic Britain they chose a more xenophobic route – emphasising points of difference instead of similarities.

“If they had been more truthful in their observations, who’s to say we couldn’t have encouraged more young black kids at school or prevented the Brixton riots even?”

'Till Death Us Do Part' backfired horribly, he added, being “adopted as a hero by the very people he was satirising”.

The writers tried to ensure that in each storyline, Garnett came off the worst.

But Henry said: “When I went to school the next morning, it was always me who came off worst. Context is everything. Alf Garnett was a ludicrous character, and in the right context pretty funny, but put him against the background of Enoch Powell’s ’Rivers of Blood’ speech – is he so funny then?”

He called for affirmative action in the industry, adding: “And I am not talking about cleaners, security guys... I am talking about decision-makers.”

Henry himself appeared in a touring production of 'The Black And White Minstrel Show' in the 1970s.

“I look at those photos now and I want to shoot everyone involved. Including myself,” he said.

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