The following is a transcript that was freely available on the web but since removed. I have kept this document since 2008 and regularly sent it to all my diverse media friends because of the positive mission statements Mr Henry was making. Weirdly the same statements are now being said but from a greater numbers of people in the BAME community.
*I am only publishing this so people can read for themselves something said way back in 2008, otherwise i would have just posted a link. I will take it down if i have infringed any copyrights*
“The Road To Diversity Is Closed…Please Seek Alternate Route”
A speech given by Lenny Henry
to the Royal Television Society
on Thursday 7 February 2008
at the Cavendish Conference Centre, London
Good evening, yes, I am Lenny Henry. I am an actor, comedian and writer and I’m going to ask you to THINK BOLD tonight. Think Bold. Ok?
A couple of months ago, I was approached by the Royal Television Society to deliver a speech about diversity in the TV industry.
Now diversity is actually a very complex issue – it covers all sorts of things: Gender, Ethnicity, Disability, Religion, Culture – but I had to write this from my own perspective and my own experience about the things that I really care passionately about. I make no apologies about that; I can only wave one flag at a time.
So tonight I’m going to talk mainly about ethnicity.
I’m going to talk about the TV programmes my family and I endured in the 60s and 70s and how rare the appearance of an ethnic minority was back then.
I’m going to talk about my early days in the business, the mistakes I made, and the things I’ve learnt along the way. I’ll also be discussing the current state of the British television industry and the need for affirmative action.
Do we want quotas? Or can we depend on the goodwill of a few movers and shakers —- white movers and shakers, in top positions?
I’m going to be looking at ways we can change things. Because I want this speech to be a catalyst, I don’t want you to feel that coming to this speech is just an opportunity to tick another box… That’s ethnicity dealt with, TICK! No. I want you to go out and take practical steps, bold steps – to improve diversity wherever you are:
If you’re not going to take positive action starting tomorrow –please leave now.
Good. Now I know that most of you want to see change happen, that’s why you’ve come along tonight – thank you. Some of you might be thinking, ‘I’ve heard all this before, Len, you’re just preaching to the choir …’ Well, you’re gonna hear it again. And you’re gonna go on hearing it, until you actually do something.
But first of all, I want to take you back to a wonderful time – when there was free love, you could leave your front door open all day, and the only mobile phone was the Tardis.
Yes ladies and gentlemen, I’m talking about the golden age of TV.
TV producers of the 60s and 70s missed a great opportunity. Rather than reflect the reality of multi ethnic Britain they chose a more xenophobic route – emphasizing points of difference instead of similarities.
If they had been more truthful in their observations – showing Britain as it actually was – who’s to say we couldn’t have encouraged more young black kids to perform at a higher level in school or prevented the Brixton riots even?
Television could have had a profound effect on race relations in the UK, which is why it matters that what was actually on offer was so mediocre in terms of quality and intention.
When I first started watching TV, there were no black people on it at all. That was in the days of black and white television. They should have called it white and white television.
If a black person did come on, people thought there was something wrong with the set (fiddle with contrast with one hand phone in hand) “Hullo-Radio Rentals? There’s a dark bloke on my telly. Can you come and get him off?” (Fiddle) “he’s still there.”
The only black people constantly on telly were the Black and White minstrels.
And they were white! White blokes with black shoe polish on their faces-and big white lips. Accurate! What did they do, sit in front of the mirror and go “What do black people look like? I know!” (Draw huge lips on self)
My mom would be this close to the screen “Well it’s nice to see some black people on TV for a change. But look at those lips. They must be from one of the small islands.”
We had CY Grant, the king of calypsos and, in the early 70s, Derek Griffiths on Play School. If a black or ethnic minority person was featured in a TV show, we noticed.
We loved the telly in our house
Even Till Death Us Do Part. Johnny Speight created the racist, right wing, monster Alf Garnett, brilliantly portrayed by Warren Mitchell. You might say that Speight was being brutally honest about how racist white people spoke about ethnic minorities, but it didn’t stop Alf being adopted as a hero by the very people he was satirizing.
Speight tried to ensure that in each story line, Alf came off the worst. But when I went to school the next morning, it was always me who came off worst.
Wog, Coon and Paki were just some of the words parroted back to me in the playground. I tried to explain that I was not in fact from Pakistan, but Philip Sherman decided to overlook this technicality, as he repeatedly kneed me in the crotch.
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?
If scriptwriters and producers knew how influential they were, they wouldn’t bandy offensive terms around quite so readily – post ironic or not.
Words like Wog, Paki and Coon back then, and Chav and Pikey today, have a profound effect on our communities.
We used to watch Love Thy Neighbour, Mixed Blessings, Mind Your Language, It Ain’t Half Hot Mom, Curry and Chips… I remember my family’s reaction to these programmes – we enjoyed them because it felt like we were being included. “Look! They’ve put someone in it who looks like us, so it must be for us.”
The problem with these shows is that they all led with race as their premise. You couldn’t see a black or Asian face on the screen without some dialogue about the problems they had ‘fitting in’.
This was very different to the American TV we watched at the time
In the sixties Bill Cosby starred in I-Spy – and later in the 80s he had his own show, The Cosby Show, playing a successful middle class family man. Without any dialogue at all about him not ‘fitting in.’
It was number one in the Nielsen ratings for five consecutive seasons, won three Emmy’s, three golden globes and featured in Time magazine’s fifty greatest TV show’s of all time. Proving that a mass audience could identify with a black family and not perceive them to be any different from themselves.
Meanwhile I’d be in front of the TV on a Sunday night – watching All Creatures Great and Small, Miss Marple, Darling Buds of May, Jeeves and Wooster – And never see a black face. They all depicted pre-immigration Britain: blue skies, green fields, and white people. The National Front wouldn’t meet on Sunday evening – they were all at home in front of the box going “Perfick.”
It’s like today – you can’t move for ‘Bonnets and Crinolines’ on the telly and the people wearing them are all white. By the time Queen Victoria was on the throne- this country had a sizeable black population – so where are they when I turn on the telly?
It’s like there’s a rule about showing actual black people in Britain on screen, for fear of the audience having to actually speak to the real black people living in the next street.
That’s the world I grew up in, there was both witting and unwitting racism; you rarely saw a black or brown person on the screen – and when you did, they were always talking about just how black or brown they were.
America was light years ahead of us when it came to on screen diversity
Unfortunately I wasn’t living in America – I lived in Dudley.
By the time I became a regular on TV I was very aware of the lack of people who looked like me on screen and behind the camera.
It was a very lonely time, on mainstream telly back then… but I can’t complain, because I bought my mom a house.
When I was a young comic, I used to watch The Comedians – Johnny Hamp’s legendary show, featuring comics from pubs, cabaret, and workingmen’s clubs.
Like Ken Goodwin, Frank Carson, Jim Bowen, Roy Walker, and the late Bernard Manning – wonder where Bernard is now?
Hope it’s warm.
But Hamp did do a bold thing. He introduced us to Charlie Williams, Sammy Thomas and Jos White – three black comedians. All from up north.
You have to understand, at this point in my life, I’d only really ever heard black people speak American, Jamaican, African, London. Or Dudley. I didn’t know there were black people up north. My family’d watch The Comedians with their jaws on the floor. We were like David Attenborough watching crabs mating on Christmas Island.
(Broad Dudley) How come Charlie Williams talks like that?
(Jamaican) I don’t know, boy, what you asking me for?
And they were very clever, because they did the kind of jokes that endeared them to a white audience… “If you don’t laugh I’ll come and move in next door to you”.
Almost as if they were saying: ‘I’ll stab myself in the heart before you do’
This was the environment in which I began my career in 1975.
Now if Tony Robinson’s Time Team were doing a dig in the X Factor studio, they might just uncover some remains – the bones of a long extinct TV dinosaur that once dominated the airwaves.
Yes, I’m talking about New Faces; the TV talent show that discovered Marti Caine, Showaddywaddy, Michael Barrymore, Les Dennis, Victoria Wood and of course…the Chuckle Brothers!
To you, to me, thanks for that New Faces!
After winning that show several times, I landed the role of Sonny Foster, in the imaginatively named sit-com, The Fosters.
It was the first all-black British sit-com. Made by an all-white production team. So we had a white writer, a white director and a white producer, all telling this black family how to behave.
‘Well at 6 O’clock at my house, we usually have a sherry and break out the petit fours… Is that the sort of thing you’d do?’
All really nice people to work with, of course, but no way did this show reflect a typical black household anywhere in the UK that I’d ever seen.
Round about this time Spike Milligan, God bless him, got some stick for blacking up to play an Indian. Michael Bates got into trouble for doing it in It Ain’t Half Hot Mom. Dave Allen blacked up now and then for his sketch show – no one said anything to him. But I was hip deep in camel cack when I got booked to be the only real black guy in the Black and White Minstrel Show.
No one told me it wasn’t cool. It was hard labour, for four years, there was a club tour, a winter show, and Sunday concerts… it was tough.
No one in my family came to see me. At least they say they didn’t, but I remember one night in Blackpool; there were some very big people on the back row with brown paper bags over their heads. The one at the end with the handbag kept going ‘Ha hey! He’s as good as Doddy!’
No one told me that it might not be cool to be in the Minstrels. There was no one that looked like me that I could turn to for advice.
The papers got a photograph of me and one of the minstrels – with me wiping his face and leaving a trail of pink skin, and him wiping white make off onto my face – so we both looked like we were strangely white. I look at these pictures now and I want to shoot everyone involved. Including myself.
The clubs were the same:
Wherever I performed I would be the only black person in a completely Caucasian environment.
Naively, I toed the line: I did what Charlie and Sammy and Jos had done before me – Tell the ‘darkie jokes’ and take the money.
That’s how things were back then.
When I first went to work at the BBC; the only black people there were the guys on the gate and the women in the canteen.
So a) I didn’t need a pass to get in and b) I always got extra helpings at lunchtime…
Canteen lady:’ Come on eat up – you need to put on weight. If you’re the only black guy with his own show on TV, there’s got to be more of you’
At the beginning of the 1980’s my life was to change with the explosion of ‘Alternative Comedy’.
The older comedians used to say ‘you know why they call it alternative comedy don’t you – they’re not funny!’
But to me, it was liberating.
The alternatives declared themselves to be non-racist and non-sexist. And having been through what I’d been through in club land, I wanted to join in.
Paul Jackson was very plugged into all this and, as a result, was a huge influence on me. I jettisoned anything that pandered to the racist element in the audience. By the end of 1982, I was doing a completely new act featuring material from my new show which Paul produced and directed –Three of a Kind.
Before we launched the show at the beginning of 1981 we had an open day where writers could come and meet Tracey Ullman, David Copperfield and myself.
We all made speeches about the type of show we wanted to do: non-sexist, non-racist etc, and then we mingled.
I met some fantastic writers, some of whom I still work with today. But, even though there were over 200 writers in the room, not one of them was from an ethnic minority. Not one.
All of those guys were on the starting blocks of their careers, and quite a few of them have ended up working on some of the top shows in TV.
Perhaps if we’d been bolder, and included some black and brown faces in that room, they too could have had a career in this business – but they weren’t given a chance.
And who’s to say, what the effect would have been on Three of a Kind, or any of the Lenny Henry shows, if there had been a diversity of voices on those productions. Who’s to say what influence they may have had on what ended up on screen?
So what am I saying here? I’m saying – that when I started, I was surrounded by a predominantly white work force. 32 years later… not a lot has changed.
To walk on set and find a black D.O.P, or an Asian boom operator, is as rare as seeing John McCririck on the front cover of Vanity Fair. I think that’s a great shame.
So, to show you what you’re missing, we’ve actually done a mock up for you…
I’m sorry; I should have issued a warning before showing that picture.
Stephen K. Amos there, from Live at the Apollo.
I have to watch meself with him –I caught him in my back garden last week in a balaclava with a semi automatic…
but is what he said true?
When I started there were four black comedians you might see on TV: Charlie Williams, Sammy Thomas, Jos White and occasionally – Kenny Lynch.
How many black British comedians are there working on mainstream TV today? How many can you think of?
Miss Jocelyn, Felix Dexter, Stephen K. Amos, Gina Yashere, Junior Simpson.
This is appalling. As far as comedy is concerned in this country, ethnic minorities are pitifully underserved. Why?
Where’s the new initiative in comedy? Is anybody going out to clubs with their Diversity goggles on? Looking for black / Asian or whatever comedians?
If they’re looking for stand-ups for a new show, do the researchers and producers cast their net wide?
Do they go to the Hackney Empire, or any of the ethnic minority comedy nights put on by Upfront comedy or Harmony productions all over the country? Or do they head down to Jongleurs, the Comedy store, or up the Edinburgh festival, the same as they always do?
This is an area that needs a massive kick up the bum.
An area that I think has got it right is Children’s TV, particularly at the BBC. There’ll you’ll see black, white, mixed race and Asian presenters, you’ll see people with disabilities, you’ll see every sort of person that you’re likely to meet in every day life.
Richard Deverell, Controller of Children’s BBC, has taken a bold, three-pronged approach to diversity:
Prong number one:
Each member of the board has a relationship with an organization that works with children from diverse communities, such as Whiz kids, or the National Deaf Children’s Society. The result is a mutual growth in understanding. With the national Deaf Children’s society, they went further and produced guidelines, which are available to all broadcasters, on how TV can better serve deaf children. So what they’re doing, influences TV across the board; I think it’s called a ‘ripple effect’
Prong number two:
They ensure that diversity is represented on screen, by having a specific clause written into their contracts with independent producers; which means diversity is always raised at commissioning.
The Indies (and In House) know, it is something they have to take into account– it’s not just an after-thought.
Prong number three: is to improve diversity behind the cameras. After all, a more diverse work force, will more naturally, and better portray, diverse communities.
They have schemes to encourage those who would love to work for the BBC, but lack confidence –They’ve had a few successes here, for instance Andy Akinwolere.
The Blue Peter presenter – and triple word scrabble score – came via this route.
This is the way it should be done; if other organizations follow Richard’s example you won’t have to listen to another speech like this in five years time.
Another area that gets it right is the news.
Come on! We’ve got – Mark Eddo, Nina Hussein, George Alagiah, Joyce o Hajah, And the king -Trevor McDonald! One night you’ll be watching TV and Trev will go…
“Good evening Brothers and sisters, we have taken control! Seize the power. Smash the government. Overthrow the police. But first the headlines.”
The reason News has such a diverse on screen presence is partly due to schemes like Move On Up, a bold initiative set up by BECTU in 2002.
They’ve got over a thousand black and ethnic minority professionals on their books; they broker meetings between these professionals, and executives from more than seventy companies in film, television and radio.
It’s networking. A bit like speed dating but with a career at the end, not a shag.
And what’s happening in drama?
One of the places you’re most likely to see a representation of multicultural Britain is in the Queen Vic on Albert square.
In a recent survey, ethnic minority characters accounted for 13% of the cast of Eastenders. (Cockney) “It’s sorted!”
Hospital dramas too, it seems, are safe ground for minority actors. 25% of the casts of Casualty, Doctors, and Holby City are from an ethnic minority. I was watching Holby the other night – there were so many brothers and sista’s on it, I thought I was watching a repeat of Roots!
In hospitals all over the country, the staff rooms are full of people going –“Tundi, look at this – I want to go there and see if I can get a job!”
The British public is now becoming used to seeing the occasional black, brown or yellow face in mainstream contemporary drama. There’s a black actor playing an assistant in Waking the Dead, there’s a black actor playing an assistant in Spooks and up until recently there was a black actress playing an assistant in Dr Who.
Who knows, one day we might actually see a black actor playing someone in charge….
There is still work to do. And while we’re about it – lets cut the stereotyping right now: when you can cast a Somalian girl in your piece simply because she is the best actor for the job, when you can cast an Asian actress and she’s not the victim of an arranged marriage, when you can cast a Jamaican man with dreadlocks and he’s not a drug dealer… then we will have achieved something.
When you can see past their foreignness – and just live with their talent and make a decision based on that, and that alone then we’ll have made a change and I can’t wait for that day.
Now, some of the statisticians in the audience, may be sitting there thinking, ‘This is all very well Len but where are the figures for overall staffing within the British television industry?”
And the Royal Television Society told me that the best way to present figures is in a pie chart…
Here we are:
These pies represent ethnic diversity within the industry- Lets start with the BBC pie and, as you can see, the BBC’s target figure was 12.5 percent, and they actually have: 10.6 percent. So – lagging a bit there. Bit of a smaller pie.
The target for senior managers was 7%,
And you actually have: 4.38 percent…so a much smaller pie there…To Christopher Biggins that would be a mere canapé.
I love you, you paid for my car, but buck your ideas up.
Coming to ITV’s pies now.
Now, ITV set no formal targets, so we’ve got two empty plates there…
They have seven percent across the network –
That’s low –what’s going on there?
And then it gets a bit scrappy here, because instead of a percentage of senior management they’ve said they have… “One in three GMTV production trainees and two senior ITN managers.”
At the risk of not snagging a primetime drama series with Robson Green and Caroline Quentin -that’s rubbish…
I can’t really represent that with a pie, so I’ve just given them half a sausage roll, a handful of peanuts and two cheese balls, which coincidentally, is what’s in Johnny Vegas’ pockets right now.
So ITV need to get baking.
Come on ITV –get your apron on, smear some butter in that baking tray – and fix us up some Diversity Pie!
Channel 4 –their target was 13% and they achieved 12 percent. Very little difference in the pie size there – they could be twins. Very well done.
Your target for senior staff was 9%
And you have 7% – that’s not bad – at least you’re trying… you can have a dollop of cream for that.
Lastly, we have Channel Five’s results. Their target was 13%, and they actually have 10.3 %
That’s not shameful is it? You could eat that!
If you do better next year I might even get you a tin opener..
And they didn’t have a target for senior management, so an empty plate there…
But they do have 7% in senior management, so they get a reasonably sized pie for that.
But you could do better five – As the renowned 20th century philosopher Jockey Wilson once said:
If you haven’t got a target, what are you going to aim at?
And there’s a man who knows about pies.
The pie chart ladies and gentlemen. Give it up!
‘The road to diversity is closed. Please seek alternate routes.’
That’s the title of my talk and, I have to be realistic, what if nothing happens? What if nothing changes? Is there an alternate route?
What if you guys, sit there –listen to all this and then go back to the office tomorrow and do nothing about it?
Some years ago, the late great Norman Beaton approached me with an idea he said, ‘Bana! This isn’t good enough – we’re being told what to write, perform and act by people who don’t know what they talkin’ about!’ (That’s the clean version by the way). He said ‘Boy, we need producers, directors, executives -people who look like us! Unless we control this thing, they gonna keep excluding us. Only letting us play the waiter, or the third nurse from the left, or the fourth cop from the right… Is that what you wanna do with your life?’ Eh?’
And I laughed because it was easy for me in those days; I had my own TV show, and Production Company. Then he said ‘Lenny man, what we need is our own TV station. We could make our own shows brudder! Dramas, comedies, documentaries-We could do It ….’
There is an argument for commissioning ethnic minority programmes and broadcasting them on specific channels.
1xtra, MTV Base and Zee TV are all hugely popular
But whenever I watch these channels, all I see is a ghetto – and I don’t know about you, but I’ve never wanted to live in the ghetto.
I don’t know anybody who does. You never meet people from the home counties going ‘ I’m thinking of relocating to the Ghetto, there are some marvellous opportunities there – apparently , one can purchase crack cocaine and set fire to a police car. What larks!’
Nobody wants to be in the ghetto, OK? We all want to live in the mainstream, where everyone gets a chance to compete for the same prizes.
When I work in the States I don’t see this problem – They’ve got ‘on screen diversity down’
Now I know what you’re thinking – ‘How can a country much more racist than the UK make such great strides while we’re making pigeon steps?’
Well, I would say that slavery, the KKK, lynching’s, race riots, segregation, more lynchings, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, more lynchings, non violent protest, Malcolm X, violent protest, Louis Farrakhan, the beating of Rodney King, the LA riots, Spike Lee, the million man march, Barack Obama – and of course the mighty Oprah Winfrey…probably had something to do with it.
Do we really have to go through everything they went through to just to get some more black and brown faces in Coronation Street? Do you really want a million men marching to Weatherfield to protest about the lack of ethnic diversity in the Rovers Return?
I’d like to see that episode: (Northern) ‘Hey Michelle – these blokes outside want a million pints of bitter and two packets of crisps.’
Our industry has to change – if we are going to truly represent multicultural Britain in the 21st century; we must, as Hamlet instructed the player king, ‘hold, as twere, the mirror up to nature.’
Because it hurts to be excluded.
I know I keep banging on about this –in fact, I got an email a few weeks ago from a bloke complaining, that he’d seen me on the Hootenanny talking about there not being enough ethnic minorities on the telly he said: You’re always banging on about race- Have you got a chip on your shoulder? Get over yourself!’
That’s what he said! That’s like a bloke who’s done twenty years in jail for a crime he didn’t commit, protesting his innocence and the guy in the next cell says ‘You’ve really got a chip on your shoulder haven’t you? Can’t you change the record pal?’
Well if that’s having a chip on your shoulder, yes, I’ve got one. And I’m proud of it. It’s a big, fat juicy chip, and it’s not going anywhere until you guys prove to me I can take it off.
So what can we do?
Well – At the beginning of the Nineties
When I was chairman of Crucial films,
The first thing I did was instigate an initiative called A Step Forward. It was a bold step.
The BBC funded a three-day course for young writers from a multi ethnic background. Everyone in the industry came to talk with them, –and they got to work with some of the best comedy writers and producers at the time -John Lloyd, Richard Curtis, Jimmy Moir, Charlie Hanson, James Hendrie.
It was a great success and some of those writers went on to work on Eastenders, Casualty, Babyfather and of course The Real McCoy, which grew out of that initiative.
The other thing we did was to ensure that whenever possible we had a multi ethnic cast and crew. I told my executive producers to go out there and find them. And it was a revelation.
I met so many talented people: soundmen, directors of photography, make-up artists, first, second and third ADs -, whatever they do -these people are out there.
They just want the chance to do their jobs. We can’t just rely on good will – Casting and crewing from a multi ethnic talent pool is the way forward. Affirmative action is needed if this is going to happen….Affirmative action… from you.
The Cultural Diversity Network has been organizing meetings, setting targets and running workshops, and I really hope that we will begin to see the results of those endeavours very soon.
From now, you need to start thinking of Diversity as an asset, not a problem.
Britain’s cultural diversity has changed more rapidly than any time since the Norman invasion.
(Now you’re just taking the piss)
The TV industry is going to have to adapt if it is to stay alive.
People are already moving away from mainstream entertainments to look at things on the Internet, their phones, on cable and satellite TV.
There are at least 15 South Asian satellite TV channels broadcasting on the Sky Digital platform.
Black Entertainment Television is about to launch its UK network.
I say to you now, if you want to keep your viewers you’ve got to adapt.
Because , if you don’t adapt …
I know what you’re thinking, you’re thinking –‘why me?’
Well if not you, who? If not now When?
During my career, I’ve been mentored, advised and nurtured by many talented and kind people. My only wish is that future generations of talented individuals from ethnic minorities will be afforded the same privilege.
But so that wish can come true here’s what I want you to do tomorrow. This is where you have to be bold…
And I’m not talking about cleaners, security guys, scene shifters, or anyone wearing a uniform – I’m talking about decision makers, producers, directors, commissioners. Who knows, it’s possible that a black man might become the leader of the free world – why not a Director General of the BBC – pulling up outside in a Cadillac?
He still wouldn’t get in ‘General Who? Do you know Lenny Henry?’
At the beginning, I asked you to be bold. I have here a quote, it’s from Goethe, and it’s about making a decision, committing oneself and being bold:
“The moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favour all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it n