“Watch where you’re going nigger.” Shouted a large, leather clad biker after he nearly knocked me down one spring afternoon in 1998 when my mother and I were on our way to what is now the Morrison’s in Peckham. Even at that age I had to look around for who he was talking to because I personally didn’t know any niggers and I knew for damn sure I wasn’t one. Look, the truth was I didn’t even know I was black until I returned to Britain or rather I didn’t know it was a thing. I had lived in Zimbabwe with my grandparents up until late 1996 and had started life with black, brown and white friends who I considered all to be the same, to me we were all Africans. More than that we were all just people. When I got to London I didn’t understand why the houses were so close together, why the cold was a palpable thing you could almost touch or why people who looked like me were so hard to find on the TV. Thank God my mum, in her infinite wisdom, always knew which channel and at what time black people would be on the TV. As the nineties wound down and the noughties took hold it became harder and harder to find black or brown people on mainstream British Television in shows made for and by us. One by one my favourite British TV shows for people of colour were killed off; 3 Non-Blondes 2003, The Crouches in 2005, The Kumars at No.42 in 2006, Little Miss Jocelyn in 2008 and soon all I had left was my beloved Sky channel; Trouble.
Trouble catered specifically to me and it was where I went to watch the shows I cared about Desmond’s, The Cosby’s, Moesha, The Parkers, The Steve Harvey Show, Dawson’s Creek, Hangin With Mr Cooper, In The House (do you remember IN THE HOUSE with LL Cool J?), Sweet Valley High, Hang Time (Anthony Anderson has been in this game for a long time), One On One and to be honest it was where my love and appreciation for American TV was born and cultivated. I loved it and couldn’t get enough of it. Trouble came on air at 7pm just as The Simpsons was finishing on Channel 4 and I was always ready. Why did I love American TV so much? Simply because I was represented. It is why to this day I still love American TV. My mind thirsts for and yearns to see images of people who look like me in the media I consume. The Right Honourable Prophet Idris Elba said it best in his powerful diversity speech at the Houses of Parliament; “People in the TV world often aren’t the same as people in the real world... I never saw myself or my culture on TV, I stopped watching TV.”
I work at a television post production facility and to my friends there, it perplexes them that I rarely know any of their TV references. And to be quite honest their perplexities perplex me. How can you expect me to watch programmes that weren’t made for me, do not speak to me and do not care about me? I mean, I loved Little Britain and Catherine Tate, Gavin & Stacey and Shameless but to allow an endless stream of whiteness into my mind without tempering it with who I am as a black woman is almost criminal. “Oh, but Dani, you mustn’t look at things always as a racial problem.” But it is easy to say that when you do not need to look for representation, you can turn on the TV and immediately see yourself. For me, finding shows where I felt included were like looking for the proverbial needle in the haystack. But I found those needles, yes I did- Sugar Rush [Channel 4,2005], Being Human[BBC 3, 2008], Misfits [E4, 2009], Some Girls [BBC3, 2012] but these shows were so few and far between that the shows themselves became tokens.
As Channel 4’s Dubplate Drama ended in 2009, the same year that Trouble was taken off the air, the underrepresented, yet supremely talented people of colour in Britain had had enough and took control of their stories, how and when they were told. They wrote, cast, filmed and edited entire mini series and distributed them on YouTube. The revolution started with Venus Vs Mars in 2009, and was then followed by Brothers With No Game and Man Dem On The Wall in 2011 and Corner Shop in 2013. The lack of opportunity and support had forced them to be the change they wished they could see. And yet mainstream British TV paid nowhere the amount of attention they should have to the statement being made about the state of emergency its diversity was in.
I liked Top Boy [Channel 4, 2011]- scratch that, I LOVED Top Boy, it was authentic, I recognised the faces, I knew the stories. The stories were not my story, but I knew them. LOL! Then I found out that Top Boy was written by a now 60 year old white man, Ronan Bennett. This did little to damper my love for the show but it was significant to me. Not only were black people only allowed to be on British TV when we were making people laugh, selling drugs or Idris Elba [Luther, BBC1 2010] but we were not allowed to tell our own stories. And it hurt my feelings because while I myself might not have been able to tell that kind of story back then I know personally and know of in general so many brilliant black, brown, LGBTQIA and disabled writers who are fully equipped to tell not only Top Boy, but so many of our own stories. “Talent is everywhere, opportunity isn’t. And talent can’t reach opportunity.
Especially on our small island – that’s why British talent gets exported all over the world.”- Idris Elba, January 2016.
And this is why I watch American TV, simply because I’m involved. Not because it’s better. America has its own diversity issues, but I know for a fact that I can turn on BET, ABC, OWN, The CW, TV One, HBO (this list could go on) and find someone who looks like me doing something interesting. British talent, along with British viewership, are being exported elsewhere is because of the singularity of not only the people starring on the TV but the people creating the shows themselves. In 2009, horrified parents complained and even threatened to ban their children from watching CBeebies because a presenter, Cerrie Burnell, has one arm and they feared that she would give their children nightmares. The problem is not the children, it is the adults who are fearful of people who are different from them. Kids don’t care. Kids want Ribena and Cbeebies. Twelve percent of the UK are not white, 6.5% of us are not straight, over 9 million of us are disabled and we want to see ourselves on the telly. We live here, are educated here, raise our children here, pay taxes AND TV licence. We are British too and we demand to see ourselves reflected in the TV we consume. When inclusion and representation are truly realised on British TV maybe, just maybe, next time there’s a disabled presenter on the telly, white, CIS, able bodied people wont freak out because the world they live in will be truly visible to them, they can no longer ignore that we all exist and we want a piece of the pie too. Elba and Burnell are fantastic examples of how important diversity is, but one or two are not enough; singularity spawns stereotypes. I am a total fan girl of Michael Coel and her fantastic work on Chewing Gum. But there are so many other Michael Coel's who are going unnoticed. If British TV bosses want to ensure they do not continue to hemorrhage British talent to more welcoming and inclusive markets abroad, they must make way for the underrepresented and let us make British TV as great as I know it can be.