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‘Multiculturalism on TV has been hijacked’

REMEMBER THE TIMES: The cast of No Problem! with director Micky Dolenz (left)

WHEN GREG Dyke took over from John Birt as director general of the BBC in 2000, he famously criticised it for being ‘hideously white’ in reference to the scarcity of black and Asian people working within it.

It was the start of the new millennium – a time of optimism and new beginnings, especially for the BBC, which many people had started to view as a bit of a broadcasting dinosaur.

In the decades prior to Dyke’s appointment, the BBC had to cope with competition from newer, fresher terrestrial broadcasters like Channel 4 and Channel 5, along with countless other satellite stations.

But despite the competition and variety, it appears not much has improved in terms of race and multiculturalism. Critics have argued that there is no equal today for shows like Desmond’s or The Real McCoy.

CRITICS

Consequently, these critics are now looking beyond the BBC to ask if the whole industry itself is hideously white?

In an exclusive interview with The Voice, one of Britain’s most successful black television executives, Farrukh Dhondy, a former commissioning editor for multicultural programming at Channel 4 between 1984 and 1997, argues that it is.

The Indian-born writer and playwright, a former member of the British Black Panthers and a contributor to the respected Race Today publication, co-wrote the Channel 4 sitcom No Problem! It ran between 1983 and 1985 and focused on a Jamaican family living in Willesden, north London - one of the first shows of its kind.

He also commissioned the long-running sitcom Desmond’s (1989-1994), set in Peckham, south London, and current affairs programmes The Bandung File (1985-1991) and later Devil’s Advocate (1992-1996), both fronted by veteran journalist Darcus Howe.

“In television, there is an assumption that the ‘new’ communities of Britain are fully integrated into its mainstream contemporary culture and that the only factor that the industry now needs to take into account is the number of black and Asian faces appearing as newsreaders or soap opera characters,” said Dhondy.

“TV today simply ignores the cultural contribution of the ethnic communities – so what if a black person gets to do the tango on Strictly Come Dancing? What does that explore about race and culture? Don’t be fooled.”

John Mair, editor of the forthcoming book Is The BBC In Crisis? – which features essays from Dhondy, Sir Howard Davies, Peter Bazalgette and Michael Grade – agrees.


A PIONEER: Farrukh Dhondy

“I’m not sure that quotas work,” said Mair. “They just result in box ticking and somehow diversity policies seem to result in the rise for Anglo-Asians at the expense of Anglo-Africans. The television industry should look at football and the success of Herman Ouseley’s Kick It Out campaign which has, by and large, banished racism from the terraces and the field itself.”

BACKWARDS

Dhondy, now aged 70, argued that Britain’s television industry has “leapt backwards” in that it rarely makes intelligent black-specific programmes.

Television, he argued, has turned its back on multiculturalism in favour of monoculturalism, resulting in bland, boring and uninformative TV.

“The very concept of multiculturalism has been hijacked in recent years,” Dhondy asserted.

“When I was commissioning editor I made it my mission to fund and support television made by people of colour, which explored the contribution of different racial communities to the life of this country, be they Caribbean, African, Indian or whatever.”

“It should not be about what television can do for black people, it should be about what black people can do for television. Our communities are talented, educated and articulate but are struggling to gain space in the mainstream TV schedule,” he argued. “Can you name one current black or Asian programme?”

“It’s a challenge I struggle to meet - I can only think of the BBC’s Citizen Khan, a sitcom which has drastically falling ratings and a large catalogue of complaints from viewers (over 700 directly to the BBC and another 20 straight to Ofcom) but was nonetheless re-commissioned by the BBC for another series.

Citizen Khan takes us back several decades. It’s deeply patronising.”

With the lack of diversity that now exists on television, Dowdy said: “I am unsure who is watching it but I would hazard a guess it is enjoyed by a mainly white audience who enjoy the comfort of its clichés. That’s what goes now. I don’t think the programmes I wrote or commissioned could be repeated in today’s climate, but if the right commissioning editors were in place, experienced and bold people with at least some intimacy with the non-white cultures of Britain, then perhaps there could be other newer programmes which could be satisfyingly radical.”

In closing, the playwright and former TV executive suggested that “the industry – and our communities – need writers who will create well written work for a multicultural audience, but those who are today employed in TV seem to have adapted to the prevalent cultures of the industry rather than bringing anything new to it.”

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