theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…
An article about the wonderfully gifted actor Sophie Okenedo in The Guardian (4th July 2014) mentioned that in order to find good parts she has to travel to the USA. She said, “I think a lot of it is [due to] costume and period drama, which must be, what, at least 40% of what we do here? Which means 40% of opportunities are closed to me already.”
Now this statement bothered me and not just because one of our best and brightest actors can’t find enough work in the UK. What’s really troubling is the apparent assumption amongst programme makers that costume and period drama is a Whites-Only zone. Peter Fryer’s Staying Power – the definitive history of black people in Britain – really ought to be required reading for anyone who produces period drama in the UK. Africans, Asians and their descendants have shaped British Culture and society from Roman times until the present. So why isn’t that represented on TV? Are programme makers in the UK simply ignorant? Or is something more sinister at work here? Have we whitewashed our history the way Hollywood has whitewashed it in the USA?
I grew up on a steady diet of B-movie Westerns in the cinema. On TV you just couldn’t get away from the things – Bonanza, The Virginian, Alias Smith and Jones, Rawhide the list goes on and on. The cowboys were always white, clean-shaven, morally upright and remarkably clean for men that lived a roving life on the open prairie.
When I started researching Buffalo Soldier I came across some startling statistics. Around 25% of cowboys and 25% of the US army during the “Wild West’ period were black.
I must have seen John Ford’s 1954 classic The Searchers for the first time when I was around five years old. I have a very clear memory of watching it with my father. Starring John Wayne it tells the story of Ethan Edwards, an ex-Confederate soldier who swears revenge after Comanches kill his brother’s family and abduct his niece, Debbie. The film made a huge impact on me at the time: I remember finding the idea of being captured by the Indians absolutely terrifying. But what was more terrifying was what happened when – after 5 years of searching – Ethan finally…
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