So, the TV series everyone (well, maybe just my Twitter timeline), is talking about is the American political thriller drama Scandal. Both sleek and clever, the show shines light on the inner workings of politics and the daily tasks of media aides and spin-doctors. But as well as its gripping script and capable cast, another remarkable thing about Scandal is its black female middle class protagonist, whose ethnicity isn't ignored but is also not the main narrative. In light of the more culturally diverse UK according to the recent census, it left me wondering, whether this could ever be the case for a British drama?
Olivia Pope, played by Kerry Washington, is a lawyer who runs a crisis management firm, which aids both the White House and the Republican Party. Pope, whose character is based on George Bush's former press aide Judy Smith, is a fixer and arguably more powerful than the clients she serves. Flashbacks throughout the series highlight that she was responsible for putting her love interest, the Republican Fitzgerald Grant, played by Tony Goldwyn, into the White House and rightly or wrongly, saving the reputation of many high-flying senators. She's known to make decisions based on her 'gut' and puts the interest of her clients sometimes before justice. "In a case like this, perception is more important than evidence" she explains.
The TV series, created by Shonda Rhimes, has a diverse and believable cast. Rhimes, known for her colour-blind casting technique makes two of the main characters black and two gay. This is far from tokenism, these characters have meaningful roles and are deeply embedded into Rhime's plotline, suggesting US television has made greater advancements than British in being representative of its audience. Of course there have been outcries regarding the whitewashing of US programs in the past such as Friends and more recently Girls, but undoubtedly, programs made from the other side of the pond feel more inclusive. Shows likes The Wire, Grey's Anatomy and 24 have all featured black middle class families, not to mention the likes of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, The Cosby Show and Sister, Sister, whilst UK television has mostly failed on this part.
In the UK, we seem to over represent black people on television from lower classes, focusing mainly on those who live in urban areas. As entertaining as they are, do we really need another drama set in the inner cities like Channel 4's Top Boy? Past dramas such as the BBC's dire and patronising sitcom The Crouches come to mind when thinking about low points. Also the bizarre appearance of UK rapper Dizzee Rascal on BBC's Newsnight after Barack Obama's election victory in 2008 (I'm eagerly awaiting Cheryl Cole's one-to-one with Paxo). Editorial decisions like this give a really distorted view of black culture, and make the idea that the UK may just actually have a black middle class inconceivable.
However, the question of whether UK television could better represent minorities isn't a new one. Homeland actor David Harewood said regarding the situation, "Commissioning editors and advertisers don't see us as a target market and because of that we're not really part of the fabric of society". Like many British black actors, he's had to search oversees due to the lack of suitable roles for ethnic minorities in the UK. And considering that according to the recent census only 45% of people in the capital, where most production companies are based, identify as white British, this maybe shouldn't be the case.
But does it even matter who plays whom? For those who are socially excluded on screen, it just might. David Palmer, the black president in the US series 24 was not only voted as the favorite on-screen president, he was also arguably responsible for normalising the idea of a real life black leader of the free world. As well as being a form of escapism, TV is supposed to be informative and break down issues in society its viewers may not understand or be familiar with.
We praise TV when it tackles difficult topics such as religion, poverty or sexuality; the issue of an invisible black middle class is just the same. Playwright Bonnie Greer said on Newsnight a couple of weeks ago that the results of the 2011 census would have been less of a shock for some if we had better representation in politics and the media. And with recent comments on Facebook regarding Britain's increasing diversity such as "majority only come for our NHS and dole money", I think she may have a point.
You can watch all the episodes of the first series of Scandalhere.