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Comedian Lenny Henry advocates diversity on TV

February 15, 2008

The black comedian Lenny Henry, famous in the UK for his role in ITV’s “Three of a kind”, called yesterday for a bolder commitment with diversity within the British television industry.

Henry used the sense of humor that made him a celebrity to address a wide range of executives, producers and directors during a debate organised by the Royal Television Society in the Cavendish Conference Centre.

The debate, which developed under the title “The road to diversity is closed, please seek alternative routes”, was chaired by ITV’s director of Entertainment and Comedy, Paul Jackson.

Henry started the speech previous to the discussion reminding the audience that diversity is a complex concept that not only refers to race but also to aspects like gender, disability or religion.

Focusing on ethnicity, the comedian recalled that during the 60s and the 70s, the “golden age” of television in UK, the producers adopted a “xenophobic approach” and did not realise the “profound impact” that words can have in communities.

Henry criticized the fact that the shows of the time talked about the problems that people of different ethnicities had to fit in the British society, while American programs like Bill Crosby’s Show portrayed black middle-class successful citizens.

“When I started, there was a white workforce. Now, little has changed”, said Lenny Henry, who considered the fact that there are “no more than three” black comedians working in mainstream television “appalling”.

However, the comedian acknowledged that CBBC has taken “a bold approach to diversity” and pointed out that British public is getting used to see “the odd black face” in a drama.

The head of the independent production company Crucial Films argued that in television, roles should be given “because of the talent, not because the actor fits one stereotype or another”.

Henry insisted that the television industry has to change if it wants to adapt to the multicultural Britain of the 21st century, and he suggested that programs should have a multiethnic cast and crew. He also asked the executives and producers to reach out to schools and colleges to find trained professionals with different ethnic backgrounds.

The comedian also referred to the most commercial side of diversity and said that ethnic minorities are an “untapped market” that is moving away from the mainstream television “because they have cable and satellite television, as well as the Internet, where they can find programs addressed to them”.

That idea was repeated during the debate by the producer of Bill Cosby’s Show, who argued that thinking about the programs in terms of diversity “is not the right thing to do, but the thing that gives money.” She added that the world “is not about do-gooders anymore, because we’re in business”.

Another central point of the debate was the possibility of introducing a quota for professionals belonging to ethnic minorities, an issue that made Lenny Henry “uncomfortable” because that system could mean that “someone with more talent couldn’t maybe have a job because the post is reserved for a minority”.

Also, one of the participants in the discussion indicated that the situation of ethnic minorities in the senior management level in the BBC is “dire”, because “there are no executives or controllers coming from a non-white background”.

Finally, a television writer that had worked for Henry’s Crucial Films told the audience about the difficulties that black people have to become directors of any kind of program. “We are mainstream, and we want to work”, she claimed.

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