Entertainment & Arts

Lenny Henry calls for ethnic TV industry boost

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Media captionLenny Henry: "If you have one set of people deciding what stories get told, you will always end up getting the same kinds of stories"

Lenny Henry says funds should be set aside to boost the presence of black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) people in the broadcasting industry.

Delivering a lecture at Bafta, the actor and comedian said BAME presence in the creative industries is 5.4%.

He described this as "an appalling percentage because the majority of our industry is based around London where the black and Asian population is 40%."

Henry, 55, said the situation behind the camera was also "patchy".

He added that between 2006 and 2012, the number of black and Asian people working in the industry had gone down by 30.9%, which he said showed the "situation has deteriorated badly".

Henry, who won the best actor prize at the Critics' Circle Awards earlier this year for his role in stage play Fences, also expressed concern that "our most talented actors are getting increasingly frustrated and having to go to America to succeed".

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Image caption Elba recently starred in the Nelson Mandela biopic, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

He cited Thandie Newton in Crash, Idris Elba in The Wire and Chiwetel Ejifor in 12 Years a Slave, although conceded that Elba had returned for BBC One series Luther.

He joked to the audience: "An intellectual, troubled maverick cop who has no black friends or family. You never see Luther with black people. What's going on?"

"We're often told that black and Asian actors don't have the marquee value or star power to drive a long-running series. These performers have demonstrated that this is no longer the case."

The star proposed that money should be ring-fenced for BAME programme-making.

He said that in the US, integration has happened because behind the scenes talent is nurtured and invested in: "Here in the UK we find it so difficult".

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Image caption Henry said he was “delighted” that black British Oscar-winner Steve McQueen was returning to the UK to make a London-based drama

"The BBC charter promises to represent the UK, its nations, regions and communities. BAMEs are an integral part of Great Britain's communities - we deserve to be represented too. I want to hold our leaders to account," Henry said.

He cited the case of the BBC which, in 2003, made structural changes to address a lack of representation in the nations, with budgets and quotas to match the populations of each one.

"The result is spectacular. There's been a massive increase in programme-making outside the M25. By 2016, half of the BBC's network spend will be made outside of London.

"But what about the communities, more precisely the BAME communities?"

In a statement, the BBC said: "Danny Cohen (the director of BBC Television) has made it clear that BBC Television is committed to diversity both on and off screen but we're always looking at how we can improve, including the recent launch of apprenticeship schemes with both the Mama Youth project and Stephen Lawrence Trust for example".

The Mama Youth Project is a charity that "aims to equip disadvantaged and marginalised young people with the skills and experience that will help them to secure long-term and fulfilling employment".

Twice a year it runs an intensive 12-week training programme in media production and last year, BBC TV and Sky sponsored two such courses.

And earlier this month, the BBC announced it had joined forces with the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust to launch a three-month training programme for young people from BAME backgrounds.

Following his speech, Henry visited the BBC's director general, Tony Hall, to discuss his concerns.

"It was a fantastically positive meeting," he said afterwards. "I think this has opened the door to a conversation. I think ring-fencing money for BAMEs is now on the table.

"It might not happen but I wanted a conversation to begin about how to change things."

When asked about its response to Henry's speech, a Channel 4 spokesperson said: "Channel 4 is committed to nurturing and supporting diverse talent across the UK. Our Alpha Fund, which is worth £2m annually, is specifically aimed at developing ideas from a diverse talent base and has been used successfully by BAME companies to establish a range of prime-time projects."

'Be bold'

During his speech, Henry proposed that to boost BAME representation, the model that media watchdog Ofcom uses to classify programmes made in the nations and regions could be adapted.

He has broken the criteria into three areas and the production in question would have to meet two out of these three to qualify - the first suggests that at least 50% of production staff must be black, Asian or minority ethnic.

The second is that the production company must be 30% BAME-controlled and/or 30% of senior personnel must be BAME.

And the third dictates that at least 50% of on-screen talent must be BAME.

It is not the first time Henry has attacked the lack of ethnic diversity in Britain's broadcasting industry.

In 2008, he told the Royal Television Society: "When I started, I was surrounded by a predominantly white workforce, and 32 years later, not a lot has changed."

Since then, he has become involved in mentoring schemes to try to change the status quo.

It was announced recently that Henry has written a one-off drama based on his teenage years in Dudley.

Danny and the Human Zoo tells the story of a teenage impressionist growing up in a Jamaican family in the West Midlands, during the 1970s.

The drama will be screened on BBC One on a date yet to be confirmed.

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