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Why are black Brits missing from PBS’s ‘Masterpiece’? Because they’re missing from British television

Behind ‘Luther,’ ‘Mercy Street,’ and even HBO’s ‘The Night Of’

If there’s a network that’s exemplifies what it means to be inclusive in its unscripted and children’s programming, it’s PBS.

Properties such as Independent Lens, POV, and Frontline hold long-established reputations for telling the stories of communities that are often under-represented, about issues that are under-reported. From Ghostwriter to Sesame Street to Reading Rainbow to SciGirls, PBS has been the standard-bearer making the meaningful presence people of color in its children’s shows simply a matter of course. Its Newshour, hosted by Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff, is the only nightly broadcast news program anchored by two women.

However, Masterpiece, the network’s 45-year-old vehicle for delivering scripted British drama, doesn’t live up to the standard of racial inclusion we’ve come to expect from PBS.

How Masterpiece works

Masterpiece, formerly known as Masterpiece Theatre, is produced by WGBH (Boston’s local public TV station) and distributed by PBS. It’s a curator of British programming, especially adaptations of novels from authors such as Sherlock Holmes, P.D. Wodehouse, Robert Graves, Agatha Christie, Thomas Hardy, the Brontës, Evelyn Waugh, and especially Jane Austen. Often, those adaptations come from the BBC, but Masterpiece buys from commercial producers such as ITV and Channel 4, too. More recently, it’s been the home of well-received, popular dramas such as Downton Abbey and Poldark.

Masterpiece depends on millions of dollars from corporate underwriters to purchase the programming it distributes every year, which it packages with introductions from hosts such as Alan Cumming and Laura Linney. From 1971-1992, when it was still Masterpiece Theatre, the show was heavily colored by the serious, professorial affect of host Alistair Cooke, who would offer episode explanations that looked like they’d been recorded in the depths of Windsor Castle.

Masterpiece is such a cultural institution that it’s inspired satirical takeoffs such as Thug Notes and Issa Rae’s Ratchetpiece Theatre, not to mention Sesame Street’s Monsterpiece Theatre bits. Clearly, people of color, and lots of them, watch Masterpiece, too, but they rarely star in dramas on the series.

A notable exception was Eammon Walker, who played the titular role in Othello, which aired on Masterpiece in 2002. It was a co-production between WGBH, CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corp.) and London Weekend Television (LWT). That year, Masterpiece also aired The Murder of Stephen Lawrence, which starred Marianne Jean-Baptiste and Hugh Quarshie.

More recently, Masterpiece has featured Channel 4’s Indian Summers, which looks at British Rule in India in 1932 from the perspectives of both the English and the Indians.

Fine. What does any of this have to do with the current TV climate? In the past, the meaningful presence of people of color on scripted television has been cyclical rather than sustained, which is why we’re able to look back to the ’90s as an era when there were a considerable number of black shows. However, that ubiquity was built on sitcoms: Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper; The Steve Harvey Show; Sister, Sister; The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air; Living Single; A Different World; In the House; Moesha; The Parkers; The Wayans Bros.

What’s special about this fall on U.S. television is not just the range of blackness on display, but the fact that it’s presented in hourlong dramas (Empire, How to Get Away With Murder, Scandal) and prestige television (Insecure, Atlanta, The Get Down, Luke Cage, Queen Sugar), not just a bunch of shows that were relatively cheap to produce en masse. If Masterpiece is PBS’ premier vehicle for drama, isn’t it reasonable to expect to see more people of color there, too?

Reasonable? Yes.

Realistic? Well, that’s a little more complicated.

What’s going on with British television?

As we established, Masterpiece doesn’t create the original dramas it airs. It licenses them from the Brits. We should note that there are significant demographic differences between the United Kingdom and the United States. While white people make up roughly 63 percent of the American population, they’re closer to 85 percent of the population in the U.K. However, non-whites are projected to make up 30 percent of Britain’s population by 2050.

That said, British TV, especially the BBC, has faced continued scrutiny for its lack of diversity, not unlike the ongoing conversation we’ve been having in the United States about the lack of stories about people of color. We touched on this a bit in The Roster to explain the significance of Undercover, the political drama starring Sophie Okonedo and Adrian Lester coming to BBC America in November.

For years, actor and comedian Sir Lenny Henry has been at the forefront of demanding greater and better representation of Britain’s population of people from black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds on the BBC. He’s repeatedly called for dedicated funds to be included in the network’s royal charter specifically for increasing BAME representation and complained that the network’s existing talent of color often gets pigeonholed into content that relies heavily on stereotypes or that is specifically about race or ethnicity.

In 2014, the BBC’s director general, Tony Hall, announced a plan to increase the number of BAME people on air by 40 percent by 2017. He also announced the creation of a “diversity creative talent fund” that would fund an entry-level development program for “comedy, drama, factual, daytime and children’s programming.” Henry was not impressed. “Chiwetel Ejiofor and Idris Elba didn’t need more training, they just needed a break,” Henry told members of the British parliament.

It appears the BBC has not been kept up with the goals it announced two years ago. It announced yet another diversity plan earlier this year, which The Guardian was quick to pan as “spin … over substance.” Meanwhile, Channel 4, a commercial British network, has been widely lauded for instituting a diversity initiative with teeth: If Channel 4 executives failed to meet goals for putting BAME actors in leading roles, they would see their bonuses cut.

The problem with the BBC is especially egregious because the BBC functions as the U.K.’s public television, financed by taxes in the form of a license fee that must be paid to access programming. If there’s any place that should be reflective of the British population, the argument goes, it should be the BBC.

In this publicity image released by the BBC, Idris Elba is shown in a scene from, "Luther." The program was nominated for an Emmy award on Thursday, July 19, 2012 for outstanding miniseries or movie.

In this publicity image released by the BBC, Idris Elba is shown in a scene from, “Luther.” The program was nominated for an Emmy award on Thursday, July 19, 2012 for outstanding miniseries or movie.

AP Photo/BBC

Earlier this year, I spoke with PBS president and chief executive Paula Kerger. She told me she wished PBS had been able to scoop up The Night Of, the BBC-produced crime series starring Riz “This is what British looks like” Ahmed, rather than HBO. Oddly enough, it appears that the BBC produced The Night Of expressly for an American audience. The version of the show that aired in the U.K., called Criminal Justice, starred a white guy.

What should PBS do?

Masterpiece once functioned as the United States’ foremost — and certainly longest-running — curator of British drama, followed by BBC America, which was launched in 1998. The success of Sherlock and Downton Abbey reinvigorated that reputation, after some less than stellar years when Masterpiece lacked an underwriter. Masterpiece lost Exxonmobil in 2004, raising questions about how long PBS would finance the series. Masterpiece is now funded by Viking River Cruises, along with the Masterpiece Trust, created in 2011.

Now, there are more networks scooping up British properties, including Netflix (Peaky Blinders), HBO (The Night Of), AMC (The Night Manager), Logo (Cucumber and Banana), and A&E (War and Peace). Do Masterpiece or other buyers of British programming have an obligation to set diversity standards when it comes to the shows they buy? Could they? It seems unfair to project American expectations onto British cultural product when its chief appeal is its quintessential Britishness. Then again, the American film industry routinely contorts itself to fit the tastes and politics of a growing Chinese audience, so maybe that’s not so far-fetched after all. And besides, what activists like Henry are saying is that the definition of quintessential Britishness as it’s presented by the BBC is fundamentally incomplete.

If the hope is that demand for diverse programming effects change in the BBC, which in turn shows up on Masterpiece, it could be years before we see racial heterogeneity on Masterpiece that we’re coming to demand as general practice on American television. It’s not as if the stories aren’t there. Rather than continuing to make remakes of the same adaptations (Masterpiece is now on its second version of Poldark, which first aired in 1976), the BBC could turn to the works of authors such as Monica Ali, Zadie Smith, Helen Oyeyemi, or Sam Selvon.

Wondering why you saw Luther on PBS? It’s because local public television stations bought the rights to air it, but it wasn’t a Masterpiece show.

Kerger and PBS aren’t waiting around for the BBC or commercial British television producers to bring meaningful stories about people of color to prestige drama. Instead, it’s taken charge with Mercy Street, the network’s Civil War hospital drama that’s come to fill the space left by the exit of Downton Abbey as the network’s premier buzzy scripted prestige offering. Ironically, Mercy Street owes its existence in part to the recent success of Masterpiece. Once Masterpiece secured corporate underwriting for new shows, it freed PBS to invest programming funds in Mercy Street, Kerger told me.

Mercy Street’s second season, which begins airing Jan. 22, features expanded storylines for existing black characters, and will mark the introduction of a new one inspired by Harriet Jacobs, played by Tony winner Patina Miller.

“The reason that I’m so interested in American drama and really putting the resources and energy and money into it and taking the risks is that there are people that won’t watch documentaries,” Kerger said. “They will watch drama. If we can tell part of history through the dramas, then that will achieve that. It’s a very long way of saying yes, we are interested in trying to explore other stories.”

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the senior culture critic for Andscape. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on Black life.