‘Action needed to increase ethnic visibility on TV’

UNICORN: Lenny Henry
UNICORN: Lenny Henry

BRITISH actor Sir Lenny Henry has claimed black and brown people are as rare as “unicorns” on prime­time television and called on gov­ernments to give tax breaks to im­prove diversity.

Despite decades of activism, “the number of black and brown people working on primetime British tele­vision is so low they can’t even pub­lish the data,” the Comic Relief founder told MIPCOM, the world’s top TV industry gathering in Cannes on the French Riviera.

“In fact, they are so rare that (BBC wildlife legend) David Atten­borough came across three dodos and a unicorn before he found one,” Sir Lenny joked, after reveal­ing that broadcasters had refused to give the data to unions because the number was so small.

“Despite all our victories, diversi­ty in TV is in a critical condition,” he insisted and only a system of tax credits which rewarded productions which had minorities in key roles could turn the situation around.

The actor and comedian said California and New York states were looking at similar legislation mod­elled on tax breaks the film industry already enjoys.

Sir Lenny, whose charity has raised more than £1 billion over the last 30 years to fight poverty, said making the people who “actually make the shows more diverse would be a game changer… If the demo­graphic of the pickers and deciders change, we will see a massive differ­ence automatically.”

While he said there had been small strides in diversity on screen, “there is a more desperate need for it behind the camera. Women are not just the same as men in skirts, black people are not just white peo­ple with browner skin.”

“Imagine a world where you nev­er saw people like yourself or your concerns portrayed on screen,” he told TV executives.

“But this is what our industry does repeatedly. It tells those of us that are absent that our lives and stories don’t matter.”

Sir Lenny said fobbing minorities off with training schemes no longer cut the mustard.

British-born Hollywood star Idris Elba “did not go to the States be­cause he needed training,” Sir Len­ny said, “but because he needed a break.”

The actor, who appeared in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, said that when he first made his name in the 1980s “there were no people like me in a 10-mile radius of the BBC – other than the security guards and the ladies in canteen.