“But Britain was not a multicultural country in 1920.”

Full disclosure: I do not watch Downtown Abbey. But I feel that this should still be discussed. If you feel like the show itself might nuance my argument, I would love to hear from you.

Downtown Abbey has announced (through a press release) that it has added its first Black British cast member, Gary Carr. In an interview with the NY Times, one of the show’s executive producers, Gareth Neame, said,

A few people have said, ‘Why isn’t there more diversity? … And the argument would be, we would depict it if were true and accurate. It’s a bit like saying, ‘I don’t approve of the class system, at all, that existed on the show.’ It did exist, and we should depict it in the way that existed. It doesn’t mean I approve of it. But Britain was not a multicultural country in 1920.

My emphasis. As an American, I know very little about Black British history (although I would posit that a lot of Brits don’t know much about it either) but last year my brief encounter with Black British theatre historian, Leon Robinson, was enough to warrant some serious concern over what I believe was a seriously effacing statement by Mr. Neame. Neame did not say that Yorkshire Estates were not multicultural, he said that Britain was not multicultural in 1920. Thanks to Robinson, I had already learned about the contributions of artists like Ira Aldridge (who was actually American) and Les Ballet Negre, but I thought of Aldridge as more of an outlier example and Les Ballet Negre didn’t really begin until the 1930s. This didn’t seem like it would be enough to consider the country “multicultural.”
So I started to dig a bit and quickly found some diasporic patterns of both Black and Asian communities and their influential presence in the UK during the time period which Downtown Abbey is set. In her article for “History Today,” Barbara Bush writes,

But during the First World War the influx of coloured colonial seamen, munitions workers and others substantially increased the numbers of the British ‘coloured’ population. In the aftermath of the war, British white liberals – the section of the community with a broad sympathy towards the problems of blacks which stretched back in the liberal, humanitarian tradition to the abolitionists – were confronted for the first time with a sizeable domestic ‘race problem’. From this time an embryonic form of the modern concept of race relations began to emerge.

She goes on to detail legislation that the UK government drafted and eventually passed as a response to such riots in 1920 and 1925. I don’t know exactly what Neame’s definition of multiculturalism is, but I think once your government starts making legislative responses to race relations in your country, we’re pretty much there. You might be tempted to clarify on behalf of Neame that of course he meant that Yorkshire country estates were not multicultural in 1920. But he didn’t. And in one, sweeping, justifying excuse of a statement, he effaced centuries of pluralistic communities in the UK, despite the fact that the UK government hired its first Black British employee in 1786, that interracial marriage was happening about that time as well, and that Black and White communities were actually coming together in poverty in the 1800s.

It might seem that I’m banging on about a small thing that Mr. Neame somewhat carelessly (at least I hope) said. By discussing his comment in more length, I am hoping to raise awareness for a number of points:

  1.  Mr. Neame and those in his industry continue to be incredibly influential in our artistic communities and entertainment industries and have enormous power when it comes to crafting and depicting narratives. Their choice on what to focus, highlight, efface, or ignore has a profound impact on society at large – which includes young people who may or may not choose to pursue acting and teachers who are teaching in conservatoires.
  2. Whoever was interviewing Neame should have either called him on his overarching statement or later fact-checked and posed a critical response in the article as a reflection. That’s just good journalism. I fear that most readers, especially Americans who know very little about British history, would not question his quote.
  3. I’m concerned with show creator’s Julian Fellow’s statement that he wants to introduce actors of color in a way that is “historically believable,” particularly in light of the scrutiny that the writing on the show is full of linguistic anachronisms. Plenty of people are still watching the show, despite this criticism.

I look forward to the day where producers are not issuing press releases for their first new, ‘vibrant’ Black Character. Audiences can handle it. And if they don’t know that there were non-White people in the UK before 1920, don’t cater to, confirm, or encourage their ignorance.


6 thoughts on ““But Britain was not a multicultural country in 1920.”

  1. Well the show is tendentious crap in any case so I am not sure why any decent actor would want a role in it. But as a producer of professional theatre that rarely has obvious roles for an ethnically diverse range of actors I do find it frustrating. I would like to cast a multi-cultural company, but I am faced with the fact that much of the period work I do is still too close to living memory for me to cast such ethnically diverse actors in leading roles without subverting the genres and challenging the audiences in ways that are economically unsustainable. I am not prepared to patronise either them or my audience, and I am waiting for some decent, middle-of-the road plays that would suit my family, seasonal audience, and which would allow me to cast ethnically diverse actors over a range of plays in a repertory company. However the other problem is that on the very rare occasions when I have been able to do this, I have found that these very actors do not find the work attractive. The issues you describe are real, but depend as much upon the choices of the actors themselves, and the nature of the audience, as upon the attitudes of the producers. And I am afraid that makes it a lot less simplistic than this article suggests.

    • Dear Edward Max,

      As a playwright and a writer of color, your comment gives me great concern. You started that you are a theatre producer, so I’m going to address you as a comrade within the world of the arts. We specialize in the world of disbelief, pulling our audiences outside of their worlds and their comfort zone and pulling for an hour and a half maybe even three hours into a world that is not their own. Your response though eloquently written shows a narrow minded view point that I hope is not you break from in the near future. I’ve found as a playwright and a producer that when you challenge your audience some will leave but more than likely the majority will stay and recommend to ten more people that they need to see this show. You fear that multicultural casting will alienate your audience I assure you it not only will strengthen your what it seems like boring audience base and cause the diverse community which probably feels neglected and has never felt a desire to watch what must be some pardon me for saying this (but when you say your looking for middle of the road play,), it brings to mind lukewarm theatre, to actually patronize you. Why because finally you are actively engaging you COMMUNITY in a discussion. Something theatre is actually suppose to do. I’ve never watch Downton Abbey before but now guess what they might have actually gained a new audience member, why because they have taken an active step in ENGAGING a DIVERSE COMMUNITY. How amazing would it be if we as artists actually did our jobs and tried to engage the community around us. I’m hoping you don’t live in Mayberry so I’m hoping that there is diversity in your community where you are doing this theatre in. Now on to the issue of you casting multiethnic actors onto your stage in leading roles. I have to admit I sighed in frustration a bit at you Edward. How do you know these actors wouldn’t ever want to play these roles you speak of? Have you ever sat down with one of these actor of color, bought them a beer and and said,”Tell me what your dream role is?” I get the feeling that you’ve never done that. You might be surprised by what you get told and it might just open your eyes to whole new possibility, that you’ve never imagined before in terms of casting, in terms of your season and the sky is the limit in terms of whatever else, but try being bold and asking ethnically diverse actors to play roles other than just the maid and the bell hop. What happens to the story telling journey when you cast a person of another culture other than what you look at every day in the mirror as Poirot, or Moliere, or whatever period drama bs. It might scare some of your blue haired old ladies up a bit but I guarantee they probably need to have their old hearts jolted a bit. Here is my challenge to you… Take a RISK! That’s what art is about, having those conversations people NEED to engage in and no conversation is more important than stripping away our ignorance and embracing a more diverse world. And if you can’t seem to find more diverse works to be putting forth in your seasons come talk to me, I know a plethora of ethnically diverse NEW writers that might fit what you are looking for and your audience will thank you for taking them out their comfort zones.

    • Hi Edward, thanks for taking the time to engage. Like Reginald, I also find many of your comments troubling. Since my writing is only tangentially focused on systemic racism and cultural effacement within the industry as a cause and effect on pedagogical structures within actor training, I will mostly refer you to actors, playwrights, and companies that have much more to say about this and who have already articulated it well.

      “Directors and playwrights: EVERY TIME a role is non-race-specific, I urge you to actively agitate to see actors of color in the role. It’ll expand the perspectives being aired in the room, which is good for the art. Don’t hide behind excuses like, “If I cast a minority in this role it will change the meaning of the role itself,” or “This is a historical drama and there were no ethnic minorities in existence at that time.” Strive to create a world onstage that reflects the nuances and vitality of the world we live in today.
      I promise you, this will be good for our audiences. As an industry we cater to the narrowest possible demographics in terms of our audience, and that audience is drying up.”
      – Playwright, Mike Lew

      “In my plays, as in life itself, the female romantic lead can be played by a woman in a wheelchair. The male romantic lead can be played by an Indian man. And that is not the subject of the play. There is not a single role in any one of my plays that must be played by a physically intact white person. And directors should go very far out of their way to avoid creating the bizarre, artificial world of all intact white people, a world that no longer exists where I live, in casting my plays.”
      – Playwright Chuck Mee

      “Because – and here is the bit I’m really nervous of saying – because maybe the existing structures of theatre in this country, whilst not corrupt, are corrupting. And I speak as someone who is absolutely part of – ingrained into – those structures. Structures forced by economic realities of course, but also by an unconscious acceptance of those structures.
      Personally, I’ve realised how much this has been true of me. I’ve hidden behind the literal demands of the text and avoided the really difficult questions about representations of gender and race and disability.
      I’ve pursued star casting at the expense of the right casting.
      And given exaggerated respect to the five star review.
      And I wonder if many of us feel the claustrophobia of that potential corruption more than we like to admit?
      And sometimes feel awkward in being part of yet another British institution constantly trumpeted as the best in the world.
      Here’s a question. Is it really?
      Here’s another. How could it be?”
      -Sean Holmes, Artistic Director for the Lyric Hammersmith

      I am in particular awe of Sean Holmes’ statement, where he has taken time to examine his own privilege and question the all-too-often invisible structures within the art/commodity paradigm that we take for granted. This is the sign of real artistic vision.

  2. Pingback: Suicide Of The White Race | ELLIOT LAKE News

  3. Pingback: #POC4CulturalEnrichment: Watch Downton Abbey, Now with A Black Character! | Media Diversity UK

  4. Great article, I just wanted to add that I find his analogy so ignorant – radical ideology wants to dismantle the class system, not seek inclusion of working class ‘identities’, so ‘classism’ will never be analogous to racism

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