Published on: 12 November 2015 in Campaigns

BAME directors discuss their experiences in the UK television industry

Reading time: 19 minutes and 21 seconds

Today Directors UK releases its new report looking at the under-representation and under-employment of black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) directors: UK Television: Adjusting the Colour Balance.

Our report reveals the shocking statistic that only 1.5% of UK television is made by a BAME director.

We spoke to a number of BAME members of Directors UK, to ask them about their experiences in the industry, their response to our findings, and about what needs to be done to improve opportunities for directors like them.

Menhaj Huda

“Our report findings are both shocking and concerning. It reveals what many of us in the industry have been aware of for some time, but now we have hard evidence to show just how serious the lack of diversity in television really is for directors. Sustaining a career for any director is difficult enough as it is, but when the perception of BAME directors is that they are less able, less experienced and less competent then it becomes virtually impossible, regardless of talent. Our report shows that getting work in television is inaccessible for far too many and there is a failure to provide any kind of support for BAME talent.

We are talking about British directors from BAME backgrounds whose experiences growing up in this country offer a different take on story-telling, a different perspective, but a voice that is valid which is effectively being shut out. It’s great that the industry is talking about the issue of diversity but discussion does not equal action. Until the process of selecting and hiring directors becomes more transparent and accountable, we will not achieve the improvements we all want to see”.

Menhaj Huda is the Diversity Chair at Directors UK, and is the director of KiDULTHOOD, Comedown, Everywhere and Nowhere and West 10 LDN. He has also directed episodes of Queer As Folk, By Any Means, EastEnders, The Bill, Murphy’s Law, Emmerdale, Coronation Street, Holby Blue, Young Dracula and Tube Tales.

Baff Akoto

“Wow! The report sample shows a decline since 2011 - the same year I directed my first TV drama (for Channel 4). That gave me pause for thought. Having spent the last few months on the new BBC1 Peter Moffat drama Undercover directing 2nd Unit and shadowing the lead block director, I’d hate to think further opportunities at this level are statistically slim instead of dependent on my storytelling chops and growing TV drama experience.

Drama directing is about leadership and narrative vision. The more inclusive we can be as an industry, as a society, in harnessing the vision, energy and ideas of all our under-represented directing talent, the better equipped we are to make distinctive and resonant drama that reflects true British culture and speaks to this nation and beyond.

Looking forward to seeing a trend reversal in future stats - and directing something with corsets and/or time travel for a streaming giant or a major broadcaster near you soon!”

Baff Akoto has directed episodes of Coming UpEastEnders and Doctors.

Toral Dixit

“I am really surprised at the findings of the Directors UK research; I had an inclination that the representation of black or ethnic minority talent was pretty low, but I wasn’t prepared for just how bad. An ‘average’ of just 1.5% of (programs made by) BAME directors is appalling! 

The industry has become risk averse; unfortunately it’s a highly competitive arena with shrinking budgets, where jobs are harder to get, more so for BAME directors than their white counterparts, possibly due to an unconscious bias and out-dated recruitment process. Often just hearing about a vacancy depends on your social network or being part of the ‘inner circle’, BAME directors aren't always part of this group. I joined the industry at a time when it was possible to be given a chance to learn the trade and climb a career ladder; I have worked in the TV industry for approximately 20 years now, on some of the UK’s most popular programs – from Dispatches to Don’t Tell the Bride – I’d consider myself fortunate to be working in this field. You shouldn’t have to be “lucky” to work in your chosen field, people regardless of ethnic background, should be selected for roles for their vison, talent and experience, and not just because they fit a quota or is someone that is ‘perceived’ to have more cultural understanding.

The industry has always been highly competitive, and increasingly directors are becoming specialised, but because many BAME directors are not given the opportunity for regular work within a given field, to gain that specialist CV, their experience is often more eclectic and sporadic - having to take almost any job that comes along - ultimately making them disadvantaged in the selection process, if they manage to get there in the first place. There are no BAME directors employed on chat shows, game shows, children’s comedy, performance and sketch shows, not because they have a lesser understanding of these genres but because they are not given the opportunity - a situation that is simply unacceptable.

It’s almost 15 years since Greg Dyke’s comments about the BBC being hideously white; sadly it was a reflection of the industry as a whole not just the BBC, and unfortunately, is still an unchanged landscape”.

Toral Dixit has directed Dispatches, Tribal Wives, Mammoth - Back from the Dead, The Return of the Clouded Leopards, Don’t Tell the Bride, BBC Inside Out, Too Fat for Fifteen and many more.

Christiana Ebohon

“We work in a creative industry, so you would expect it to be broad minded and forward thinking. These shocking figures suggest otherwise. If you are anything other than a white, male director your career opportunities are at best limited and at worst squashed. Those selecting directors have to realise that their choices narrow the onscreen portrayal of our rich multicultural world. BAME directors are from diverse backgrounds that often enrich the programmes that we work on. We are not a risk. The results that Directors UK has uncovered shame us all. We need to act now to prevent these figures sliding even further. Perhaps it is time for us to introduce unofficial quotas, until BAME employment at least reflects the 3.5% figure within Directors UK membership”.

Christiana Ebohon has directed Hollyoaks, EastEnders, Emmerdale, Doctors, Lloyds Bank Channel 4 Film Challenge, Ali Meek Gets a Result and Single Voices.

Waris Islam

“The figures in this report don’t surprise me. I was fortunate enough to be part of the Directors UK’s mentoring scheme, which allowed me to shadow an incredible director on a high-end drama. It was a great opportunity and I learned so much, but remember thinking how disconnected the set seemed from reality; the set was based in the middle of a very eclectic multicultural part of London and the cast on this particular storyline was also very diverse, however behind the camera was a very different story; barely a single BAME face working. 

I think sometimes the industry has almost become a pseudo reality that is completely unrepresentative of multicultural Britain and though, good natured, completely oblivious to the lack of diversity in their production until it’s mentioned. I don’t think anyone is intentionally being biased towards a certain group or background, I think the industry have just developed their favourite directors, through personal relationships and past experiences, and continue to use them; anyone else is considered a "risk". It means that it ultimately becomes the same people working when there are hundreds of qualified directors willing and available. Fresh talent revitalises productions on long running shows and increases the workforce in the entire industry. It is how we remain competitive with our peers and relevant to our audiences”.

Waris Islam, director of Short, The Family Portrait, Hollyoaks and Bishaash.

Jo Johnson

“The results from the report were really sad to see – sad that we’re still talking about this issue in 2015. I’ve been working in TV drama for a long time so it is weird to think that people would classify me as ‘unusual’, seeing me doing my job as rare. The figures sadly speak for themselves.  I worked my way up, as many have - I’m not where I want to be yet, but so long as I can stay visual in the industry I believe I'll get there, eventually.  This isn't an exclusive problem. Bigger and more important organisations, armed forces, police, legal profession, have had to look at their make up and say "are we missing something". They came to the conclusion that they were. The TV industry must do the same. 

Why should there be more directors from a diverse background working on programmes watched in home across the UK? Because the country is diverse and we can’t be talking about this for another 30 years. It’s 2015”.

Jo Johnson has directed episodes of Casualty, EastEnders, Coronation Street, Holby City, The Bill, Bad Girls, Mersey Beat, Trial and Retribution, Dangerfield, Accused, The Real McCoy and Brookside.

Onyinye Egenti

“I am unsurprised by the research findings. As a BAME director it is a struggle to get an interview much less a job anywhere in London directing anything. A colleague of mine who is a twice Oscar-nominated director (in the short film category) has also found it a challenge. Mine and my colleague’s experiences reflect everything that is wrong with the industry’s lack of promotion and employment of BAME directors. It feels as though the industry doors are closed to minority ethnic directors, starting from as early as the film school stage and spreading into professional careers.

We (BAME directors) can bring authenticity and visual perspectives that veer away from overused and often non-representative BAME character stereotypes, often occurring when white writers/directors try to write a non-white story about non-white characters. This view point is always challenged by industry people claiming “a dearth of qualified BAME directors with the requisite experience in the industry”. However this will continue to be a ‘fait-accompli’ in an industry where the majority of BAME directors are rejected when they apply to development schemes in an effort to build fledgling careers. There will not be an increase in the number of qualified BAME directors without more training-scheme selections being made available to us. Until this changes, things will not move forward progressively in any recognisable fashion in the interest of BAME directors.

The industry needs to open its doors to BAME directors and to accept more BAME directors/BAME projects onto development schemes like Film London, Creative England, Microwave, Creative Skillset, BBC/ITV/Channel 4 initiatives, etc. These are the only serious and sincere ways to assist BAME directors towards a chance at a future at this profession within the industry. Other than a few exceptions, only directors who have been successfully through these schemes are taken seriously and given any shot at developing a directing career in the UK”.

Onyinye Egenti, director of Remember Me, Bird of Truth and Waking at Dawn.

Suri Krishnamma

“The report findings are shocking if not surprising. The 20% fall between 2011 and 2013 is alarming and makes you wonder just what TV productions are doing to address this. There are some schemes and programmes that have been introduced by broadcasters, but is this really enough to help change the current landscape? It would be interesting to know how these statistics compare with other roles, such as producers. If there are very few producers from BAME backgrounds with director-employing responsibilities this could be having a knock-on effect to the recruitment of other BAME talent such as directors. I’m concerned that if the industry does not accurately reflect the ‘look’ of the wider society then there may be some kind of unconscious exclusion happening. We, as a society, should be concerned about this, and the implications if the industry does not take action to change its approach to hiring and championing directors of various backgrounds to better reflect their audiences and society. Hopefully the report will open a few eyes and help more directors from all different backgrounds to get into and progress in the industry”.

Suri Krishnamma is the director of Bad Karma, Macbeth No More, Locked In, Dark Tourist, Being Othello, Mohammed’s Daughter, A Respectable Trade, Slender and A Man of No Importance, as well as episodes of Casualty, Echo Beach, Cold Blood, Blue Murder, Waking The Dead, Wuthering Heights, New Year’s Day, Dalziel and Pascoe, Soldier Soldier and The Bill.

Arun Kumar

“This comes as absolutely no surprise to me at all. A lot of people have said this over the years, as it has been a real issue, however years later; here we are discussing the same thing. In a sense, it’s good to open up the discussion again as it means many people are now faced with the reality of what the situation is. Schemes and incentives are great, if they work, but unfortunately they never lead to anything. At the end of the day it’s ultimately the same few who are financed and get repetitive work.

What is needed is a complete overhaul of attitudes and equal opportunities. Everyone, regardless of background or gender should be treated equally, as an individual. People should not be hired because of social groups or anything besides their experience and ability. Until attitudes change and nepotism is eliminated then nothing will change. It’s not brain surgery, it’s really quite simple!”

Arun Kumar is the director of The Bielski Brothers, Executions, Bengali Backlash, Looters, Eating Out, The Icemen: Angadias of India and Red Throne.

Bharat Nalluri

“I’m not that surprised to hear, but stunned at just how low figures and percentages of BAME directors in the workforce are at the moment. I guess that means I have a unique story; I started out in the 80’s in an area that didn’t have access to anything – I was part of a small few didn’t have training, everything we did, we did it for ourselves, through self-funding or subsidies.  I was incredibly lucky because my first experience in TV was very positive; I was met with very supportive and nurturing people, and was able to progress. I haven’t worked with any other company since; I’m aware of how very lucky I am.

As a director, we’re key in the art of story-telling; when you hire a director for a project you’re incorporating their views and visions, so to have just one type of vision from the same angle, we’re in danger of not hearing other voices; some parts of the story is not being told. It then becomes stagnant, very one-sided and ultimately becomes unreflective of our society. If this happens, we’re in danger of losing our audience, and we become redundant and irrelevant. Our audience will find their news and entertainment elsewhere (online or social media, etc.). So it’s almost an economic imperative that we utilise and share all voices available”.

Bharat Nalluri has directed episodes of The 100, Spooks, Life on Mars, Hustle, Emily Owens M.D., Torchwood and Outcasts, as well as Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day and Tsunami: The Aftermath.

Jenn Nkiru

“The results of the report show quite clearly that our industry still has a long way to go.

Unfortunately our decision-makers still only realise the value of BAME directors and image makers to the extent that they are tackling BAME subjects and even then, these subjects and images are never given enough space to be as developed or nuanced as they should, often resulting in caricature-like framings of their true image. To be restricted to only creating in this narrow space is both suffocating and stifling and goes against everything our industry is about – storytelling and creativity.

Given the opportunity and resources and these truly are the two main tools that are needed - opportunity and resources, BAME directors and image makers would thrive and be able to compete. However, we cannot compete if we’re not given equal merit and placed on equal footing with our counterparts.

Until we move away from a culture of nepotism behind the scenes and a culture of only celebrating familiarity in front of the camera, we are building ourselves to fail.

More than ever, there is a need for our industry and the content we create to be one that is reflective and inclusive of society. That means content that stretches across class, gender, sexuality and colour. If you cannot see yourself you do not exist. I hope I get to see myself more and more”.

Jenn Nkiru, director of En Vogue.

Imran Naqvi

“As a kid growing up in the 80s the idea that diversity would be an issue in the media in the future seemed to be ridiculous. The BBC and Channel 4 were at the vanguard of programming for and featuring people from all backgrounds in the UK. I entered the industry as a cameraman in 1996 and whilst I wasn’t expecting to see huge representation from BAME people it has noticeably become worse since then. The vast majority of people coming into the industry come from an increasingly narrow background. Despite the increasing number of people of different heritages in our country, fewer and fewer of them are entering or staying in our industry. As that audience grows it seems particularly short-sighted to make it harder and harder for them to make an impact, which may well lead to a growing irrelevance of our media to the population it’s supposed to serve”.

Imran Naqvi, director of Knock Knock, Superheroes Anonymous, Sound and Last Seven.

Alex Pillai

“A director’s role is to connect characters and story to the audience and it seems self-evident that those who are in the privileged position of making drama films for television should be able to speak directly to the public through their work. Being from an Indian background always informs what I do, whether through choice of casting, or in the way that I interpret the scripts that I am to film. Starting from an outsider’s perspective, I am aware of how important it is to address the dreams and ideas of those who are rarely represented in this most expensive of art forms.

I was shocked to discover the small proportion of BAME directors working in British television, as revealed by the Director UK survey. The statistics tell all - ‘1.29%’ is the average participation of BAME directors in UK broadcasting. ‘1.29%’ proves that BAME directors are not flourishing within either the independent sector, or the BBC.

The British television industry is correctly lauded for its originality and talent, and yet within its ranks the broader British public is not represented. This lamentable statistic highlights how singular my career has been, how others like myself must have fallen by the wayside, and how opportunities must have been denied by an unconscious racial bias.

Without the participation of BAME directors, all we will see on television is the same old story, told the same old way. By not encouraging a variety of voices within broadcasting, the industry is excluding much of the population, and is stifling originality. The choice not to employ BAME directors, however unintended, does not make financial sense - often the most startling ideas come from the outside.

Let us not forget that Waris Hussein, born in India and raised in Britain, directed the first episode of the BBC’s long-running export: Doctor Who”.

Alex Pillai has directed episodes of Being Human, Da Vinci’s Demons, Merlin, Robin Hood, Touching Evil, Trial and Retribution, Wire in the Blood, The Wyvern Mystery, Flight and Victim.

To find out more about the under-representation and under-employment of BAME directors, please read our report: UK Television: Adjusting the Colour Balance.

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