Tuesday, 10 June 2014

British East Asian FAQs for BBC, casting directors and media



Intrepid tweeting British East Asian (BEA) Bess Chan (AKA Katherine Chan) wrote to me attaching a letter she'd received from BBC about lack of BEA representation on the airwaves. She and her friends had been wondering why it was that American East Asians (Asian Americans) are seen as American, whereas BEAs (East Asian Brits) are seen as foreign.

So they asked the BBC. Back came a letter, long-winded where it should have been enlightening, and gleefully patronising, as if addressing a slow six-year old. In light of the many, many, MANY words we BEAs have written to try and communicate our views about cultural participation, depiction and fairness to the various institutions, we find ourselves puzzled and muzzled. What's a po' BEA to do?

Bess wrote, "We realised that it's all American and wanted to find out why British East Asians don't have same opportunities. We decided to find out why and started with BBC as they're funded in part by the people they won't represent."

Good point.

Now: savour the put-downs! Marvel at the total wilful lack of comprehension by this bureaucrat! Gaze aghast at the Orwellian Ministry of Truth in full effect!

Highlights and lowlights from BBC letter Reference CAS-2709995-Y9CFXK


The first thing to assure you of is that the BBC does take all aspects of diversity incredibly seriously, and we have dedicated personnel, policies and protocols all of which help us to achieve our overall aim of fully and fairly representing and reflecting our diverse audiences from across the UK.

As we mentioned previously, yes there is more to do and things simply cannot change overnight [good frikkin' grief! Overnight? Try 'decades'.], especially in the area of television programmes which as you will appreciate can often be made or parts filmed some considerable time, months and years in some cases, before being broadcast. Nevertheless, we have a strong, public commitment to all issues surrounding diversity both on-screen and on-air, behind the cameras and microphones, and across our workforce, partners and suppliers.

You mention ITV holding open castings for disabled actors, and actually although the BBC is structured very differently to ITV of course [dear god!] - for example they are simply one, smallish company which just operates television channels whereas we are a much larger, much more complex and massively more separated multimedia broadcaster with many different and separate departments and divisions as opposed to one all-encompassing department which oversees absolutely everything.

We do undertake a huge range of initiatives to help us achieve our goals, indeed we have done so in partnership with ITV upon occasion. Some people believe that we as a publicly-funded public-service broadcaster should be subject to formal quotas on diversity, but the reality is that this cannot happen as it would be contrary to the Equality Act and would actually result in unfairness to everyone. This is often called "positive discrimination" but as the name itself suggests, it is still "discrimination" and thus still illegal. Of course any of the theatrical industries including television must be able to maintain artistic choice and discretion in what they do. To put it simply the actors hired are employed on the basis of their judged suitability for the role which has been written. You'll understand that the actor does have to reflect the character they portray and, yes, this includes things like ethnicity as well as wider considerations of age, gender, physical appearance and so on. But that's not to say that there is any bias against or in favour of any group of society in terms of television drama productions, which you mention specifically. Something like EastEnders will over time, aim for a very wide range of characters and thus actors to portray them, but as mentioned above what we couldn't do is simply shoehorn a British East Asian family of characters in for no reason or relevance as that would equate to what we've touched upon above, "positive discrimination". [Shoehorn? SHOEHORN? Speaking as an East Ender ... Limehouse, much?]

Things like storylines and future characters in long-running drama serials are very fluid and constantly evolving, and are not an exact science at all. There is absolutely no discrimination by writers and producers against any section of society when considering such things, it's simply about characters, relevance, what can be brought to the wider context of the show and the series as a whole. For something like EastEnders, producers would consider the reality of the east end of London upon which depictions are based, thus questions would be is there a sizeable British East Asian population/presence/culture in the type of area Walford is meant to reflect. The answer might be that whilst there may be a presence, it perhaps doesn't specifically equate to something that could necessarily be part of storylines. Clearly something set elsewhere where there might be a much more prominent and well-established presence, would be handled differently. So, as you can see, there are very many things to consider in this area, and whilst we are naturally sorry to learn that you feel we do not yet have things quite right on-screen, we can assure you that in everything we do, we are all very mindful of not only our obligations in terms of diversity but also the fact that we want to get these things right for exactly the reasons you suggest, ie that we are a broadcaster which serves and thus must reflect our audiences. [We are your audience. Well ... not me, maybe, as I can't stand thickie fodder like Eastenders.]

Our approach, as mentioned, covers everything from fairness and openness in our staff recruitment and employment, through our many dedicated programmes and schemes and partnerships all of which help us to try and attract and retain personnel especially from groups which may be currently under-represented in our workforce, be that people with a disability, older people, women in particular roles, a broader range of backgrounds and ethnicities and so on. All these things of course help level the playing field and, ultimately, benefit us by making a better, more rounded workforce. The same ideas apply to on-air personnel as explained earlier, in that we want the best and most suitable person for the requirements of the role but whilst no-one is excluded or discriminated against, as mentioned a medium like television does have to allow programme makers the ability to have a very wide choice based on the dramatic and artistic requirements upon them. [War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength, all you Orwell lovers.]

What the BBC cannot possibly do, of course, is be responsible for the talent pool of actors out there, put simply we ourselves cannot create British East Asian actors, we have to rely on schools, colleges, drama clubs and schools, the theatre and so on to identify, train and nurture young talent which then feeds through to the wider British cultural scene including BBC TV and Radio.

We are simply one broadcaster and programme-maker amongst many including countless independent and commercial production companies and so on, all of whom share the responsibility for casting and employing. The BBC does not oversee or govern such things itself, nor should we, as it is not our role to create actors, nor is it our role to guarantee acting work to anyone not least based on their background or ethicity. But what we can and do do is work with many different partners across the country and support emerging talent through schemes, initiatives and projects to encourage talent to come forward, ie to encourage applications and approaches from people from groups which might be under-represented.

Again, this goes back to the notion of wishing to encourage and inspire without "positively discriminating". So, British East Asian actors can compete against any other actor, but the key word is compete because this is one of the most - indeed, perhaps the most, competitive industries there is thus there is huge competition for every role and every position with countless people being left disappointed of course, but that's the reality of the performing arts.

All the above said, British East Asian actors and presenters have and continue to appear across a wide and diverse range of BBC programming. One only has to think of the wonderfully bubbly and popular Pui Fan Lee who of course made her name in CBeebies' international hit Teletubbies and subsequently appeared as herself fronting our children's programme Show Me Show Me amongst many, many others often alongside Chris Jarvis. Indeed she was the first person who appeared on CBeebies when we launched the channel thus she enjoys a hugely high profile on the BBC having also acted in our Chef! comedy series and our gritty drama State of Play. Daphne Cheung has been a film and television regular for many years including on the BBC, most recently in the dramas Holby City and Spooks, and our wonderfully dark comedy series Psychoville but more recently of course in Channel 4's wonderful Friday Night Dinner; Jing Lusi as the inimitable Dr Tara in BBC One's fantastically popular Holby City - across two series; the fantastic and critically acclaimed actress Jessica Henwick as the Bafta-nominated lead in our award-winning Spirit Warriors, plus work across BBC Radio including the Sony Award-nominated North by Northamptonshire, BBC Four's internationally-acclaimed The Thick Of It, BBC One drama Silk of course (and the planned future companion series); the super-stylish Scottish actress Katie Leung in the BBC's GK Chesterton adaptations of the Father Brown crime mysteries, who is also set to appear in an upcoming BBC Two drama; the wonderful Benedict Wong has had many and various roles in a huge range of TV programmes often with Channel 4 but also in a number of BBC roles including Spooks and State of Play plus Peter Serafinowicz's comedy Look Around You followed by BBC Two's The Peter Serafinowicz Show of course; Yao Chin, who is of course more well known now as being a television news journalist made his television acting debuts, after many stage appearances, in BBC programmes including Dalziel & Pascoe and Casualty early in his career.

We did mention Burt Kwok {Er, that's Burt Kwouk to the rest of us.] previously but it is worth reiterating that he has appeared on countless BBC programmes over the years right back to Tony Hancock's radio shows in the 1950s, he was adored by many millions in Last of the Summer Wine for many, many years of course, plus many other high profile BBC series over the decades from Judge John Deed to Silent Witness, to the award-winning Spirit Warriors alongside Tom Wu and others, most recently of course over on ITV as Harry Hill's long-suffering comedy sidekick; and one must not forget the fabulous David Yip in the seminal BBC drama The Chinese Detective all those years ago which remains as a truly groundbreaking, artistic masterpiece of television, a central work in British culture, which led to many and various roles with the BBC and elsewhere, including of course a successful global film career. [This is sounding like BBC Stepford.] The above is simply a tiny snapshot by way of a few examples to try and demonstrate that clearly there is no lack of opportunity for British East Asian actors across the BBC, and whilst some of the above examples are of course historical, we wanted to make the point that some of the biggest and best BBC programmes over many years have featured these wonderful actors including in lead and award-winning and -nominated roles in award-winning and -nominated programmes across all genres from children’s to one-off and serial dramas and comedy to political satire. [And that's it?]

We appreciate that you feel more could and should be done and we share your ambition for more British East Asians to appear on BBC programmes and be part of our workforce to ensure that we continue to work towards becoming fully and fairly reflective of all aspects of modern British culture. In closing, we're again sorry that our earlier reply missed the mark thus requiring you to get back in touch, but we would like to thank you for doing so thus affording us another opportunity to reply to your concerns, concerns which we hope we have allayed to some degree at least here.

Kind Regards
BBC Complaints

That ain't a response — that's a software programme gone wrong.

So bereft of comprehension was it that Madam Miaow felt compelled to write a FAQ U BBC.

FAQs about BEAs for the BBC, casting directors and reviewers:


Q: Is it true that East Asians can only play East Asians?

A: East Asian people are said to possess a wide range of human emotions. If you are nice to them, they are often nice back. If you are horrid, they may very well get cross. If, for example, you are in an accident, you may be lucky enough to find East Asians willing to call an ambulance, staunch the bleeding and tie a tourniquet, clear your airways, crack a joke to cheer you up and phone your mum to let her know you may be some time. In real life in the UK we find Chinese bus drivers, Korean traffic wardens, Thai teachers, plus scientists, lawyers and doctors from a whole slew of East Asian origins. Look out for them — we're sure you'll find them.

Q: Is it true that only East Asians can play East Asians?

A: Yes, when white actors play East Asians — such as John Wayne as Genghis Khan, Mickey Rooney as Mr Yunioshi or Jonathan Pryce as the Eurasian pimp — it is called "yellowface". Like "blackface" before it, it is considered bad form by nice people who would not kick a puppy or drown a kitten or otherwise do anything horrid to another sentient being.

Q: Do East Asians have lives outside the takeaway, snakehead gangs and business?

A: Should the takeaway, the restaurant and the casino in your drama already have their full complement of ethnic characters, you may well find other areas where East Asians would fit right in. Having a complicated romance, for example. Discovering a cure for cancer. There's a Chinese doctor whose mitochondrial DNA research proves we all walked out of Africa 70-100 thousand years ago. Think of any human endeavour and we bet you could find an East Asian who has already done it or who is working on it.

Q: Is it true that some East Asians have regional British accents?

A: Human beings tend to absorb and reflect their environment. With over 500,000 Chinese and East Asians in Britain, we think it is likely that some of them will speak Cockney, Scouse, Brummie, Glasgie and so forth.

Q: Do all East Asians do kung fu?

A: Yes. This is something we try and deny to throw you off the scent that we are coming for you.

Q: Is it true that East Asians are all clever?

A: No. Emphatically, no. Did I mention no?

Q: Do East Asians have hobbies or do they unplug themselves when they aren't working in the takeaway or selling dodgy DVDs or hacking?

A: Pertaining to the answer above, you can find them writing poetry, painting and drawing, having tragic romances, raising children, keeping pets and fighting da man.

Q: Are there any East Asians training to be actors? We just don't have a wide enough pool of talent to draw from.

A: Ah, you must be a casting director. Contrary to the myth, there have been Chinese actors in Britain since Burt Kwouk was in short pants and Tsai Chin's dialogue was conducted mostly in short pants for the very varied roles afforded her as Suzy Wong and Juicy Lucy, neither of her characters rocket scientists, sadly. We are confident that a cursory investigation of our drama schools will appraise you as to the number of trained East Asian actors emerging to join those who have been here long time.

Q: European actors have so much character — how can East Asians possibly compete?

A: Acting is a very competitive business but East Asian actors are certainly able to “compete” with their Caucasian counterparts. They no longer have to do this by scrunching up their eyes and doing that buck-tooth smiley thing so beloved of Hollywood back when the world was black and white, and the BBC right up to Sherlock: the reboot. There are more roles in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than the Spooks, Fu Manchu and China dolls dreamt of in your philosophy. A cunning ability to make bad Mandarin sound like good Mandarin to BBC ears will also ensure that one day the said East Asian actor will certainly be able to “compete” with the likes of Benny Cumberbatch and Olly Coleman for all those fantastic quality drama roles once you realise that China is a juicy ol' market, a piece of which you just might want one day.

Q: How come East Asians do submissive nookie so well?

A: We learned this at our grandmothers' tiny lotus feet, grasshopper, and imbibed it with our mothers' milk. Or our wet-nurses' milk if you happen to be a Chinese oligarch. Ha! Only choking. Some might say you were just to darn lazy or lacking in imagination to create, say, a working-class Chinese woman, bright, sparky and political with no business sense whatsoever, who dreams of a better world where we are all equal. Oh ... that would be me.

Q: Doesn't the actor have to reflect the character they portray and include things like ethnicity as well as wider considerations of age, gender, physical appearance and so on?

A: Sometimes we suspect you are just too stupid to do this job and perhaps you shouldn't be clogging up the works with your seething prejudice. At other times, we just think maybe you should get out more. To answer your question, yes, which is why Laurence Olivier made such a good Othello.

The Fairy Princess Diaries: When the BBC told the BEAs to take a Slow Boat to China….

FAQ about BEA for the BBC, casting directors and media.

In 2005, Ofcom allowed public service broadcasters to keep their equality monitoring "confidential". BAME participation fell off a cliff. BAME workers in the TV industry have fallen 30.9 per cent 2006-2012. In 2010, Ofcom dropped their Broadcasting Training and Equality Programme which evidently didn't help.

Open letter from the British East Asian Artists in response to the BBC letter.

4 comments:

Yehudah P.Sehmi said...

Too upset- no other comment.

Lucy Chau Lai-Tuen Sheen said...

Didn't really wanna have to point this out but the so called extensive list of British East Asians that have been engaged by the BBC is not complete they missed me off! Big Deal, Birds of A Feather, Chelworth, Love Hurts, Lovejoy, Eastenders (for six months) Holby City and Nighty Night Series 2 (though that was an outsourced production but nevertheless for the BEEB)

Madam Miaow said...

Crikey. That's a fair bit, Lucy. Trouble is, they don't give us key roles that stick in the memory. A regular Chinese mate in Birds of a Feather, for example. We're always just passing through.

Graham said...

Strangely the response from the BBC autopilot reads as if ITV and Channel 4 have a similar if not better record in this area than the BBC - it tries to deflect the charge about BBC casting by mentioning, er, other organisations' casting. And Channel 4 doesn't really count due to its 'publishing house' (buying in/outsourcing) model.

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