Thursday 26 July 2012

PC Gone Mad (or Cognitively Impaired Causing Behavioural Challenges)

One of the most interesting sessions at the recent Television Writers’ Festival run by the BBC Writersroom was called something like ‘Changing the Face of Drama’. It was run at the end of the first day and no-one was entirely sure what it was going to be about. I’ll admit that I assumed it was going to be the usual yadda-yadda about big stories and interesting characters. Because, you know, we’re all trying to write those inconsequential stories and boring characters. Maybe next year there should be a session on bears defecating in wooded areas and the Pope’s religious preferences…

Anyway, bitchy whining aside…

The session was actually about how under-represented disabled people are in British drama. There were some pretty cracking statistics. The one that sticks in my mind is the fact that 24% of the British population has some form of disability. That’s a pretty much a quarter of the population and I don’t think that anyone would deny that quarter of the population is under-represented on our screens. And so, I left that session vowing to pop a wheelchair user into my next script. As I’m sure everyone else who was there did.

However, I’ve given it some thought since then. And I wonder what the realities of doing that will actually be. And I genuinely think that before we see disabled characters that are anything other than a token we need to have a serious conversation with ourselves as writers. Because whilst we’re not getting it right with disabled characters, we’re also often making a bugger of representing black, Asian, gay, Transgender and… for fuck’s sake… female characters.

So, am I saying writers all a big old bunch of racist, sexist, cripple-hating homophobes? No! And that’s kind of the problem.

I can only speak for myself but I’m the wishy-washiest of liberals. So, when I come to write a character that is different race or sexuality or physical ability to myself (I’m white, straight and able-bodied, by the way), I start to panic.

I analyse every line of script for potential offence and worry about stereotyping. And so the character becomes blank and bland. Their experience of being black/lesbian/blind isn’t being incorporated into their attitude and dialogue. So, what’s the point of them being Asian/transgender/deaf? Am I just creating a character that will piss off the casting director and make me look like a PC tosspot? But if I do allow my Chinese/Polyandrous/Crippled character to explore who they really are, I run the risk of looking ignorant because I really don’t know what it’s like to be an Inuit/Bisexual/Wheelchair User. I really don’t want to offend any Native American/Hermaphrodite/Cerebral Palsy sufferers that might be watching the show. And so, I end up playing it safe and writing from my comfort zone.

I’m not proud of that.

A big part of it is language; a fear of it. And I had a theatre experience a couple of years ago that I think set me off on a journey that hopefully will improve my scripts. I wrote a short play called ‘Going to Extremes’ about two old friends who find themselves on opposite sides at an English Defence League demo in Bradford. Lee is a white lad from Essex whilst Amir is a Pakistani Muslim from Bradford. They bump into each other running from the violence and discuss their individual reasons for coming to the demo/counter-demo. Whilst writing this play, I let myself off the leash in a way that I never would whilst writing an episode of the TV show. I didn’t worry about offending the viewing public, compliance issues or watersheds. I wrote Amir and Lee talking to each other as two lads in their twenties would.

But the eye-opener was in rehearsal. The play was directed by the sickeningly talented Trevor MacFarlane and starred the equally brilliant Joe Ransom and Sushil Chudasama. Trevor only had a short rehearsal period and had to get Sush and Joe to a very comfortable place with each other. Any political correctness went out the window, because there simply wasn’t time to tiptoe around language and sensitivities. All three boys started to speak to each other as real people do. They took the piss and there were no sacred cows. It was all up for grabs – race, religion, gender and sexuality. It was real.

But I question whether that is achievable on telly. The reality is that we work so damn hard to keep everything inoffensive for a mass audience that we run the risk of making everything bland and dishonest. I’m not suggesting that people should be calling each other pakis, queers and mongs in the Rover’s Return or on the wards of Holby General. I actually really don’t want to see that. But let’s have some honesty about how we react to each other in the real world. We are not colour-blind and we are morbidly curious about people who are different to us – that is humanity.

And so, is that the key? Whilst I’ve been tying myself up in knots about writing characters with a different cultural experience to me, I should actually be reflecting my discomfort and fears. It’s not about writing those characters, it’s about writing the reactions of the characters around them. That is where the honesty is often missing. And, let’s not miss a trick here, where some genuinely interesting drama could be.

I’m not pretending this is the answer. This is just my personal revelation. But at least I am giving it some thought now instead of brushing it under the carpet. The best thing about my job is I’m always on the steepest learning curve.

I asked a friend of mine, to write a guest blog about race and her unique experience of it. But then they are all unique experiences and maybe it’s our job to get over ourselves and write the stories. Anyway, she’s asked to remain anonymous. And if anyone else would like to add to the debate feel free to leave comments or get in touch with me and I’ll be more than happy to host other guest blogs. Here it is…

Race Is a Myth by Anon

My first memory of race awareness is this - when I was little I ran into a public toilet in desperation and got chased out by a large woman with a broom. That was ok, they stank, yet when I reached the one next door there were flowers and shiny tiles and I was allowed in. They were both the Ladies’, this was 1970s South Africa and the lady with the broom was black. And I’m not, so I was in the wrong place. I never got my six year old head around this.

My partner isn’t black in South Africa, but he isn’t white either. He wasn’t black until he came to the UK at the age of 21. In Mauritius, where he was born, he is Creole. They are black people, but have mixed over time and are descended from the plantation owners who still cling to the edges of that beautiful island as much as from the slaves from Africa that were freed or died there. Here he is Black. Or Paki. Sometimes French, if they hear the Creole accent (the last one with a confused face) but never Mauritian, which he proudly is.

In Mauritius last year having a big fat family Christmas, I found myself racially confused a couple of times. There is a kind of caste system where the lighter your skin, the better it seems within the Creole community. I had to bite my tongue listening to darker members of the clan being referred to as “Zulu” and girls fretting about the sun turning them too black. Maybe it’s my post-colonial guilt, but knowing Kwa-Zulu Natal as I do, I certainly wouldn’t put the Zulus at the bottom of the status pile. The only other white was an Australian fiancé who starting bitching about Aborigines half way through dinner. The tea drinking Creole ladies tutted sympathetically while I made a tactical dash to the balcony. At least no-one is hunting me down with a rifle as they threatened to do in South Africa.

While not invisible as the only white in the family, I sometimes forget that I am. This is a national school of thought in the UK I find. Whites have a given invisibility. How often do they refer to each other as “that white guy” when there are no black people present? Really? Non-whites are raced by language – “that black woman”, the “that Asian bloke” but whites are just “that woman”, “that bloke”. Have you ever noticed how the category ‘White’ on monitoring forms is always at the top and no-one has ever thought of putting them in alphabetical order?

Raced language does exclude a lot of teenagers I must admit. Something in me is thrilled when I hear two white London girls addressing each other as “Bruv”, but then I don’t like the N-word so this is for over 25s only I guess.

I think Race is a myth. As in, we made it up. This is not to say that we don’t perceive differences in pigmentation and in hairstyle, we certainly do. But the order of it? The way we endlessly fuss over the details, surely that is all about satisfying our need to classify and categorise, to put things into hierarchies and make the complexities of the world just a little bit easier to understand. Differences in race do exist but the meanings we imbue them with and the names we give them are all carefully constructed piece by piece, cemented by individual experience.

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