Richer stories: why we need more diversity in TV and film

This year’s Oscar’s nominations list has again highlighted Hollywood’s lack of diversity. But it’s not just a US problem. We spoke to Creative England’s Caroline Norbury about why UK film and TV needs to be more inclusive. By Rachael Steven

The UK’s film and TV industry is booming: TV, film, radio and photography contributed £10.8bn to the economy in 2014 (up from £8.2bn in 2008) and between 2011 and 2013, the number of jobs in the sector increased by a healthy 11.8 %.

Despite this, there is a worrying lack of diversity in the film and TV workforce. In 2012, just 5.3% of those working in film production hailed from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds, and the issue isn’t just one of race: women, disabled people, older people and people from outside of London and the South East are still underrepresented in key roles across the media, both on and off camera. It’s a complex and deep-rooted issue, and one that reflects wider problems in society, but as Creative England’s CEO Caroline Norbury points out, the key problem in film and TV is a lack of access to jobs and funding.

Shameless, Paul Abbott’s drama about the residents of the fictional Chatsworth Estate in Manchester
Shameless, Paul Abbott’s drama about the residents of the fictional Chatsworth Estate in Manchester

“A lot of the large creative businesses are consolidated in London, so in order to access those opportunities, you have to be nearer to London, so you have to be able to afford to live there [or travel regularly]. We also have a pretty rubbish habit [in the media] of expecting people to work for free, and there is no structured career entry route…. All of those circumstances mitigate towards people who are well off, living in London or the South East, and have some sort of family network who can support them while they work for free. That doesn’t encourage diversity – it perpetuates a circle of people who are already in, or connected to, those sorts of industries,” she says.

In the media in particular, it seems it’s still very much not what you know, but who – and with that comes a risk of creating an industry that’s open only to those with connections. At a panel debate at Creative England’s CE Live event last month, which addressed the challenges facing regional writers and filmmakers, writer and director Rachel Tunnard said that growing up in Sheffield, she had no idea how to get a job in film or TV if you weren’t “a posh Londoner”. Screenwriter Paul Fraser, who created Dead Man’s Shoes with childhood friend Shane Meadows, cited a similar experience –he and Meadows spent years making films on cheap equipment in Staffordshire, with no idea of how to turn their passion into a career.

This lack of access creates a worrying problem for an industry that is built on telling stories – an industry which, surely, is all the richer for having a variety of voices from different backgrounds.

“If you look at any fantastic story, and particularly in TV and film, it’s usually about a very specific story, in a very specific environment,” says Norbury. “It can be very leftfield, like Fargo [the Coen Brothers film and the subsequent TV series, both set in Minnesota] – but it speaks to a whole series of universal truths that really travel, and does so in a very bespoke way, to create something that has its own heart and soul.”

Feature film 45 Years, which was made in Norfolk and supported by Creative England
Feature film 45 Years, which was made in Norfolk and supported by Creative England

At CE’s panel debate, Paul Abbott –who found fame with Shameless, the brilliant Channel 4 drama about the residents of the fictional Chatsworth Estate in Manchester – expressed a need for writers in particular to draw  2 3 on their backgrounds and experiences. “That’s what makes your voice stand out…. When I first became a writer, I was running a million miles away from my past [he too was brought up on a  troubled estate in Burnley].  But then I realised there was this really rich tapestry of stories of there,” he said. He also said broadcasters should do more to support regional writers, adding: “Every city should have a writer’s studio – a proper incubation tank.”

Diversity is not just a problem in film and TV, but the whole of the creative industries. It is an issue often raised in advertising – where the number of BAME employees has been increasing but had, until recently, failed to reflect the UK’s ethnic make-up. In a 2015 survey by the Creative Industries Federation and MOBO, just 45% of BAME respondents said they felt that advertising reflected Britain’s multicultural society – and for a sector built on appealing to the general public, that’s a big problem.

There is more being done to support diversity in film and TV: Creative England works with organisations from the BBC to BFI to offer funding and support for aspiring writers, directors and production companies (as well as creatives from other sectors), most major broadcasters offer some kind of training schemes or internships for new talent, and the BFI recently set up a £1 million fund to support diversity in film. On the whole, there are positive steps being taken – but Norbury says there needs to be a more concerted effort from the industry to better educate school students about creative careers, improve access to jobs and to support and invest in new talent from across the UK. “There are lots of people coming together and talking about how white our industry is, and how we need more diversity – all the trade bodies are leading their charge – and I think that’s all good, but you can’t do it in isolation,” she says. “I think there is less and less money available these days to take a punt on somebody … and what seems to be happening is that people only give money to a safe pair of hands, and then they ask that safe pair of hands to innovate.”

“You have to take a punt – and it’s not just about offering internships and trainee schemes, it’s also about looking for experimentation and investing in it,” she adds. “We all have a duty to invest in the next generation of talent, even if it doesn’t immediately add to your bottom line – and we need a bigger, communal response to how we grow and nurture talent, rather than everyone just doing their own little thing.”

Still from Daniel and Matthew Wolfe’s acclaimed film Catch Me Daddy, about a young Pakistani woman who goes on the run in West Yorkshire after falling in love with a white man.
Still from Daniel and Matthew Wolfe’s acclaimed film Catch Me Daddy, about a young Pakistani woman who goes on the run in West Yorkshire after falling in love with a white man.

Find out more about Creative England’s funding schemes and initiatives at Abbott, Tunnard and Fraser were speaking at Creative England’s CE Live 2016 event. More details at

This article was published in The Film & TV issue of Creative Review, March 2016.  

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