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Saturday, 12 December, 1998, 05:11 GMT
The Street in black and white
coronation street
Coronation Street: "We are not an issue-led show"
Pressure groups want Britain's soaps to change the way they portray black and Asian people in the wake of a row over a new Coronation Street character.

The ITV soap this week introduced black teenager Marcus Wrigley into the storyline - but has been condemned for showing him help another character break into a house.

Granada Television has denied the storyline was racist, but the Commission for Racial Equality has said Britain's soaps need to improve the way black and Asian characters are portrayed.

"The soaps need to move on," said a CRE spokeswoman.

"Soaps like Coronation Street need to relect life as it is now, especially as it is set in Manchester, which has a high ethnic population.

"Yet black characters are featured very infrequently, and then when you see one, he's a burglar."

Gita and Sanjay: A string of misfortunes
She added that when soaps do feature non-white characters, they are often portrayed stereotypically.

"People from ethnic minorities are not a separate species from white people, they live in the same country as white people and do the same things as them," she said.

"Yet - for example - if there's an Asian family featured, it seems they must have problems with arranged marriages."

Jude Woodford, co-ordinator of the National Assembly Against Racism pressure group, said: "Writers have to ensure black people are fully represented in the programmes they produce, and to show the the full range of things they do - you never see a black person in a position of authority, for example.

"We have to stop recycling racist stereotypes."

'Character will develop'

Granada Television rejected the charge of racism, and promised Marcus' character will develop as the storyline unfolds

A spokeswoman said: "Marcus wasn't breaking into the house, his white friend Tyrone was, and he instigated it.

"There's more stuff to come featuring him, he's not a bad lad and it's harsh to say he's a rogue now.

"It's also untrue to say he is our first black character - if you look back over the years you'll find we've had plenty."

Despite the programmes' determination to reflect real life, very few black characters in soap operas become long-term fixtures of their programmes.

Asian EastEnders characters Saeed and Naima Jaffrey's arranged marriage caused them problems, while Gita and Sanjay Kapoor have recently been written out following a series of misfortunes including infidelity and infertility.

Encouraging more writers

Jude Woodford believes encouraging more black and Asian writers to work for soap operas would help.

"I think they're there, but their work isn't being recognised. Broadcasters should be offering bursaries and helping writers put on plays, so they can eventually get their work on TV," she said.

The Commission for Racial Equality agrees. "The BBC is setting targets to get ethnic minorities involved in programme making and so are independent companies like Carlton, which is certainly moving in the right direction."

Home Secretary Jack Straw is considering a change to the Race Relations Act which would make it illegal to discriminate when employing actors.

Ms Woodford believes this will help as well. "It's a valid proposal. Currently plays and TV productions are classed as 'cultural products' and are exempted from the law, and a black actor can't say he or she is being discriminated against."

No deliberate policy

Although Coronation Street will soon be introducing an Asian family to the show, the show's spokeswoman says there is no deliberate policy to increase the number of non-white faces on screen.

She said: "We don't go in for tokenism on this show - Coronation Street is unique in that it is always based on the characters, and the stories evolve from characters naturally.

"The introduction of Marcus and Tyrone came after one of our producers worked with the actors on another show. He saw their potential and brought them over to Coronation Street. It wasn't an issue whether they were black or white.

"The Asian family we are introducing next year will be successful people who own a chain of shops - it's not as if they will live up to the stereotype of them all living above their shop."

Janice Troop, from Granada: Audiences should not jump to conclusions
Chris Myant, of Commission for Racial Equality: Responsibility to reflect cultural make-up of nation
See also:

18 Nov 98 | Entertainment
Electric ending for Street star
02 Dec 98 | UK Politics
Race laws set for review
02 Dec 98 | Entertainment
Coming out on screen
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