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Last Updated: Monday, 15 March, 2004, 11:24 GMT
Meet the UK's first black 'prime minister'
By Megan Lane
BBC News Online Magazine

When the UK first elects a black leader, it may well be someone like Colin McFarlane - RAF family, public school educated, university graduate. Not only does he play the UK's first black prime minister in the BBC's If, he is the first black actor cast in the part in a major production.

Bad news for Gordon Brown. Could it be that once Tony Blair relinquishes his hold on Number 10, the next incumbent will be a Conservative?

And might it take another decade before a left-leaning politician - someone like Andrew Kirk - takes the top job and becomes the country's first black PM?

That at least is the scenario in BBC Two's future-gazing docu-drama If... Things Don't Get Better, in which Kirk - played by Colin McFarlane - is determined to narrow a rich-poor divide through welfare spending and higher taxes. It's political science fiction, of course, but the issues are 100% real.

His is an idealism unpopular with middle-class taxpayers, many of whom live in gated communities - a physical divide between the haves and the have-nots with whom they share a postcode. When one such community in Islington cordons off a public road for further security, a stand-off with the embattled PM ensues.

24's David Palmer [Dennis Haysbert] and The West Wing's Jed Bartlet [Martin Sheen]
Andrew Kirk is a leader in the mould of 24 and The West Wing
This fictional leader has much in common with 24's David Palmer, the dignified, principled - and black - president of the United States, and the West Wing's liberal leader Jed Bartlet.

"I wanted to make him more principled; I changed some of the script to make him have a genuine vision to improve society," McFarlane says. "Is there room for that approach in the cynical world of politics? I think so."

Authority figure

Unusually for an alumnus of the Fast Show, McFarlane is now most frequently cast in roles with a degree of gravitas - a QC in Judge John Deed, a detective inspector in Jonathan Creek, and the police commissioner in the next Batman film.

Colin McFarlane
Westminster is a very sexy place - it's the level of testosterone that hits you as you enter the building

Nor is he being cast against type. McFarlane exudes the confidence and authority one would expect of a senior police officer, a barrister, or a politician. His rounded tones speak of a comfortable upbringing at the heart of the Establishment.

The son of an RAF man who emigrated from Jamaica to the UK in the 1950s, McFarlane went to public school in Cambridge and on to university.

We meet in his club in Soho - he divides his time between the family home in Lincoln and an ex-council flat in Islington. It's a haven of roaring fires, squashy sofas and the hum of important-sounding conversations. He joined five years ago on the recommendation of Bonnie Greer.

"I'd been here as a guest, and when my father was due to receive his MBE, I wanted to take the family somewhere special for lunch. I asked my agent to swing it so we could eat here.

"Bonnie was sitting at a table on her own, smoking a cheroot. She was used to being the only black face in the place, yet here was me, my father, my mother and the rest of my family trooping down the stairs. So of course we got talking."

My background fits the most likely pattern for a black MP who rises up the ranks
In political dramas, Maggie-alikes and Tony-alikes are not uncommon - but rarely is the role taken by someone with no resemblance to a prime minister past or present.

McFarlane vetoed the director's wish for a PM with a regional accent. "Why not use my voice? My background fits the most likely pattern for a black MP who rises up the ranks. That's not to say they were looking to cast a black actor - the actor who plays my 'Alastair Campbell' was also up for Andrew Kirk."

Buzz of power

As part of his preparation for the role, McFarlane spent a day at Westminster, where he witnessed the theatre of Prime Minister's Questions.

"I went when Michael Howard was doing a lot of baiting over tuition fees, ending each question with 'yes or no?' The first time he said it, it was just him. The second time, 50 MPs joined in. The third time, it was the whole House.

"It's a combination of public school and cathedral. There's a weird sexual crackle which makes it, bizarrely, a very sexy place to be in. It's the level of testosterone that hits you as you enter the building."

Colin McFarlane
My headmaster told me 'You're a very good actor Colin, but the trouble is - you're black'
While there, McFarlane bumped into Andrew Neil, presenter of the Daily Politics, who gave him tips on what MPs are like off-camera - sweetness and light, apparently, but ruthless as soon as the cameras roll.

To his actor's eye, the party leaders are great performers, very quick off the cuff and engaging to watch.

"I got some great tips from watching Blair. I used some of his huge array of gestures, and his rhythm of speech-making, in which every phrase is underlined with a gesture.

"The director at first wanted me to do Blair-isms but I wanted to make Kirk different - this is set 10 years down the line, after all."

He hopes that seeing a black PM on TV will help inspire young black people to take more of an interest in politics - and to believe that they can achieve whatever they want to.

"At 17, when I told my headmaster that I wasn't going into law, that I wanted to act, he said 'You're a very good actor Colin, but the trouble is - you're black.' Am I, sir?

"He saw me recently in a play at the Young Vic, and said 'very good performance, but I still think you would have made a bloody good lawyer.' When I'm doing Judge John Deed, I always laugh - he must be watching me play a QC going 'you see? That's what he should have been doing'."

If...Things Don't Get Better was broadcast in the UK on BBC Two on Wednesday, 17 March, 2004 at 2100 GMT.


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