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 You are in: Features
Changing the scenery
Actress Diane Parish talks to BBC News Online

By Alex Webb
BBC News Online entertainment staff

Parish: "Black actors want to do what everyone else does"

"Baby steps" is the phrase Diane Parish uses to describe the progress made by British television in its portrayal of different ethnic communities.

She admits there has been change since the days she watched the now clumsy looking TV sitcom Love thy Neighbour, but she insists it is nothing like enough.

I always watched Love Thy Neighbour with a great deal of discomfort.

Diane Parish

"I'm getting sick of seeing my black contemporaries getting one scene every 15 - there's no need for it any more, and there's no need to be afraid of speaking up about it.

"Black actors are made to feel scared about pointing out these issues, because they are afraid they will never work again - which may be one of the reasons things have been so slow to change."

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Things are changing for Parish, who recently won a Royal Television Society acting award and is now a new cast member of The Bill.

Recalling her 1960s childhood, she says: "The only time I saw black women on the TV in this country was when I saw something like Mind Your Language or Love Thy Neighbour."

It is not a happy memory.

"I always watched Love Thy Neighbour with a great deal of discomfort, because of the language which was used, which would usually be brought up again back in school.

"Rudolph Walker's one of the most fantastic actors in this country, but I just felt uncomfortable for him all the time I was watching - but that's what black actors had to do back then."

BBC News Online survey

Question: Do you think there are enough black and Asian people on the telly?


Walker is now a regular cast member of EastEnders. But earlier in her career, the search for acting role models made Parish look to the US.

"I felt alienated by Merchant Ivory, Room With A View and all that sort of stuff - it didn't represent anything to do with who I was.

"It wasn't till Whoopi Goldberg came along in the Color Purple that I thought it really doesn't matter anymore, hopefully - what you look like and whether your complexion 'passed'."

Whoopi Goldberg's role in the film won her an Academy nomination in 1986 - around the time that Parish found her first notable TV role, working alongside Ian McShane in the BBC One series Lovejoy.

The problems are being solved in theatre and TV but they're nowhere near getting there in film, nowhere near

Diane Parish
"What I found - and this was only 10 or 11 years ago - was make up artists didn't know how to make up black actors, and they didn't know how to light black actors.

"And I think some people did have a problem seeing me running round the countryside dealing in antiques, it seemed to jar on a Sunday night - weekends on TV were white, you never saw a black face on TV then.

"But perhaps it opened things up because after that you had Pie In The Sky and Playing The Field, both with black actresses."

Parish's TV career has gone on to include Holding On, The Vice, Clocking Off and a few appearances on EastEnders.

Her role in BBC Two's Babyfather, based on the Patrick Augustus novel, brought her an RTS award and wider public recognition - which is bound to increase when she becomes a regular member of the Sun Hill police station in ITV1's The Bill.

Babyfather's frank exploration of the sexual dilemmas of four south London men brought praise and criticism.

Whoopi Goldberg: An inspiration
"When Babyfather was made, some black people were disappointed and felt things weren't represented as they should have been.

"But we can't solve every problem in one programme.

"All black actors want to do is what everyone else does, be a part of telling stories truthfully and representing characters truthfully."

But if black representation on TV has improved since the 1970s, the picture is still patchy: "I feel that on The Bill there's a very good turnover of black and Asian characters, as there is on Casualty - because it's somehow accepted in something like this where you're representing the health service or the law.

"But when it comes to making a countryside drama it's easy to make them without black people.

"And we keep making them, we're not making enough contemporary dramas from the 1950s on where black people were included in this society - it's like it's being avoided almost because it involves a certain amount of inclusion."

Nonetheless, Parish feels, TV is ahead of the UK film industry in this area.

"The problems are being solved in theatre and TV but they're nowhere near getting there in film, nowhere near.

Background & analysis

Question:The UK has changed, has TV?

"I've made one film in my whole career, Alive and Kicking. I'd love to play a lead in a film, but I don't want to leave The Bill just to play somebody's secretary or somebody's best friend.

"We live in a multi-cultural society but we don't represent it on the screen, sadly.

"In the writing, though, it's starting to change. Because people have got to know black and Asian people in their lives, a black character doesn't have to be explained or excused to the same extent."

Now Parish wants representation to catch up with that reality. "For a while there was a myth being thrown around that there just aren't any good black actors.

"It was something that could be said for a while - but now it's a ridiculous statement to make."

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