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 You are in: Analysis
How Entertainment Changed
The media and multicultural Britain

By Alex Webb
BBC News Online entertainment staff

Bend it Like Beckahm scored at the box office

The success of films like Bend it Like Beckham and East is East alongside TV prime time hits like the Kumars at No 42 and Babyfather prove that multicultural entertainment is now firmly entrenched in the UKís mainstream media.

The perception that things have really changed on both television and the big screen is reflected in BBC News Onlineís recently commissioned survey on race.

The poll suggests that 78% of people think that ethnic minorities are better represented on television now compared to 10 years ago.

Itís a belief that has cross-community support. Seventy-three per cent of black people and 67% of Asians also say things have improved.

Quite a lot of people from different ethnic backgrounds that we do attract to the BBC, leave.

Greg Dyke
Despite this, however, there is still a lingering feeling that things still have some way to go before Britainís multicultural society is fully represented in its media, with many people concerned that the black and Asian success visible on-screen remains unmatched when it comes to key off-screen roles.

Fifty-four per cent of black people and 57% of Asians believe it is harder for job-hunters from their communities to get work in the media than it is for whites.

Itís a media-wide issue and one that Greg Dyke, the BBCís director-general, remarked on last year when he described the corporation as being "hideously white".

TV milestones
  • 1975, Empire Road, became the first black soap
  • 1978, LWT set up the London Minorities Unit
  • 1982, Channel 4 launched with minority brief

  • He added: "The figures we have at the moment suggest that quite a lot of people from different ethnic backgrounds that we do attract to the BBC, leave. Maybe they don't feel at home, maybe they don't feel welcome."

    The lack of people from ethnic communities in decision-making posts in the media maybe why actresses like Babyfatherís Diane Parish feel there is still a long way to go.

    "We live in a multi-cultural society but we don't represent it on the screen," she told BBC News Online.

    But again, she sees some signs of progress. "In the writing, 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."

    That may be the case now but in the 1950s things were very different. Back then, mass immigration was only just beginning to make an impact on the UKís consciousness.

    The contemporary media portrayed the Britain that Caribbean and South Asian immigrants were making their homes in as racially and culturally very homogenous.

    Alf Garnett: the star of Till Death Us Do Part and In Sickness and in Health
    The BBC began targeting ethnic viewers in programmes such as Apna Hibar Samjhye (Make Yourself At Home) and Padosi (Neighbours), but they were all in the rather worthy tradition of public service broadcasting and only intended to be of interest to a niche audience.

    As the years passed, Britainís multicultural population began to make its presence felt in all parts of the schedule, comedy being one key area.

    Notable early attempts to make humour out of prejudice included Johnny Speight's biting satire, the BBC sitcom Till Death Us Do Part. Other comedies like ITV's Love Thy Neighbour, Mind Your Language, Mixed Blessings and The Fosters tended to reflect the prevailing attitudes of the time, failing to challenge peopleís views. They came, with hindsight, to be viewed as indicative of the social progression yet to be made.

    Everything from outside the UK is being portrayed as a threat.

    Professor Greg Philo
    Whatever the problems with these programmes, they did at least provide work for actors who have since gone on to distinguish themselves - among them one Lenny Henry.

    Looking back over the last few decades, Professor Greg Philo of Glasgow Universityís Media Unit sums up what he sees as the major changes in mediaís response to race thus: "Twenty or 30 years ago the agenda was focused on how to deal with the new immigrants who had arrived in the country. Now attention has turned more on the theme of keeping new immigrants out.

    "Everything from outside the UK is being portrayed as a threat."

    Perhaps another major difference in the way television has responded to multiculturalism is a move away from "ghetto" programming and towards attempting to incorporate more black and Asian talent and viewpoints into the mainstream schedule.

    BBC News Online survey

    Question: Does the news reflect ethnic issues?

    Widely seen as a laudable idea, critics voice reservations that the continuing under-representation of ethnic minorities in the media goes on.

    A recent Commission for Racial Equality report condemned British TV for the continuing under-representation of ethnic minorities - particularly Asian and Chinese people.

    The study found that in one week, the only black or Asian faces in BBC2's top 10 shows, with a combined audience of 33 million, were in the US cartoon The Simpsons.

    As the understated conclusion of CRE chairman Gurbux Singh put it, "There is clearly some way to go."

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