King Harold ... now to be acted by a woman?

Black, white, and the BBC – what price the truth?

in Reviews

Pissed-off Toff reviews a ‘colour-blind’ historical docu-drama screened on BBC4, and wonders where this will lead.

The other day – by which I mean a few years ago – I went to a performance of Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible put on by the students of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. 

In this production, a number of white male characters were acted by black men, whereas the character of the black slave-girl Tituba was played by a white actress. Not only was it a mind-bending experience, but it was a deliberate provocation on the part of the director, because as the photos of the students at the back of the programme made clear, there was a black actress at the Guildhall School who could have been cast as Tituba. But she wasn’t.

Yes, I realised that in a performance put on by a multi-ethnic school, roles had to be found for every student. However, in casting a white girl as a black slave, when there was someone available whose skin colour matched that of the character in the play, the director was stepping squarely into the arena of identity politics. Black is not black, seemed to be the message, and white is not white; and you’d better get with it.

Oh well. It was only a school play, after all. Plus, a receipt somehow preserved from that same evening shows that during the interval I consoled myself with a gin and tonic, at a cost of £5.25 … a modest single, I see.

* * * * *

Fast-forward to a few days ago, and I found myself watching episode two of a three-part docu-drama on BBC4 entitled 1066 – A Year to Conquer England. Presented by Dan Snow, it consists of various dramatised historical scenes interspersed with the contributions of a panel of historians, one of them the saucy Dr Janina Ramirez, and the others a couple of rather weedy young men. 

At intervals this trio engages in an improvised role-play, acting out imaginary conversations, in Estuary English, between Duke William of Normandy (‘the Conqueror’), King Harold of England, and his estranged brother Tostig. It’s all rather forced and unconvincing, so much so that la Ramirez barely succeeds in suppressing the odd smirk.

As for the historical dramatisations, the short cuts and budgetary limitations are all too evident. Not only is Duke William glaringly miscast (the Conqueror was an imposing barrel-chested man, not the slim metropolitan figure we see on the screen), but they haven’t even bothered to give him a proper Norman haircut. 

“Sorry, but if you’re going to shave the hair off the back of my head, I’ll be wanting more money,” I imagine the actor saying. “I can’t go to the Groucho with a weird hair-do, can I?” “All right, forget it, mate,” replies the production company.

Nevertheless, Harald Hardrada, the King of Norway, is appropriately formidable; I quite like the presenter Dan Snow, despite the fact that he’s rather pleased with himself (as well he might be, having bagged the daughter of the 6th Duke of Westminster for his wife); plus, I’m a sucker for historical programmes, especially about the Vikings … and the Normans were of course Vikings. 

So I carried on watching.

* * * * *

Then all of a sudden I was brought up short, because in one of the historical dramatisations, we see Duke William of Normandy consulting with his right-hand man, who is responsible for touring the duchy to drum up support for an invastion of England.

And this right-hand man is black.

This, remember, is not historical fantasy. It is a dramatised representation of historical fact. Everything portrayed here is meant to have really happened; or to have probably or quite possibly happened. And here, in 11th-century Normandy as brought to us by the BBC, the closest companion of Duke William is a black man.

But there weren’t any black people in early medieval Normandy, were there? And if there were, was one of them really Duke William’s most trusted companion?

Reluctant to jump to conclusions, I hit on an idea. Why not look at the Bayeux tapestry, this being the major primary source for this exact time and place? Here, there are numerous scenes depicting Duke William. If his right hand man – his most favoured knight – had been black, that would have been noteworthy, and there would be a black man in the tapestry. N’est-ce pas?

However, thorough scrutiny of the tapestry revealed no black man, certainly not anywhere near the Conqueror … although lurking somewhere on the border above the main pictorial narrative, there is a decorative figure with a face that might not be entirely white.

Pursuing another line of enquiry, I then looked up the cast of this series, and discovered that the character of Duke William’s right-hand man is a certain Robert de Beaumont who, as a reward for his services during the conquest of England, was made Earl of Leicester. He’s a real historical figure. He existed. He was, obviously, white and of Viking extraction. But here, in the BBC’s production, his role is performed by a black actor … a certain Jotham Annan.

Finally, the penny dropped. We were not, I now realised, being told that by some strange twist of history, Duke William’s right-hand man was black. Far more importantly, we were being told that from now on, when you see a black face on the screen, the character being played might or might not really be black. And presumably the same is to apply, the other way round, to white-skinned folk. From now on, in other words, skin colour does not exist. It has been banned. 

* * * * *

The starting point of all this is, of course, the ubiquitous drive for ‘diversity’, ‘equality’ and ‘social justice’, according to which it is now deemed unfair and unjust that a black man (for example) should not be considered for the role of a white character.

But is it really unjust or unfair? I don’t think so. Or no more unjust, say, than that I should not be considered for a starring role as Conan the Barbarian, on the grounds that as a slim and not very intimidating Englishman, I’m just not right. I don’t fit the bill. The audience would leave the cinema dissatisfied, and the producer would lose money.

Let’s just say, though, for the sake of argument, that it is unfair and unjust – ‘racist’, indeed – that black actors are not considered for white roles, and that this injustice must be stamped out. Well then, if considerations of skin colour are to be banned from the equation, why not ban considerations of nationality, too? So from now on, the black man isn’t necessarily a black man, plus the Frenchman and the Spaniard are not necessarily French or Spanish.

And why not go further still? If the major attributes of human beings are to be banned; if skin colour and race and nationality are now all taboo … well, why not make gender taboo, too? And age? And sexuality? Why not have William the Conqueror portrayed by an elderly lesbian actress with mad grey hair? Miriam Margoyles, for example? To object to this would be ‘sexist’, ‘ageist’ and ‘homophobic’, would it not? And we can’t have that.

I was going to suggest this as a way to parody the logic of identity politics. However, I’ve been beaten to it … because a friend tells me that the Bridge Theatre in London recently staged a production of Julius Caesar in which the roles were divided equally between men and women, regardless of the fact that there are almost no female roles in this play by Shakespeare. So Cassius, for example, ended up being acted by a woman; this at the director’s insistence, in pursuit of the usual politically-correct agenda. The evening was, of course, more or less unbearable.

* * * * *

All of which has us marching in quick order towards insanity. Because if you refuse to accept that the world is as it is; that men are men; that women are women; that black is black and white is white; that gender and race exist, as do beauty, sex-appeal and intelligence … oh, why does one even have to say it? … if you refuse to accept the reality of what is manifestly true, and if you set about systematically rejecting it and falsifying it, well then, chaos awaits. 

I was going to end with a gloomy Orwellian prediction. But as the madness of the ‘transgender’ debate so clearly shows, it would be superfluous, because we’ve already got there, with the BBC and whole legions of fools cheering from the sidelines, drunk with revolutionary virtue.

Time, I think, for a gin and tonic. And let’s make it a double.

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