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Liberal law-enforcers: Laurence Fox and Kevin Whately in "Lewis"

In an analytical moment, Bertrand Russell examined the faults of those who marched with him in favour of liberal causes, and concluded that they had an unerring ability to fall for "the fallacy of the superior virtue of the oppressed". They could not just say that oppression was wrong, and leave it there. They had to imagine that the oppressed were virtuous; that their noble struggles raised them above the mass of compromised humanity; that their poets were geniuses and their leaders were the most principled statesmen on earth.

Ever the philosopher, Russell worried that the fallacy's logical conclusion was that, far from causing harm, oppression was good for its victims and the more oppression there was the better the human race would be.

The sanctification of Nelson Mandela is a modern example of the fallacy at its most cloying, while the assumption that we would not have had a banking crisis if women had been in charge of high finance shows its timeless ability to generate comforting delusions. Nothing however illustrates its unintended consequences more regularly and blandly than British television drama's treatment of ethnic minorities.

Take as a minor instance the following scene from Lewis, the series ITV span off Inspector Morse after the sad loss of John Thaw. I should explain that Lewis was Morse's sergeant. To keep a lucrative format alive, ITV promoted him to the rank of inspector, and removed his wife to allow love interest to sneak into the plots.

Lewis investigated a murder during a reunion of former students at an all-female Oxford college. He was convinced that an attack at the college a decade before held the key to the case. He questioned an attractive ex-policewoman, who worked on the original crime. Their eyes met, and they arranged to go out for a drink.

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June 23rd, 2011
12:06 PM
Too true, and bizarrely, in Midsomer, the murderer is always a woman!

May 14th, 2011
12:05 PM
Here in the USA the most politically correct drama was the original Law and Order. Unlike The Wire or The Shield or even NYPD all of which showed blacks and other minorities (as well as whites) as criminals the L&O writers were so committed to PC that it was a foregone conclusion that the "real" killer was never a Black or Latino but a white. The most egregious example was a case where the bad guys were running an illegal ring of dog fights. Who were these scoundrels? Why they were WASPS, upper class whites. Imagine a British drama portraying a group of Eton grads running a dog-fighting ring. (The Wire, a far superior drama, showed one of the Black gangsters running dog fights.) What was ultimately hilarious about L&Os bias was that it hurt Black actors. The show was based in NYC and was well-known for employing (and paying handsomely) lots of Broadway actors as victims, perps, defense attorneys, even judges. The one thing I liked about it was the great number of remarkable performances delivered by completely unknown actors. But because of its PC approach few of the actors collecting those generous paychecks were black. In other words the desire to "protect" fictional Blacks ended up hurting actual Blacks. Nice going, guys.

May 11th, 2011
2:05 PM
Utter rubbish. The notion of colour blind period dramas is sheer lunacy. If you are going not to be historical in a period drama then why bother? Incidentally this sort of thing DOES happen. I remember a BBC adaptation of of Oliver Twist which added minorities and a Doctor Who episode set in Elizabethan England where the Doctor actually stopped his assistant, pointed at a pair of blacks and said words to the effect of, "Surprised? They've always been here." (Utter rubbish of course). Nor is it true that minorities are denied work. Or, if they are, they are doing an awful job of it. Midsomer Murders is almost unique in being all-white. Because of the urban bias of broadcasters dramas tend to be full of a variety of races and genders, often to the point of absurdity. What does happen, and where I think you are quite right, is a tendency to be politically correct about non-white characters. A tendency to use them as "positive role models", to treat them with kid gloves to avoid being branded and to avoid any subtle treatment of race. The big difference, which you always fail to note, between the US and us, is that the US has a much larger internal market. Many of the American shows you praise are only feasible on the smaller, higher quality cable channels. Mainstream US TV shows are often as tedious as ours. Just look at Law and Order, CSI or NCIS, all of which are extremely politically correct. Notice the difference in the treatment of race between The Shield (on small channel FX) and The Chicago Code (on big channel Fox), even though both were created by the same guy (Shawn Ryan and both cover the same subject (cops). The other big stumbling block is the sheer liberalism of the people who make TV. The shift of the Establishment from Right to Left means that the BBC is extremely politically correct. This leaves the ostensibly anti-Establishment but Left wing Channel 4 in a quandary because the only way to be anti-Establishment to the BBC is to go Right wing, which is anathema to them. Meanwhile ITV just wants to keep its nose clean rather than court controversy. There are also simple political truths. We live in a politically correct society where being non-politically correct can land you in major trouble (hate crimes or blacklisted). The result is often bowdlerisation. It also has to be remembered that the people who make dramas are often very diverse. This is rarely a problem because, regardless of skin colour, many went to the same schools and have the same interests. Very few people who work in drama live in Bradford or ever have to deal with race on a serious level. It simply isn't in their experience.

Henry L
May 9th, 2011
3:05 PM
The hypocrisy of those pulling the strings in television is hardly news although the forms it takes does seem to shift. This is not, however, something found exclusively amongst management. Consider, for example, BECTU, the union representing film and television. At its AGM last year members debated a motion demanding that the BNP (a repulsive but still legal political party) be given no access to the BBC. Such is their contempt for the ability of ordinary people to reject the xenophobic policies of bigots. Another embarrassment to the union is the internet forum* run by one of its senior representatives. Abusive behaviour is not only tolerated but encouraged there and its owner has been quite happy for its current and past incarnations to feature such disgusting epithets as "thick Irish c**t" and "mick pr**k" along with threats of violence. And this from people supposedly opposed to racism and xenophobia? *

Martin Morgan
May 7th, 2011
10:05 AM
I enjoy the irony that Lewis in the Colin Dexter "Morse" novels is Welsh, as his surname would suggest. But on TV he's a warm friendly Geordie, because, well, you know, the Welsh...

May 7th, 2011
10:05 AM
Very true article. I understand that when it comes to period dramas, casting should be realistic. However producers have forgotten that there have been people of all races in this country for decades. There is also a trend to only stick to stereotypes which you have touched upon, and even then, the only minorities represented are black, asian or oriental. Mixed races and more minor ethnicities are eliminated altogether. The problem is even worse in advertising. Ask any advertising executive and they will say "people only buy into lifestyles that they can relate to within the context of ethnicity". There is a law in place that should prevent racial discrimination of this kind, many TV producers and advertising executives will claim that it doesn't exist.

May 6th, 2011
12:05 PM
So true, Mr Cohen. British television follows that cherished tenet of leftie thinking, that original sin is always to be traced back to white people. But on the matter of colour-blind casting it's not fair to compare a period television drama with an RSC production. Most period dramas are supposed to be realistic, while you can bugger around with Shakespeare as much as you like.

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