Idris Elba Addresses British Parliament On Diversity In TV

It isn’t without a certain sense of irony that as the Conservative government abolishes grants for poorer students, that Westminster today also played host to Idris Elba as Channel 4’s Keynote speaker about diversity in the British television industry.

One year on from the launch of Channel 4’s 360 Diversity Charter, the channel will be hosting a diversity conference tomorrow to report on the progress of it’s commitments. The event today attended by over a 100 MPs, alongside various television executives was packed with sense of pride for the British actor who was recently awarded the OBE (Order of the British Empire). Idris Elba’s spoke about the need to make our creative industries get in all the talent it has to offer “talent is the lifeblood we can’t afford to waste it“.

Talking about his struggles to breakthrough on British television screens “I got to a certain point in my career that I hit the glass ceiling“, leading to Elba’s decision to head to the U.S to pursue opportunities that weren’t available here, “I went to America because I was running out of parts“.

As public broadcaster Channel 4 has stepped up its commitments with a 5 year plan to build diversity across the ranks to better represent the whole of British society back to itself. Acknowledging the younger generation as the most diverse generation in history, Channel 4 executives spoke openly about making change through the art of thinking differently, not only because of the social gains but also the commercial opportunities, with an absence of diversity within organisations eventually leading to an erosion of creativity.

Idris Elba began his speech with a clear statement that “reality tv hasn’t quite caught up with reality” due to the television industries disconnect between the real world and the TV world. With the creative industries forming the foundations of the British creative economy, not enough has been done to nurture diverse British talent, as Elba related to his own experience of tv – “I didn’t see myself or my culture on my TV so I stopped watching it“.

Receiving the OBE, Elba noted that history isn’t always neat and tidy, “the word empire is laden with meaning, the irony isn’t lost on me” but remarking that looking back half a millennia the British Empire had shaped the world, so his theme now was about shaping the “empires of the mind”.

Elba’s advise to television executives, commissioners and casting directors was to start taking more risks, changing their mindsets and being more imaginative, as “audiences don’t want to see caricatures because we’ve seen it before“, and television is a reflection of how Britain is viewed on the world stage. Addressing the need to be more consistent by looking for talent everywhere, he cited casting directors like Nina Gold, who overlooked risk and put forward John Boyega for his role in Star Wars – “since when did a leading character come from Peckham – that’s vision“. With Star Wars going down in history as one of the biggest grossing film of all time, Idris was clear that taking risks also delivers audiences and that it was not an excuse anymore to say that hiring black actors or women directors is a commercial risk.

I’m a product of my imagination. I was made in my mind, I was seeing it, thinking it, doing it.

Concluding his speech, Idris called for a Magna Carter moment in tv, to address who makes TV and who’s allowed on TV, and to ask why “talent is unfairly ignored“, citing several statistics not only is British TV only made up of 1.5% BAME directors it is also “awash with low level sexism, where women are 10 times more likely to be treated negatively than black men on tv”, ending with the observation about what that must mean for women of colour.

Ending on a positive note, Idris Elba was more than aware of the size of the task ahead to shift mindsets, but was upbeat with the awareness that – “we are trying to turn the tanker but it is turning“.