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An Actress's Thoughts

UK Television: The State of Affairs

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Gender and Inclusion Policies in British Television

Momentarily we hear quite a lot of bad news from the United Kingdom (UK), which actually should have been called UQ United Queendom ever since 1952. The Brexit, the proposed No-Deal Brexit, the new Prime Minister Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, who was only elected by members of the Conservative Party, the lack of discussion about returning stolen art and cultural assets to their countries of origin (think of the British Museum), an astonishing waste policy (do they really not have a refundable bottles system?) and so on and so forth. But that’s not what today’s text is about; on the contrary, I want to write about something quite positive, where the UK/UQ is more advanced in comparison to other countries, e.g. to Germany: initiatives and programmes for gender equality and inclusion in the television industry, especially behind the camera.

Why I went to London, again

A few months ago, Oliver Ratcliffe from Westminster Insight invited me to London for the one-day event Gender Equality in Television: Behind the Scenes and on the Screen. A week later, at the invitation of ITV Head of Diversity Ade Rawcliffe, I was able to present my gender and diversity tool NEROPA to a small, high-profile group at ITV and advise them on its use in serial productions.

I met both Ratcliffe and Rawcliffe – the names probably are coincidental – through Anjani Patel, Head of Diversity at Pact (Producers Alliance for Cinema and Television). Anjani & Pact organize Inclusive Casting Workshops for independent producers. In these workshops NEROPA is also discussed, and I may get the chance to present it there myself in the near future.
Anjani in turn was introduced to me by filmmaker Rebecca Brand, whom I mentioned for the first time here in the article Tis early practice…. . Or was it Jennifer Smith, Head of Diversity at the BFI British Film Institute, after the NEROPA Symposium in January 2017? Or both? Everyone seems to know each other, and I have been getting to know quite a few of them as well, some only digitally or via telephone so far. Thus the Westminster Insight Event was also a great opportunity to finally meet old acquaintances in real life on the by – like for example Leila Kurnaz and Natasha Connors from Ofcom. Whose colleague Vikki Cook, Director of Standards and Audience Protection at Ofcom, gave the keynote lecture that day.
There was a five day gap between the two dates, but I didn’t want to jet back and forth, so I stayed on until the ITV meeting and then went back via train, including the Eurostar, and yes, the connection Berlin-London by train is feasible without problems, it takes longer than the flight and is more expensive, but you have more space to work or sleep than in a plane, it is quieter and the view is more varied. Also the route leads through a number of German and Belgian cities, so you can also interrupt and visit people. Or drive through. 10 hours from city centre to city centre is doable, isn’t it? 

Westminster Insight: Gender Equality in Television

Westminster Insight Logo

Use by kind permission from Westminster Insight

The conference provided a condensed insight into the current state, data monitoring, initiatives and programmes, achievements, existing shortcomings, challenges and more. From the announcement:

  • On average, only 25% of television episodes in the UK are directed by women. By the same token, the percentage of television episodes in the last 10 years written by women stands at only 28%, and women take up considerably less leading acting roles. But it’s not just about numbers, the portrayal of women on our TV screens are still disproportionately subservient characters compared to their male counterparts.
  • Our full-day conference on Gender Equality in Television will bring together key stakeholders from across the sector to discuss next steps for supporting gender equality initiatives both in front of, and behind the camera. 

Together with Tiff Stevenson (stand-up comedienne / actress) and Minnie Ayres (Tri-Force Creative Network), we comprised the panel “Inclusive Casting”. The NEROPA presentation met with great interest, with a number of people having already heard about the method. And I also received very positive reactions on the feedback forms afterwards, e.g. “Delegates mentioned you multiple times as a standout speaker from the day“. This made me very happy, especially since I think I was the only person from a non-English speaking country and also the only solo freelancer without an organization or television-related employer in the background.

Belinde Ruth Stieve presenting NEROPA. Photo by Oliver Ratcliffe

Belinde presenting NEROPA. Photo by Oliver Ratcliffe

Obviously I can’t retell the event. But there were two articles on the British screenplay situation presented by brilliant Lesley Gannon from Writers Guild WGGB: Female writers are pigeonholed and considered a bigger risk than men – Writers Guild by Giverny Masso in The Stage on April 25.  (Giverny was also a digital acquaintance, she interviewed me on NEROPA for The Stage in 2017). And German writers protest against gender imbalance in Broadcast on May 1 by Max Goldbart, my seat neighbour on the day. Max also published  Ofcom diversity chief hails industry’s positive steps on April 25.

As it often is on such events, when they are well organized (thanks again to Oli Ratcliffe and also to Alexandra Moore of Westminster Insight) and also well chaired (thank you, Lucy!): there are regular breaks to talk with other attendees, not all of course – for example I could not catch up with Polly Kemp (from Equal Representation for Actresses ERA 50:50) as she left very early. But I got to know a very dedicated casting director, and someone from a TV channel told me that her sister had heard of NEROPA at an event, and tried it out in an pantomime she directed, with significantly more actresses than actors and originally not surprisingly nearly only male roles. Through NEROPA she was able to change that. Great news! Obviously the method also works with plays – and with novels, computer games and much more, but that would be a topic for another day.

ITV and NEROPA

The most important thing, as already mentioned, is that I was invited to present NEROPA at ITV and that using the method is considered and will be tested. Fantastic! More news on that hopefully soon.

an neropa-coloured ITV logo

NEROPA meets ITV: the original log has five colours, including pink and light blue.

Then I’d like to pass on a TV series that Ade Rawcliffe recommended over lunch: TIMEWASTERS! A current 2 x 6 episodes ITV production, funny, jazzy, fast – a present day jazz quartet travels to the twenties with a time machine, which is a dirty elevator. The series is also worth mentioning because it is another one that was invented and in this case also written by an actor: Daniel Lawrence Taylor. He said, “You don’t see that many blacks in period dramas or in time machines, so I thought I’d try to write about both.

The BBC 3 series FLEABAG was also created by someone in front of the camera or rather on stage, based on the stand-up comedy program of the same name by actress and author Phoebe Waller-Bridge. Another older ITV series, SCOTT & BAILEY, also comes from one, no, even two actresses who then played in the five seasons: Suranne Jones as Rachel Bailey and Sally Lindsay – but not as Janet Scott, because she unexpectedly had twins, so she took the smaller supporting role Alison Bailey instead, Rachel’s sister, and Leslie Sharp stepped in for the second leading role.
Of course it’s not only in the UK/UQ that actors develop and write films and series because they’re creative or simply because they don’t get enough good role offers.

Speaking of role offers: Have you seen the BBC Comedy short LEADING LADY PARTS? about auditioning famous actresses for a leading role? Written and directed by Jessica Swale. Funny and deep, watch it!
By the way, a nice side effect of these London trips is that I can watch films and series in the iplayers. So this time I watched all epidsodes from TIMEWASTERS. During my stay in London before it was KILLING EVE, a suggestion from Anjani, and before that the series THE BODYGUARD.

Equity UK, BFI, Northern Ireland Screen

Equity UK

I also got together again with Kelly Burke, actress and chair of the Equity Women’s Committee. The members are elected every two years, this happened recently, in the case of the Women’s Committee there were about 19 female candidates for 9 seats, so a real choice. As with the other three equality committees, the deaf and disabled, LGBT+ and ethnic minorities, only those represented were eligible to vote, in this case female members. That would also be something that should replace the tiresome deputy policy at the BFFS, but that is an issue for another day. Back to Kelly, who writes:

It was wonderful to see Belinde and be updated about how NEROPA is being increasingly adopted by broadcasters internationally. We talked about the ongoing need for representational parity onscreen, which NEROPA helps address. And about the Women’s Committee’s newest projects on aesthetic labour and making important resources for women, – i.e. information around childcare, menopause, working rights, sexual harassment, low pay, etc. – more readily accessible for the union’s female membership.

Belinde Ruth Stieve and Kelly Burke

Kelly and me. Photo by the friendly waitress.

These are topics that are also relevant for the German industry and which our trade union has not put on the agenda yet, maybe due to the fact that there is no women’s committee. Who knows.

Another, also re-elected member of the Equity Women’s Committee, Jean Rogers (Well done, Sister Equity!), initiated the first meeting about NEROPA in London, and she was also the driving force behind the NEROPA Symposium at BFI 2018.

BFI

There is no institution comparable to the British Film Institute BFI in Germany that covers a similar variety of tasks (quoting from the BFI website):

The BFI is the UK’s lead organisation for film, television and the moving image. It is a cultural charity that:
– curates and presents the greatest international public programme of world cinema for audiences
– in cinemas, at festivals and online.
– cares for the BFI National Archive, the most significant film and television archive in the world.
– actively seeks out and supports the next generation of filmmakers.
– works with government and industry to make the UK the most creatively exciting and prosperous place to make film internationally.
The BFI is the distributor of National Lottery funds for film. Founded in 1933, the BFI is a registered charity governed by Royal Charter.

BFI - fake logo

Fake logo. It’s the BFI policity to only allow ,third parties that they have a funding relationship with to use the logo’.

The BFI has adopted the Diversity Standards, which are also very far-reaching by international standards. Their partial fulfilment is madatory for the allocation of funding (from lottery revenue). To help facilitate this, the BFI website lists resources, e.g.  organisations or methods: 

The BFI Diversity Standards aim to encourage producers and project leads to challenge their thinking and open up opportunities. Meeting, or exceeding the criteria requires up-front conversations about creative content, recruitment practices and audience engagement strategies.

Northern Ireland Screen

Another body that awards lottery funds is Belfast-based Northern Ireland Screen. I met head of production Andrew Reid at the Equity NEROPA event last October.NI Screen hosted a NEROPA event in early 2019 (see also Touring the Irish Isle – #WakingTheFeminists) and incorporated the core concept of the method into one of its funding programmes. Andrew Reid commented:

Northern Ireland Screen brought Belinde over in January 2019 to explain to our sector the issues and present her solution, NEROPA. The attendees (writers, directors, producers) agreed that these issues need to be tackled and were keen to apply the principles.   With the concept of NEROPA in mind and adopting its model of a 3-member steering group, we introduced mandatory monitoring on key changes to gender neutral roles and diversity opportunities for producers applying for funding at the first stage of development funding from April 2019.

It is remarkable how big the lottery revenues are in Great Britain and Northern Ireland and that they can be used to finance extensive, important films. This is different from Germany, where although lottery money also goes into cultural and charitable projects, although the largest share of film funding comes from the state. 

Addendum: The BBC’s 50:50 competition

And there’s more. Miranda Wayland from the BBC had reported on an exciting 50:50 initiative within the BBC at the Westminster Insight Event. Now In July, Barbara Marti published an article on the Swiss INFOSperber site on the topic: Why women in the British BBC now have more to say.

Recently, after one year, the BBC drew a positive balance: one year ago, the competition started with almost 100 editorial offices. Only one out of four of these editors achieved a women’s share of 50 percent among the protagonists of the contributions. One year later, three out of four of these editors were women. To BBC boss Tony Hall’s astonishment, sports editors and the English-language channel BBC Arabic also succeeded in increasing the proportion of women in their contributions. The editors refuted the common argument that there were too few women experts. Tony Hall: “This competition shows what can be achieved”.

That sounds hopeful. Worth reading (if you want to brush up your German). And worth imitating.

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