Absolutely Ridiculous: Joanna Lumley denies discrimination in film and TV

Absolutely Fabulous star Joanna Lumley with her Fellowship Award at the 2017 BAFTAs

Last night when Joanna Lumley took to the BAFTA stage to accept her Fellowship, she made a well-received speech which was filled with the wit that she is known and loved for on screen. Unfortunately Lumley’s speech also saw her boldly make the case that the world of film and TV is free of any kind of discrimination, which of course it is not:

“This is for me paradise. I wanted to be with people who’ve left race and religion and age and gender and shoe size and things outside the door when they came. People who are in our profession don’t have those discriminations.”

That there is persistent racial bias in the industry is no secret.

Earlier this year Thandie Newton spoke candidly about the prejudice she has faced as a female ethnic minority actress during her career. “I’m talented at what I do, but I’ve had to struggle against racism and sexism. But I’m glad of it, in a way, that I survived and overcame,” revealed the Line of Duty star. She also highlighted the limited opportunities available to her as a non-white actress here in the UK, saying: “I love being [home in the UK], but I can’t work. I can’t do ‘Downton Abbey’, can’t be in ‘Victoria’, can’t be in ‘Call the Midwife’." She added, “Well, I could, but I don’t want to play someone who’s being racially abused. I’m not interested in that, don’t want to do it.”

Discrimination and limited lead roles available for black actors in the UK are in fact the very reason that so many black British stars – including David Oyelowo, Idris Elba and David Harewood – have gone to the US to develop their careers on another level.

Sir Lenny Henry, last year’s BAFTA Special Award winner, has long been a critic of the lack of diversity within British television and pushed for reforms. Accepting his award last year his speech brought attention to the lack of diversity which Lumley’s speech completely denied. Sir Henry told the audience: “If it feels like I’m always banging on a bit about diversity, it’s because I believe in increasing it so that we truly reflect our fantastic nation; if we do this, we will make this fantastic industry even greater.”

In fact, it was in December just gone that BAFTA itself announced plans to introduce new measures to ensure greater diversity among both its members and awards.

Now, it is hard to see how Lumley could possibly be blind to the multiple forms of discrimination still very much operating within film and TV, especially given the amount of publicity and headlines dedicated to exactly that in recent years. However, that is exactly the nature of privilege: a person’s own immunity from the prejudices afflicting others makes them blind to those prejudices.

Hopefully viewers had the sense not to take Lumley’s dismissal of discrimination in the entertainment world seriously because it is still a major problem which will only be tackled if people in positions of power – people like Lumley – use their platform and privileged position to speak out against it.