Enterprise Car Hire, is this what you call dynamic pricing?

I wanted to rent a car in Germany for a couple of days:  The price was €166.90.  The start date is in the top left of the picture, highlighted below. Tues, 3 Apr.

My plane times were a bit unhelpful for an easy drop off without wasting a lot of time at the airport to save on another day’s rental.  I wondered how much extra it would be if I actually added another couple of hours to the drop off time.  It would probably add a whole day, I thought.  I was right.  However, the price of this extra day shocked me:  it was minus €47.38.

Yes, It would save me €47.38 to hand it in an hour late, which was surprising.  So I wondered how many days extra I could book before it cost me more than the original 2 days.  Four?

Wow!  Even doubling the hire period would still cost me €22.30 less than hiring for two days.  How about a week?

WTF?! It is cheaper to have the car for an entire seven days than it is for two.

My conclusion is that renting from another place altogether would be a good option.

Actors Headshots and “squinching”

These pics were taken by John Godwin of London Headshots in 2013 and he must be a genius.  I paid £150, which is a great price, for a full usage license and I put them here because 1. It’s a good place to save them (saves on cloud space, given I am paying for this blog anyway!) 2. he asked me to “squinch”, which is where you close your eyes, but without squinting.  ie raise the bottom eyelid, to make you look more appealing and interesting.  The trick is to eliminate any white eyeball under the iris.  It’s hard, but it does work!  Google Brad Pitt and you will see him doing this all the time. 3. I want one of these pictures to appear on my Wikipedia entry, which is being created!





These images are under a license that allows free re-use for any purpose. A Creative Commons Attribution license.

Monitoring Forms at theatres and their importance

When you are having a discussion about anything to do with equality from the point of view of a minority, you have to be aware that there will be objections from the majority.  This is simply because to the majority, when a minority attempts to level the playing field they are removing the majority’s privileged position.  There are many examples of how this works (some good some bad) and equally as many (if not more) examples of how white people object to the idea.  Google it.  Click here to see both on the same page.

The problems we in the Equity Minority Ethnic Members committee have in trying to equalise the opportunities, are mainly:

  1. The business of acting is hardly fair anyway.
  2. The business of acting is run by the majority who often cast in their own image (the unconscious bias theory) and when caught out doing this in an egregious manner cite “the best person for the role argument” and Equity is loathe is get involved in matters of artistic taste (though as argued in another post, they should not be).

Even when the whole issue is regarded as a victory for the minorities, as in the case of the Print Room, whose name has now become an industry by-word for how not to deal with racial casting issues, the other side does not need to agree.  In fact not only does the Print Room still refuse to acknowledge any wrong-doing nor come close to issuing an apology, it has in fact gone so far as to threaten legal proceedings against Equity for libel.

All of which brings me to the argument for Monitoring Forms.

They might seem like an invasion of your privacy and oftentimes the two issues are conflated on the form.   This one was collected from Yellow Earth’s recent production of Tamburlaine at the Arcola, which I watched and enjoyed on Saturday, and does not ask for your name or any identifying info, unless you opt to give your email address.

The  important reason for these forms is simple:  Without this data, it is impossible to argue any case with accurate facts.  In other words, to flip it around, it is impossible to counter-argue that, for example, the RSC did indeed employ a British East Asian Actor between 1994 and 2012.  None of us were hired!  They won’t provide the name of any unknown BEA actor they might have hired!  It is in the past now and no use raking over it – but the point is: we do not have official statistics.   They didn’t hire a BEA actor!  But they can pretend they might have!    Not having any official data weakens our case.  We need this data going forward and you are the only one who can give it!

What  Equity needs, in order to be able to argue for fairness, is facts. We need therefore to have the presence of minorities actually quantified, in both on-stage roles but also back-stage roles and, crucially, audience.  Equity is pressing for this and is running a campaign which itself runs alongside an industry wide TV/Film initiative, The Diamond Project, which seeks to do the same.  BAFTA have even announced that unless you have a diverse cast and crew, you wont win any award!

We are getting there, but it is slow going.  And the last two projects mentioned don’t measure audience, which is important if you are in receipt of public money. Theatre companies like the RSC are in receipt of this money, yet they seem not to have thought about who comprises that public, especially not thinking about British East Asians much between 1994 and 2012!  Companies receiving public money need to better reflect the public paying for it, and this includes women, muslims, disabled, LGBT and BAME people.

My advice if you are wary of writing down your address or email is to ignore all the personal information the theatre company might want to get from you and give only the diversity information, which will help this fight.

The other advice I am happy to give is that theatre companies take this more seriously themselves.  In a world where the nature of identity is being constantly challenged, the theatre producers need to prioritise gathering accurate monitoring data  and not reproduce simplistic old-fashioned options that not a single of their own cast or Artistic Director could tick satisfactorily, aside from the “other” or “multiple ethnic background” boxes.  If that is your area of expertise, please collect better and more expertly nuanced categories.

Grade: B- could do better
Not the most helpful categories, especially for a British East Asian theatre company who supposedly has a nuanced view on British East Asian identity

Freakonomics and the acting industry and why you take it or leave it if you are an actor

Please watch this video.  It explains one of the chapters in the hit book, Freakonomics by Levitt and Dubner.  It is counter-intuitive but it shows why, using a flat rate commission model, your estate agent is not really looking out for your best interests if you are a seller.

I am of the opinion that the Actor / Agent / Casting Director relationship is similarly skewed against the interests of the Actor.  ie when he/her is offered a job, the system is skewed against his/her (I will use the masculine pronoun henceforth) best interests.

As we know, the hardest thing about an Actor’s life is getting work.  Barring the famous and in-demand actors, who can open a show or film or carry a TV show  (like, say, Benedict Cumberbatch / James Nesbitt), there is not a high proportion of Actors, who are offered enough work to keep them busy throughout the year.

For these working Actors, the majority of them rely on their Agent to find them work and put them up for it.  The Agent (again, barring those Agents who represent the Cumberbatch/Nesbitt actors) has a stable of say 100+ Actors, all of whom are looking to get a slice of what is available (incidentally, the money at this level is not very impressive either,  having been decreasing in comparative terms including inflation almost every year since Equity membership was  no longer a requirement to work as an Actor.  A West End job today pays less than I was paid in Miss Saigon in 1992).

There are some Actors (most of the well known ones), who do quite well at this level – and while not famous enough to be in the Cumberbatch/Nesbitt order of magnitude, have a name from previous shows, maybe, or simply a reputation for being good and (impressively!) they are making a living from the profession.   Others make a modest living but do not have to do anything else.  I am more or less at this level –  my work as ChineseElvis subsidises my acting career and allows me to turn some acting work down.

The vast majority of Actors (if this survey is to be believed)  do not make a living solely from acting and are basically in a position, where they are expected to be grateful for anything that is thrown their way.

The Agents (feminine pronoun henceforth) are themselves trying to make a living (and pay for offices and staff) by taking commission from the ever-diminishing earnings of their coterie of barely-employed actors, and the ever-decreasing smaller number who make a living. The overall diminishment of these Actors’ annual earning power is why Agents have slowly pushed up the commission rate from 10% in the ’80s to, in some cases, 20% and 25% today.

It is therefore obvious that an Agent would rather an Actor were tied up doing a job in theatre – even if this in no way is going to enhance an acting career (or even be interesting to do as an Actor).  A year’s contract in The Mousetrap playing to uncomprehending Japanese tourists is not on many Actor’s to-do list, but 15% of a £500 weekly wage is a reliable source of income for an Agent as well as keeping that Actor from hassling the Agent, moaning about not being seen for this or that.  Actors, especially the 75% of Actors earning less than £5K a year, find themselves often pressured into doing things that are not  really good for them, but good for the Agent.

How many times have I and other UK Actors done work for free – or for much less than what US Equity would call “Scale” – because of the “potential exposure” this might bring in the future or the “doors this might open”?!  It is the idea that you scatter groundbait in the hope you collect later!  I turned 50 in March and if the doors are not open for me yet, then they never will be!  I should be in the collecting stage of my career from all the free stuff I have done, surely?!  But I digress…

What I want to address in this post is that  I have realised that even when an Actor, who is among the rarefied ones making a living from the industry, gets a decent job offer on a TV or film, say, then their Agent is not really incentivised to negotiate any better deal than that initially offered.  Not perks, not billing,  not a better money offer – but in the same way as the video above describes, is more interested in locking down the deal for the sake of the commission – and to preserve/enhance their relationship with the Casting Director / production.

By way of another digression and to illustrate this point, I was asked to go up to Granada Studios in Manchester to audition as a doctor for Coronation St in 2011,  I didn’t want to spend the approx £100 for the return ticket from London (they don’t even pay your fare any more, it is ridiculous) and waste an entire day for one day’s work, especially given I had played a doctor in Coronation St already twice before! I had no desire to do it just for the sake of the day’s work.  So I decided not to go.  My Agent (at the time) went completely batshit!  Given I had only just moved to this Agent, I agreed to travel all the way, wasting the whole day, in a bid to smooth the transition to her and demonstrate goodwill to this new relationship.  My reasons for not going, (perfectly sensible given the part was less good than the two other times I had already appeared in this soap) made this Agent no money and by me spending £100 of my own money it gave her the chance of making a few quid – and strengthening her relationship with Granada TV!  The same agent could not comprehend why I turned down 9 months work at Stratford Upon Avon and would not leave my 12 year old son at home alone!

This youtube video below (to digress again) is a funny – and incredible – mashup of my very first appearance as a Doctor in Corrie intercut with almost identical scenes with me dressed identically in EastEnders from the same year (2008).  The scenes are identical!  FFS!

Back to the point.  In the same way as the Actor doesn’t want to compromise his relationship with his Agent (as recounted above), the Agent doesn’t want to compromise her relationship with the Casting Director or production.  The Casting Director is looking to place suggestions of actors in front of a Director or Producer for some project or other and it is entirely up to the Casting Director who they pick for this.  So the Agent, understandably wanting her stable of actors to be in the frame, doesn’t want to compromise being on the Casting Director’s “For Consideration” list by causing problems and insisting on anything more than offered.  This compromises the interests of the individual Actor who has been offered a role via this mechanism.

What may not be widely known is that the Casting Director also negotiates the money with the successful Agents on behalf of the production.  I disapprove of this and feel this is where it gets opaque.

In the case of the Casting Director negotiating the fee with the Actor’s Agent, the perceived wisdom is that the Casting Directors are merely the go-between, taking the hassle out of negotiating the cast’s fees for the production. I am sure that is true in most cases. However, I have noticed a flaw in this wisdom, which further compromises the individual Actor after having been offered a role. Although it is only (perhaps) theoretical, it is one which Actors should think about.

Let us imagine I were a Film Producer and wanted to only spend £100K on my cast for the entire film.  To incentivise people to achieve that goal, would it not make sense to say to a Casting Director (who I had hired and works for me, don’t forget) that I would allow her to keep any money she had saved underneath this budget?  And let’s say I allow a 20% contingency from the budget to give me some wiggle room for one or two actors who are big enough to stand firm, making the Casting Director’s budget £80k.  It would make complete sense for The Casting Director to try and cast the film spending only £75K (or less) because of the £5K bonus they would earn!  If targets were achieved, I would be delighted because I save £20K!  This would actually be the clever & Freakonomics way (from the Producer’s perspective) to carry out this task.  But the Actor is helpless if this is what is happening.

In this hypothetical case, the Casting Director would say to the Agent that the budget was low.  “Take it or Leave it”.  The Agent, because the relationship with the Casting Director is more valuable than the measly extra £150 she might earn by demanding another £1K on top of the £10K already offered for the Actor (as explained in the Freakonomics video)  would say to her Actor the exact same, “Take it or Leave it” and the Actor would be no better off than when the offer was initially made.  And while I am discussing the dynamics of negotiation, it is worth observing that no serious negotiation, Brexit included, starts off with a best offer!  It is very common, however, for an Actor to be told what their money is and there is no negotiation whatsoever!  Take it or leave it!

Whether the above hypothetical scenario has actually ever happened or not, (ask yourself how you would know) the end result is the same for the Actor, who is told,  “It’s a small fee because the budget is low.  Take it or leave it.  It’s only a week’s work – so it’s better than nothing” etc.  All actors have heard this.  And all Actor’s just accept this and give everybody in the process the benefit of the doubt.  They will complain about their predicament – but never have I heard any Actor discuss and complain about this idea.

The question is, would a production or Director really prefer to re-cast than add 10% to the fee?  If yes, then the Actor has no leg to stand on and he is probably among the 75% who are not making £100 a week.  If no, and I postulate that this is the case in most scenarios, the Actor is able to negotiate a higher fee.  But this works only if the Agent actually asks the Casting Director for this and then again, only if the Casting Director relays the same back to the production.  It’s a lot of hassle and the Actor is trusting a lot of parties who, as explained, do not have his interests at heart.

It is worth thinking about.

If an Actor is relying on an Agent to simply find him work he would never have otherwise heard of, (which is my position) then all this is a perfectly acceptable situation.  If the Actor gets offered work and is relying on the Agent to negotiate more money, he needs to be willing to lose the job to achieve these ends.  This is why some Actors don’t perceive their Agents as being worth the cost.  In the mere process of seeing whether there is any more money, the Actor is calling the Casting Director’s (and Production’s) bluff and putting his Agent in a predicament as described.  It is not a very powerful position for the Actor – and now he has been offered the job he is better off without an Agent, arguably.  The idea that an Actor’s Agent is always looking out for his best interests (especially when he has secured a job offer) is NOT the exact reality.

To finish with another anecdote, I was once cast in a show and the money was agreed.  I was then asked to undertake understudy duties instead, while still appearing in the show, but now I was to be understudying the role I had initially been offered.  The new guy they had now cast was too young to do all the understudy duties of the other parts that would have to be covered.  I agreed to this but the Casting Director made the argument that I could hardly understudy a part and be paid more than the Actor playing it!  This was one I was willing to quit over, (and holding already an offer and agreed money) so I held fast.  I am now the only Actor in the West End who has been paid more (50%) than the Actor he was understudying! Actors, especially the ones making a living, need to be more brave about holding out for more money, because their Agents are not incentivised to do this.

They will still take the commission, though, if you succeed!

equality vs Equity

Which outcome is fairer?
Simplistic, perhaps, but it makes a good point

 This picture shows why I argue for positive discrimination, as a casting policy the actor’s union Equity should be supporting – to redress the balance that everyone now accepts is true and has spawned Act For Change and Lenny Henry’s recent pronouncements etc.   But even better, it shows why those who are threatened by positive discrimination, ie those who are privileged and already see over the fence (in the case of actors, those white actors with a certain agent), always argue that positive discrimination isn’t true equality and therefore illegal.  It may well be illegal, but that doesn’t mean an actors’ trade union can’t stand for it in principle, as it could have done (but didn’t) when homosexuality was illegal.

I believe that Equity the union, by not promoting what they would call “positive discrimination for minorities”, is not doing its job nor serving its name honorably.  I believe this happens because the union is 98% white (or whatever stupidly high number it is) and the elected Council is 100% white.  Unless BAME members are elected to the Council this argument will never be made. Even if they are, it still isn’t certain to be made.  At the moment I have made it a few times in committee meetings and it has never even been listened to at Council level.

I was incredulous to read a Diversity Objectives memo from the BBC – dated the year 2000 – at a meeting yesterday , and we all realised the situation has not changed one iota in half a generation.  In the last 16 years,  Equity has done almost nothing to drive change in this area.  I think it should take a long hard look at itself and make sure that come 2032 it can look back with pride at how it helped manage to change the landscape.  This can only happen by listening to and adopting some new ideas – then leading the way, not retroactively following the crowd.

It is like the recent Iraq bombings getting little to no coverage in the press; no-one in the key positions in journalism at the moment prioritise this story, because they have post Brexit, Chilcot Inquiry and football (and tennis!) to report on.   But no one would deny it is massive story!  In this example at least it is getting reported, thanks to having a person in a senior position like Jeremy Bowen.  Equity doesn’t have this person. Unless someone of high status whose main issue is BAME representation is there making the arguments, then no one thinks to make them.   In the same way as people forget to make arguments for disabled and LGBT and all minorities – unless a specific representative is in the room.

Equity believes it has shielded itself from criticism in this regard by having a protected seat for a BAME Councillor – but the facts speak for themselves, no such argument has ever been made, Equity’s history on acting for ethnic minorities is embarrassingly bad (the current leaflet doing the rounds listing Equity’s achievement s in this area is false – a wholly fictionalised re-writing of what stands Equity took;  for instance on the Miss Saigon episode) and the current setup is simply not good enough to redress the imbalance, which in turn means Equity is not leading the way.

Polls for the new Equity  Council elections closed  last night and results will be forthcoming soon.  I hope BAME members took my advice in the previous post and voted (in most cases for the first time ever) for BAME reps on Council. My own private interactions with actors tells me that more BAME actors than ever are leaving the union and even less are inclined to join.

If I am elected, which I doubt given my absence from the preferred “list”,  I will argue again
for positive discrimination.  Even though it may be illegal technically, I do not understand why the Union would not campaign for targets that amount to the same thing, which are not legally binding, but exactly as Sky have set themselves, for example.

Equity the union does not seem very equitable.  The new President, whoever it turns out to be, could do a lot worse than to face this issue and make Equity for the first time pro-active in this area.

ps.  a friend of mine, who brought this meme to my attention, points out that politically, people have different ideas of what is fair, and your ideas on fairness are, more or less, the determining factor in what makes you right or left wing.   Some may even point out the meme overlooks the idea that the people in question have not paid for the spectacle they are watching, which may not be ideal as a meme for actors’ politics!

UPDATE!  The results are in and it appears that me and my colleagues on the MEM committee, Daniel York and Somi de Souza did not get enough votes to get on to the general Council seats – but three other BAME actors did!  Congratulations to them!  Equity’s Council has gone from 3% BAME including the protected seat to 12%, which is far more representative – which alone was what I was campaigning for anyway!

A big thank you to the 600+ that did vote for me.

A poor turn out (as usual) from Equity’s 40,000+ members meant that the President was elected with only 2,300 votes!  That is 5.5% of the membership!  And some people have the gall to argue that the Tories do not have a democratic mandate!

1994. Life was exciting as a busy, young actor.

As a young actor, (well not so young actually … 27, in fact ) over 20 years ago, I was booked to do a show for Aquila Theatre Company.  2 shows, in fact.  It was early in the company’s development and my flatmate, Robert Richmond, was their new Artistic Director and employing all his mates, much as he still does nowadays!

I had been cast in two shows, Philoctetes and The Wasps – two classic Greek shows in an all male cast of four.

Miss Saigon logo
Logo for the world-wide hit musical

I had to leave the West End show, Miss Saigon, to do this job, envoking my “betterment” clause.

This betterment caused some distress to the Miss Saigon company, they having just appointed me to be the understudy to two main roles in that show, Thuy and The Engineer.  But the point of the “betterment” was to get out when something “better” came along.  Or so I thought.  It emerged that it was customary that the actor did not get to decide what was better for his career!  This came as a shock and after  a bit of a shouting match with the resident director,  I eventually left the Theatre Royal Drury Lane and started rehearsals in a church hall in Peckham with three other actors, all of whom I was putting up in my flat for the duration!

The Aquila job was to tour all over US, playing at Universities, doing these two plays and workshopping with the students.  Aquila Theatre Company were developing a reputation for this (and have done exceedingly well in the meantime).  I was young, had done Miss Saigon already, was ambitious and the decision to take this job was a no-brainer for me.   The only down side was the fact that there was to be a 6-8 week gap between tours, during which we would not be paid (and a consequence of which meant it was 99% certain we would be unemployed in that time to boot). This was annoying, but what could any of us do?

We all duly signed these two separate contracts and our passports were sent off to the US embassy in London with a particular work visa application (I forget what it was called) to work as specialists in education. The cast comprised 1. me, 2. Robert Richmond (directing and in it), 3. Dennis Conlon, who brought his young son, Sean, to stay with him, in my house for the rehearsals and 4. a grizzled-looking older geezer called Steve Owen.  We all had varying experience and competence – but we knew how to party and were close mates.   (Incidentally, Dennis’ son, young Sean, soon was to become a multi-millionaire boy band member, known for being the talented one in 5ive!)  But back to the main cast: Steve Owen filled in his visa application form by ticking “yes” in the box, asking whether the applicant had ever been convicted of a drugs-related offence.  There were only 5 questions altogether!  One of them was whether the applicant had ever been a member of the Communist party!  He then scribbled his “mistake” out and ticked “no”, which was the correct (and true) answer. His passport picture could not have looked more stereotypically like a pot-head if you tried, with uncombed thinning hair and incredible un-uniform teeth, like wonky and dilapidated tombstones in an unattended graveyard.  He and the other two, Robert and Dennis, had already been in receipt of one of these visas, and it was considered a formality.

It was a hectic time and the flat was full to bursting.  It was compounded by the fact that there was for some reason an official water shortage and so we could not go to the loo, wash up etc. and we had to fetch water from a stand-pipe outside the notorious and criminal Peckham Rye pub, “Kings on the Rye”.

As we rehearsed, I was offered a job:  Lead part in a new German TV series, paying a huge amount of money and 7 months filming in Hamburg.

It was un-turn-downable.  I was offered a fee that could have easily paid off, even after tax and agent’s deductions, my flat in East Dulwich (worth at time of writing  in 2016 circa £850K+).

Filming of this, my “breakthrough role” started after the Aquila Theatre company 8 week hiatus.  So… I was theoretically able to do the 1st part of the tour then the cast would be able to rehearse a replacement in the unpaid 8 weeks.  I offered to pay for the entire cost of these rehearsals, including all wages and venue hire as well as putting everyone up.  It was the least I could do, given I was now minted!

However, this is where I discovered having success as an actor makes actors bitter.  This was to be my Withnail and I moment.

Incredibly, the company were not happy with this offer!  I had signed the contract (actually both contracts!) If I even attempted to leave, I would be sued for breach of contract, I was warned!  There was some lawyer or other, who was connected to Aquila and he was, I was informed by the cast, who as I have already explained had worked for the company already (unlike me), a stubborn and ruthless man.  Like the owner of the company.

This preyed heavily on my mind, but the 2nd Aquila contract (after the hiatus) in question started around February 2005 and it was around July 2004.  There was time!  We were to start the 1st half of the Aquila tour sometime in September.

I was then offered a job in Croatia;  2 weeks on a US TV film, with Pierce Brosnan!  My immediate future was looking like: 2 weeks in Croatia on Pierce Brosnan job, return and go on tour to the US for 10 weeks, have a 8 week hiatus, be sued and then go to Germany for 7 months!

The fly in the ointment of all this was the thought of being sued – and this was preying heavily on my mind.  I went to Croatia, had a laugh for two weeks on the film The Nightwatch. 

The Nightwatch, TV Film 1995
DVD Cover of The Nightwatch, 1995, Shot in Croatia during the war!

When I came back to London, I had no idea what to do about the problem of being under contract and having by now signed my German TV contract.  I had in effect signed up to two things, which clashed.   My offer of paying for everything was not taken up.  Why?  I have no idea.  Maybe jealousy?  I was sick with worry.  It seemed to me that if I went and did the 1st part of the tour, then Aquila would have a better case that I was letting them down for the 2nd part and the lawsuit would take me down.  However, the threat of being sued did not make me particularly amenable to the idea of even doing the 1st part of the tour.  The owner of the company was not exactly dealing with this in a reasonable manner!

It was left to the migration policy of the USA to help me out.

We then received our visa applications back.  Steve Owen, looking like he was Howard Marks’ best client, with his scribbled out wrong answer to the drugs / busted question was granted his visa.  To everyone’s relief.  So were Robert and Dennis.  However, my application was denied!  wtf?!  I was the only person with a real reason to come back – having just bought a flat!   Was it just a racist policy to ban foreign-looking people (this was 20+ years before Donald Trump!)?  Who cares?!  I was free!  Even I  knew Aquila theatre Company could not very well force me to work for them in direct contravention of the explicit ruling of US immigration dept!  It would be illegal!  My contract with them was null and void!  Also my offer to pay for the rehearsals, which had been turned down, no longer needed to be on the table!  So off it went!

I did the German job.  It was called Echt Harder.  I managed to get a mate of mine, the actor Kay Siu Lim, ( who had a big part in the Pierce Brosnan film, incidentally) a part in an episode.  For a short 6-7 month period, I was the main role and I loved it.  Kay Siu said to me, “It’s like in Croatia, except you are Pierce Brosnan!”  It was true!  I was!  I earned a London house!  I loved it too and was not going to be sued – and it was all down to a bewildering and apparently racist US immigration policy, whose decision I never appealed.

I’m a BAME actor – who do I vote for in Equity Elections 2016?

Don’t just bin the letter from Equity with the candidates and your voting slip (like i have done every time since I joined in 1988)!  Get it out, scroll to the bottom of this and vote for the names listed!  You can vote for all of them.

For the first time, I have information for BAME members of British Equity, who would like to vote in the 2016 elections and improve the ethnic balance of the Council.

Laurence Olivier And Maggie Smith In 'Othello'
Laurence Olivier holding the hand of Maggie Smith in a scene from the film ‘Othello’, 1965. (Photo by Warner Brothers/Getty Images) . Picture also helps get people here from Facebook, who respond better to pictures

When Equity’s Council was last elected, there was nary a mention in any of the candidates’ statements about diversity – and every single person elected turned out to be white.  Hardly a big surprise, since there was not a single BAME candidate to vote for!

If you are a BAME actor, 100% white is how Equity has appeared historically (just look at the pictures on the walls of Guild House) and we have relied on good will, sometimes patronising, to make a case for diversity issues.  The slow-drip lack of leadership within Equity on this issue has led directly in my view to the emergence of Act for Change, a drop in BAME membership and the idea that Equity is irrelevant for BAME actors.

If, like me, you are a BAME actor who feels a trade union with over 44,000 members should not be irrelevant, should be more representative, and feel that the mere presence of BAME actors on Equity’s Council will improve matters, read on.

I complained at the time of the last election that there was no guidance available to help BAME actors know who to vote for.  I asked around; on Facebook and among friends, and no one had a clue who to vote for to champion diversity.  Not to say there was no one who did this (Charlotte Cornwell being a great pro-BAME and pro-Diversity  example) but who should we vote for, given no BAME actor had stood?

I discovered that there was a lot of politicking (with an exceedingly small p) that took place in these elections.  Factions exist within the union; encouraging people to vote for one group or another.  As far as BAME members are concerned this is like worrying whether you should be port or starboard on the Titanic.  (Equity’s answer historically is neither – BAME members should be downstairs in the stoking room!). It makes no difference to BAME actors, whether All-White team #1 or All-White team #2 are elected! Neither of the factions have much of a stance on diversity and it was left to us BAME members to choose which of the factions’ lists to follow – or to take random pot luck.   Equity’s BAME members mostly did not bother to even vote.

This year it is better.  After some positive recent changes in attitude and organisation, (Act For Change, Lenny Henry etc.) Equity has at last made some meaningful changes within its rules, so it can proactively stand up for diversity.  Thanks to the Ethnic Members Committee, Equity is now able to make a critical comment when diversity has been overlooked, and did so for the 1st time when it criticised The Rose Theatre’s War of the Roses production last autumn. The impact of this was enormous and has changed some BAME actors’ attitudes towards joining the union already (though it is incredible that until 2015 the union had never before done this).

Equity is still playing catch-up, but in another unprecedented change for the better in the upcoming elections there are BAME candidates you can vote for.  10 of them! Ten – in general seats – and there is still the protected seat, which could mean that BAME members could comprise 12 of the 33 seats if we all were to vote in a co-ordinated way (given that Abiola OGUNBIYI is already elected unopposed into the Young Members Seat).  I think that rather than have to guess which white actors have a pro active stance on diversity, (duh – no one is going to come out for racist casting!) and end up with it being overlooked (as usual) or ignored (as it was by more than half of the current ones when I emailed them directly about it) it is better for BAME actors to simply vote for those candidates who are BAME and intrinsically understand the issues.

Of course, being a BAME actor since the 80s, I remember well Equity’s then so-called, “Afro-Asian Committee” struggling to be heard.  In those heady days, each meeting descended into a shouting match and there was a lot of rivalry between BAME actors. The idea of coordinating BAME actors to vote for a specific outcome to benefit us all in those years was a long way down the line – but now do I feel we have a chance?  And of course, just because a candidate is BAME doesn’t mean they will represent your views any better than one who is not BAME.   Of course, you may know someone not BAME, who is standing and like them personally, and cant I vote for them?   Isn’t this just a big personality contest?   Yes, yes and YES! 🙂

However, the biggest problem Equity has had-  and for me why ACT FOR CHANGE even sprung up – is Equity’s appalling record on dealing with BAME casting and diversity.

At this stage, I feel that every BAME actor voted to Equity’s Council (and it is not a huge number of votes required to succeed) makes a massive difference to our union.  I am not saying you should not vote for your mates.  I am saying that if you are one of the many BAME members who thinks it makes no difference who you vote for, and usually don’t cast any votes at all, then just for an experiment, vote for all the members named here (AND THESE PEOPLE ONLY!).

VOTE FOR: (in the order they appear in the document)

  1. Paul Courtenay HYU (me)
  2. Somi De SOUZA
  3. Wesley GUREN
  4. Muhith HAKIM
  5. Maureen HIBBERT
  6. Martina LAIRD
  7. Sandra MARVIN
  8. Tanya MOODIE
  10. Daniel YORK

I  was under the misapprehension that you could vote online.  I was wrong about that.  Apparently it is something to do with trade union ballot law disallowing it.   What it appears we need to do is reach for the envelope, tick the names above, seal it and post it.

(I have simply guessed that the above members are BAME, by their picture and reading their biogs.  I may be wrong.  Apologies if so.  I may have overlooked someone.  Please let me know and I will correct.)

To clarify this post: you may know someone or want to support someone anyway – and that’s fine with me.  These are only suggestions for those of you, who like me at the last election, have no idea who best represents your interests as a BAME member and would otherwise throw away your vote, because Equity seems irrelevant to you.

Ab-Fab. Yellowface and Comedy.

I am pleased that Margaret Cho has taken the heat on this Yellowface thing with AbFab the film. I like her and she has brought the term to a wider audience in UK, who have never heard or thought of such things. Raising the idea that this kind of casting is out of order in a big publicity wave is a great warning shot across the bows for others contemplating it.

Margaret Cho
The brilliant Margaret Cho – I hired her brother Hahn in his first acting job after drama school!

I do, however, think that the role needs to be seen in context before people kick off. Jennifer Saunders (with Dawn French) has been consistently the funniest woman in Britain for 3 decades and never at the expense of minority groups. It would be incredible if she were to slip up now – especially at the expense of East Asians, the most historically under-represented ethnic minority group in Britain.

I went up for Mrs Brown’s Boys-D’ Movie and it was for a Chinese role that was so racist, that I had to mention it at the audition. The dialogue was all, “me no likee” etc.  The casting director told me that it wasn’t meant to be racist, and that it must have only come across like that when reading it because Brendan the writer was dyslexic! We were talking at cross purposes, and my speaking up scuppered my chances of being seen again by this woman … but my warnings must have been heeded because they re-wrote the part to become a white guy who thought he was Chinese for some reason; a clever device, which avoided criticism of racism (and one fewer part for a Chinese actor! Doh!).  It would be incredible that Mrs Brown’s Boys would take steps to avoid being insulting to East Asians and yet Jennifer Saunders would not.

Ab Fab
Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley

I believe it is possible, given Margaret Cho and anyone else complaining has not read the script nor seen the scenes, that Ab Fab’s casting may be similar to that which Mrs Brown’s Boys eventually settled upon.   Or it may be Sacha Baron Cohen-like, which would be 1. funny and 2. not racist, but satirising racism and racism towards East-Asians itself. It could be, for example, that Krankie’s character is not Japanese at all, but that people think she is because she has a stupid fake name.  It then would be a joke on Patsy and Edina for falling for faux-orientalism from an obvious fraudster.

The point is: that casting blackface or yellowface in comedy in itself is not racist, which is what Margaret Cho assumes here.  The best recent example of where it is not is Robert Downey Jr in Tropic Thunder.   This is not racist because the joke is on Downey Jr’s character, who is so up himself that he doesn’t realise how offensive he is being by blacking up.

This is why I have advised Equity to wait before wading in, taking a stance on this film and embarrassing itself.  Equity is now waiting to hear from the film’s producers, which response will be enlightening.

If anyone has earned our comedy trust, it is Jennifer Saunders.  If she lets us down, then it is another matter and I will be at the forefront of giving it both barrels here and via Equity.  Let us wait and see and let Margaret take it in the meantime.

The Missing Chink

I just re-watched this.  It is still pertinent now, amazingly.  I am proud of it. All 4 episodes are embedded here. This was pre Gok Wan!

picture of Gok wan, leading UK Chinese celebrity
Gok was nowhere to be seen in 2004 when this came out. Hasn’t he done well since?

One day I will write about the aftermath of this show and how the UK’s Chinese community lost its mind, complaining to OfCom in record numbers / phoning me up with death threats – resulting in me doing a gig with an armed police guard / an early day motion in The House of Commons being among the highlights – but for now, you can watch each episode with a brief deconstruction, written in 2015, of what is going on:

The Chinese (and other East Asians) were all but invisible in UK culture. Arguably they still are.  Gok notwithstanding. 

This satire was originally conceived by me as a 60 minute mockumentary but instead I was offered 5 x 3 minute slots to make my points. Thinking this was just a cunning ploy by Channel 4. which I could outwit, I held out for the original pitch, only to be soon informed that I had lost one of my 3 minute slots! So I accepted the 4 remaining slots, which were written in 2003, filmed around the corner from my house and broadcast Mon-Thu on the week of Chinese New Year in 2004 on C4, UK.

The two protagonists, who are called Jerry and George in a homage to Seinfeld (though we never learn their names), are as far from a Chinese stereotype as you can get. They speak in regional accents and show themselves to be stupid, ignorant and lecherous in the course of the series.

Ep 1. Plays with the fact that in the UK, Japanese and Chinese (and in fact East Asia in its entirely) are totally interchangeable and no one (not even the two protagonists) seem to make or care about the distinction. This confusion is played out when discussing the career of the one well-known East Asian actor, Burt Kwouk (who appears at the end), who is famous for playing Japanese characters even though he is Chinese. The fact that the BBC’s “The Chinese Detective” was so named is ridiculed and the point is made that this was so long ago (1980) that no one remembers it or David Yip the actor, who gamely also makes an appearance.

Ep 2. Addresses the idea that East Asian men are non sexually threatening or desirable, whereas East Asian women are considered a desirable conquest. How do these two contrasting stereotypes square the circle? The story of Miss Saigon is argued to be racist by one of the protagonists, and both meekly accept the stereotype that East Asian men have small penises. Bruce Lee gets a mention!

Ep 3. Addresses the UK’s (at that time) total ignorance that China are a world beating sporting nation and the irony that they are known only for (the non-masculine sport of) table tennis. Even though England’s record breaking rugby union try-scorer, Rory Underwood OBE (the customer who the protagonists ridicule and are surly towards) is half Chinese, this fact is almost unknown to the general public.  Even amongst hard core sports fans, it is almost as if Rory’s Chineseness is whitewashed from his UK public image. He is still the record holder to this day, Dec 2015, yet I suspect the same response if you go out on the streets of UK and ask the question, “name a British Chinese sports star”. Bruce Lee gets another mention!

Ep 4. Examines the lack of relative power the Chinese (and by extension the entire East Asian) community has in relation to the UK’s other ethnic minority groups. A list of notorious instances of white actors blacking-up – in actual fact “Yellowing Up” – is named. Again, the point is made that the South Asian and black lobbies in the UK are so much more powerful than the Chinese lobby (if it even really exists) that recent racist portrayals of Chinese culture on TV would never have happened to any other culture. The series takes its satirical homage to Seinfeld to the max by stealing the idea that there is “a deal” which exists between the UK’s Chinese community and the UK itself, which is beneficial for everybody – but results in “The Chinese” being invisible. This idea lays the blame for the state of being invisible (or “missing”) on the Chinese community itself.  Jerry & George are shown ripping off a white customer at the end and are happy with the status quo.