I nearly didnt write this piece. I realise that as a white, middle-class, middle-aged man wading into the identity-politics debate, I may as well just find the nearest pack of wolves and throw myself in their path. But something needs to be said about the regressive idiocy that is threatening the creative spirit and the sheer enjoyment which the worlds of arts and entertainment bring to millions of people.
The trigger (to use a modish phrase) is the comment recently made by Miranda Wayland concerning the character of John Luther, played by Idris Elba, in the hit BBC crime series Luther. Wayland, the Corporations head of creative diversity, said that while she, like many, initially fell in love with the character, by series two she was wondering: OK, he doesnt have any black friends, he doesnt eat any Caribbean food this doesnt feel authentic.
So Luther wasnt black enough. That is horrendously patronising to Elba, who carried the show (and indeed was an executive producer), and was, as a man of African heritage not Caribbean: please take note, Ms Wayland starring in a leading role on prime-time BBC One, a true pioneer. Wayland is surely not advocating a sort of reversion to the stereotypes that tainted TV drama for years, in which ethnic-minority characters were often gangsters, or (in the case of Indian representation) intransigent patriarchs. With Luther, the shows creator Neil Cross has said that Elba was initially attracted to that role precisely because race was not a factor.
But Cross has also said that it would have been an act of tremendous arrogance for me to try to write a black character. This comment (made prior to Waylands) is just as spectacularly unhelpful. It feeds into the new cult of only being allowed to write about your own specific background, siloing the creative mind into the makeshift prison of identity politics. Cross, as a writer, should be allowed to write about whatever sort of character he wants: that is the right of the artist, who for hundreds of years has enjoyed creative freedom. In the prism of modern thinking, would Tolstoy have dared to explore the mind of Anna Karenina, or Shakespeare ventriloquise the words of the Moor?
But now we have reached a stage at which authors flights of fancy (which is their stock-in trade, after all) are under threat. Look at the hatred directed towards the white novelist Jeanine Cummins for daring to imagine herself as a Mexican immigrant worker in her bestseller American Dirt, or the kneejerk criticism directed at the decision to allow the black poet Amanda Gormans work to be translated into Dutch by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, a white writer, even though the latter had been approved by Gorman herself. How fascistic, how depressing, how insulting to the very notion of art.
Similarly, we now have a situation in which even actors are expected only to play roles that reflect their own ethnicity or sexuality. You cant play gay unless you actually are a ridiculous view which goes against the very notion of the profession, which is to transform yourself into somebody entirely different.
These new constraints threaten another worrying outcome. Comments such as those made by Wayland are damaging when the creative industries are working so hard to achieve racial equality and the possibilities of a multi-ethnic Pride and Prejudice or a black James Bond feel finally within reach.