Channel 4 will air the UK’s first continuing drama to be made with an all-black cast and crew as part of the broadcaster’s Black to Front diversity initiative. Shooting is under way on the hour-long special episode of Hollyoaks starring, written and directed by black British talent.
The soap launched an investigation last year after a number of black cast members alleged they had experienced racism on set.
The episode forms part of Channel 4’s Black to Front, a day of specially commissioned programming to air on 10 September that will see black-fronted editions of flagship shows including Celebrity Gogglebox, Channel 4 News and a one-off return for The Big Breakfast hosted by the comedian Mo Gilligan.
The special Hollyoaks episode centres on a family party for the birthday of Reverend Walter Deveraux (Trevor A Toussaint). Alongside the Deveraux family, the episode will feature a host of characters, new and long-established, played by black actors.
Some of the cast and crew recruited for the special have been retained on an ongoing basis.
Lime Pictures’ head of continuing drama Lucy Allan said the production was prepared for some backlash for the initiative but this was not a concern for those involved. She said: “There are going to be people out there that don’t get it, but that’s all the more reason that we have to do it.”
Last year, Hollyoaks launched an investigation after the black actor Rachel Adedeji tweeted several claims about her experiences of racism on the set of the soap.
Adedeji claimed that a senior producer referred to black cast members using a racial slur and that black female actors were “forced to drastically change their hair” because otherwise viewers “would not be able to tell them apart”.
Adedeji was not the only black cast member to express concerns. Tylan Grant, 19, said she had “dealt with difficult situations and microaggressions”, while Toussaint, who has played Deveraux since 2018, remarked “there isn’t one person of colour… who has a position of authority within Lime Pictures. Why is that?”
“I think I’ve seen two black directors in all the time I’ve been there, and definitely no black producers.”
Addressing the show’s record on diversity and representation, Allan said: “There’s been a huge amount of work done by Lime as a consequence of what happened last year.” Last August, Lime announced measures to tackle racial inequality on the show including a 17-page “inclusivity action plan”, a guardians scheme and the hiring of a Caribbean cultural adviser.
Off-screen representation has been identified as a key area for improvement, with black script-editors and hair and makeup professionals hired to work on the special, which was written by Thabo Mhlatshwa. He said: “We’ve all become much more aware of black representation onscreen, and that’s great, but for our stories to be told with all the nuances we need black storytellers and black decision-makers. It’s not just having our faces there, it’s actually having our voices there behind the scenes.”
The episode is being directed by Patrick Robinson, who played consultant Martin “Ash” Ashford in Casualty and DC Jacob Banks in The Bill. He first began directing in 1998 with the short film Monument but this will be his directorial debut for a major continuing drama. Robinson, who is cousin to footballer and broadcaster Ian Wright, said: “I’m very excited to be directing this hour-long special of Hollyoaks, featuring characters who share my background and heritage.
“Opportunities like this don’t come up that often and they haven’t done… I’ve been an actor 30 years and I’ve seen many actors who’ve had a chance to slip into directing with no hassle, and usually they’re not of colour.
“There’s been many false dawns… so many times you think ‘something will change now’, and from my experience it hasn’t.”
Channel 4 is working with the Sir Lenny Henry Centre for Media Diversity on the Black to Front initiative to ensure the day leaves a lasting legacy. The centre, an independent body affiliated with Birmingham City University, authored a report warning that “if the initiative is not implemented correctly it risks Channel 4 being seen by the general public as trying to capitalise on Black Lives Matter and the serious political movement of combating anti-black racism for its own benefit”.
Channel 4’s outgoing deputy director of programmes, Kelly Lamb, said: “It was really important for us that we didn’t just come up with a knee-jerk response to all of the conversations last year that arose post-George Floyd and Black Lives Matter… we wanted to have a genuine impact beyond whatever we did on screen.”