Voices: When I first started my TV career, Black roles were limited – not anymore

When I first started my acting career, Black roles were limited to thugs and criminals ( ITV DAYTIME)
When I first started my acting career, Black roles were limited to thugs and criminals ( ITV DAYTIME)

So here we are, set against a torrid backdrop of economic instability and political unrest to observe Black History Month (BHM): to pause, reflect and celebrate what Black people have achieved in the past and present, and what they will achieve in the future.

BHM’s inception began in 1969 with Carter G Woodson. It was created due to the Black history story being overlooked and ignored in general historical teachings and narrative. Black history becoming an essential part of history increases the visibility of Black people in a positive light. But has anything actually changed?

It is worth asking this now, at a point when society is becoming a pressure cooker in so many ways. We all need to exhale and acknowledge what we have accomplished together.

My introduction to the race divide came around age six or seven, when I had a distinct feeling of being different – such as the need to be subservient. I attended a Catholic primary school run by nuns (a decision made to afford me the best possible education geographically), and it was there that my innocence was lost.

I couldn’t find my school satchel with all my books inside, and later found it flushed down the toilet. Name-calling and isolation were the norm, and it wasn’t until I found my gift of performance that my worth increased among my peers and teachers.

Fast forward to the years I was in Eternal. The 1990s were an opulent time of big business and “Livin’ La Vida Loca”. Being in a band that had worked and burrowed its way to success was incredible. We were invited to sing for the late Pope John Paul II and royalty – the Sultan of Brunei’s daughter, alongside the late, great Whitney Houston. These moments gave me an external view of sheer happiness and career highs, but behind the scenes, more segregation ensued.

Magazines would not put us on the front cover of their publications because we were a majority Black band. We would arrive in countries like Australia only to be told they wouldn’t be able to provide suitable hair and makeup. Journalists would only direct questions to Louise. In some southern states of America, it would be more like reverse racism.

We did have times of sheer joy, such as being invited to South Africa when apartheid was abolished, performing to hundreds of thousands of people emancipated from oppression.

As a broadcaster, I am fortunate to have gained a voice in my seat on the panel of Loose Women, where due to a fine team of producers and researchers we have been able to take some provocative discussions to a daytime audience, culminating in winning an RTS in 2021 for the first ever all-Black panel show.

Being in the creative seat for Channel 4’s Black to Front Day, a day dedicated to Black talent behind and in front of the camera, was another monumental moment in broadcasting. As was the moment when Hollyoaks broadcast the first ever all-Black cast episode.

These are all steps forward, increasing the visibility of Black talent in a positive light. What has changed is the permission to have “the conversation” – about race, cultural differences and how we work together, as well as the ability to be open, both on set and in the workplace.

Opening the conversation looks like asking for what is required, such as booking hair and makeup for a Black performer without causing offence to a white makeup artist. It’s not about one being better, it’s just a different skillset. Would you book a GP to perform heart surgery over a surgeon, when they are both trained, both qualified – but one specialises in a particular area?

When I first started my acting career, Black roles were limited to thugs and criminals. This led to a mass migration of highly talented actors to the US to further their careers and be valued despite the colour of their skin.

I’ve witnessed changes in business, too. I started my own talent management company in 2000 to give opportunities to actors who were marginalised. Being Black, female and an ex-popstar was not the best label on my “name badge” when liaising with my peers. I’m still often the only Black agent in the room. This is not a pity party, merely an observation.

I am also observing change post-Black Lives Matter. I have picked up a sense of celebration of achievement and bubbling creative integration, which is now evident in everyday televisual broadcasting across commercial, mainstream and subscription platforms.

These stories are part of a tapestry of Black history, along with the greats from our past whose shoulders we stand on. I often reflect on Matthew Henson, an explorer who helped discover the North Pole in 1909. He was a craftsman and a carpenter who built the sledges used to navigate through the arctic terrain. But I set you a challenge: Google who discovered the North Pole. You’ll likely hear about Robert Peary and his “helper”, rather than his co-discoverer. Matthew Henson was an orphan from the first generation after the abolishment of slavery – all he wanted to do was freely explore the world, but it took 20 years before he was credited or recognised for his achievements.

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Why do we bother with Black History Month? Without it, we remain the same; happy with the status quo. That cannot be our true desire. Surely, this great nation and its patronage yearn for greater things. How damaging would it be for our future “United” Kingdom if we were to disregard the sacrifices of those who went before us? We are taught British history in school – did we not learn from Emmeline Pankhurst, King Henry VIII or Guy Fawkes?

The unveiling of alternative British histories is no less vital and impactful to the tapestry of modern life. In fact, the vibrance and resilience of these stories are interwoven into our everyday lives; etched on the faces of the likes of Sir Mo Farah CBE OLY, Sir Trevor McDonald OBE and Baroness Doreen Lawrence OBE. It’s inescapable.

Black histories represent impoverished silences that need to be broken. The weighted exchange of these stories must invoke change in all of us – that is the gift that unifies us all. I am proud to be British, and ever more proud of the steps we continue to take.

Kelle Bryan is an actor, broadcaster on Loose Women, award-winning CEO of Advocate Agency and avid campaigner for Lupus Trust