Doreen Tipton: Was history in black and white?

By Doreen Tipton | Weekend | Published: | Last Updated:

Apparently a new musical opened last week at the Old Vic about the Suffragettes, with local hero Beverley Knight – yes, our Bev – playing Emmeline Pankhurst. This got me thinking about some other examples of perfect casting.

Role reversal – Sooty to star as Kermit?

Nelson Mandela, played by Hugh Grant. Meryl Streep as Churchill. Jim Davidson as Othello. Woody Allen as Jeremy Corbyn. The Hounds of The Baskervilles played by two cats. Sooty played by Kermit the frog.

So, do I think it really matters if they cast a black icon as a white icon in a musical? Not in the least. After all, when I appeared in Aladdin at the Grand Theatre, they cast me as a Chinese Empress. The nearest I’ve been to China is the takeaway in Tipton, and I reckon that if my Western features didn’t quickly give me away as a total fraud, my Black Country accent might have done. But that’s the culturally-confused, cross-dressing, loony-fest known as Panto for you, and anybody who seeks to take it too seriously needs to be immediately cast as the villain, and then cast out of the theatre.

So a musical, I suppose, is the next category along. Yes, it’s a little bit more serious than a panto, but it’s still ultimately more concerned with entertainment than with historical accuracy, so all you need on stage is somebody who can sing, act, and is a bit of a ‘name’. Job done, our Bev ticks all the boxes and we go home happy. After all, we don’t have to really ‘believe’ what happens in a musical. Deep down, we know that Emmeline Pankhurst probably didn’t burst into song every five minutes, and do an elaborate tap-dancing routine while chaining herself to some railings. (I haven’t seen the musical, but if that’s not in it they’ve missed a trick). So we take it all with a huge symbolic pinch of salt and clap along. Incidentally, one of Emmeline Pankhurst’s most famous quotes is: “Trust in God. She will provide.” There’s a nifty bit of feminine re-casting if ever I heard one.

The other similar debate doing the rounds at the moment is whether Idris Elba should play James Bond. Well, Idris is a charismatic actor, so no doubt he’d make a great action romp. And Bond was only a fictional real person, as opposed to a real, real person, so who cares? Well, purist defenders of the Ian Fleming novels may care, if such folk exist (and if they do they sound a bit boring). But then Fleming’s Bond wasn’t Scottish, and Sean Connery didn’t do too bad in the role.

So, it’s really only when a production company aspires to produce some ‘serious historical drama’ that the casting directors need to be held more to account. That’s when you don’t want Brian Blessed playing Professor Stephen Hawking, or Julian Clary as Richard The Lionheart. Because then, you do need to believe. And very occasionally in a drama, you can spot where trendy casting execs have let their politics trump their common sense.

For example, the BBC (who else) recently cast a black woman (Sophie Okonedo) as Margaret of Anjou. She was the wife of Henry VI, and Queen of England in the 1400s. That’s as daft as casting Colin Firth in the role of Martin Luther, or casting Lenny Henry in, well. . . anything really. Only joshing Lenny. You were great in that recent BBC programme about you. And it was perfect casting.

Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, the Margaret of Anjou thing. It was a historical drama, portraying real people, not the latest John Lewis Christmas ad.

Most kids now learn their history from TV and films, ever since, with the help of the teachers, they forgot how to read. So producers should have a certain duty to reflect the truth. And of course, this sort of thing only happens when there’s a big heroic role on offer, so it is PC-driven. After all, there’s no way an ethnic minority actor would get the role of Harold Shipman, any more than bumbling Hugh Grant should have been considered for Mandela. We all remember that classic romantic comedy – Four Weddings, a Funeral and the Dismantling of Apartheid.


The recent blockbuster movie ‘Dunkirk’ also came under fire from some delirious folk for not including more black faces. Funnily enough, I didn’t spot any rickshaws either, or mobile phones. The Zulu warriors were absolutely nowhere to be seen (the cowards) and when it came to the planes, I think the Boeing brand was sadly under-represented. And despite all those boats, not a single EU flag anywhere, despite them funding the movie by giving us some of our money back. It’s a scandalous re-writing of history.

The way to change the future is not to change the past. It’s to study it, and learn from it. And we can’t do that if loonies keep trying to erase it and re-write it.

Anyway, it just so happens that in this year’s panto I’ll be playing alongside Sooty. I just hope he’s like I remember him as a kid, and not turned into a green frog with an American accent.

Tarra a bit x

Doreen Tipton

By Doreen Tipton
Columnist - @DoreenTipton

The Queen of the Black Country shares her take on the week's hot topics.


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