When will black actors be cast in period (costume) drama?

3.15am. Woken by a daft dream (see this post) I tried my equivalent of counting sheep – casting War And Peace. Followers on Twitter and Facebook will know that, on New Year’s Day, I set myself the task of reading the 1300 page novel. I’m finding that, far from being a daunting, burdensome thing, it is actually very enjoyable and very readable.

However, there is a vast cast of characters and I keep having to refer to my handy bookmark (pictured) to remind myself who everyone is and how they’re related. The BBC is due to start filming an Andrew Davies adaptation this month. I checked out some of the cast and can now picture their faces as I read. That helps.

My handy War and Peace cast list bookmark

My handy War and Peace cast list bookmark

Prince Andrei (Andrew in my copy) will be played by James Norton, otherwise known both on Twitter and in our household as The Hot Vicar from Grantchester. Using him as a starting point I began to cast my version. Emilia Fox (at the age she was when she played Georgiana Darcy) would play his sister and maybe Ian Holm could be their overbearing father, Prince Nicholas Bolkónski? Paul Dano has already been cast as Pierre (Dano was the particularly nasty one in 12 Years A Slave) and I could envisage Michael Gambon as his father, Count Bezúkhov (not many lines for him though – perhaps he could have long naps on set). I was beginning to warm to my task and enjoying myself far too much to be able to get to sleep.

And then I thought, wouldn’t it be great to find parts for all my favourite actors? Well, I was off then… Benedict Cumberbatch, Andrew Scott, David Tennant, Sophie Okonedo, Idris Elba… Whoa! Hang on a minute. Rewind. Go back a bit. When did that last happen? When did you last see a black actor in a period piece on TV or film? (At the time of writing I can only think of Kenneth Branagh’s version of Much Ado About Nothing). Yes, it happens on stage, with Shakespeare especially. But on screen, large or small?

And, half-asleep in bed at 4am I got indignant. And cross. And slightly ashamed of myself. It’s not as if this hadn’t occurred to me before but I’m afraid I was dismissive. Lenny Henry. On his soapbox. Basically just touting for work.  Wasn’t he? What must these men and women think when they hear that the BBC is casting a huge costume drama like War And Peace? Is it the equivalent of the “No Blacks” sign going up in the window? How awful. Yes, I know there is other work out there, contemporary pieces, especially in the US but basically, whenever a classic novel or play or anything written before 1930 is adapted that work is not available to them.

Why not? Why the hell not? Idris Elba would make a fantastic Captain Wentworth in Persuasion. I’d love to see David Oyelowo as Mr Darcy and George Knightley (Emma) played by Chiwetel Ejiofor. But I don’t just want quirky casting, or cameo roles or tokenism. I want to see these pieces populated by black faces as well as white.

Returning to my casting of War And Peace. Although I have only read a tenth of the novel so far and have not been introduced to all the characters, nevertheless I can see Sophie Okonedo as Countess Rostóva, Noel Clarke as the daredevil subordinate young officer Dólokov and David Harwood as Kutuzov.

It is the 21st century and we need to be colour-blind when it comes to casting. Of course I’d love to see a 2015 adaptation of War And Peace. But that’s the point, it is 2015. Time – long overdue – to raise the colour bar.