Opinion: How to reverse the resurgent decline of diversity

Sebastian Thiel

Sebastian Thiel, the UK director of shows including BBC Three’s Dreaming Whilst Black, ITVX & Prime Video’s Riches and upcoming Netflix superhero drama Supacell, shares his experience of entering the industry as a Black creative & why even small gains must be protected.

In 2018 a report on Black, Asian and minority ethnic directors working in UK television found that just 2.22% of UK television programmes were made by BAME directors. Shortly after this, and in light of Black Lives Matter, there were many bold statements of intent for diversity and inclusion strategies made by broadcasters and streamers.

With new focus I suspect there was a slight improvement in those figures, however, in 2024 we are seeing D&I initiatives and roles crumbling, and with budgets being squeezed in every part of the industry and a lack of work pushing people out, how do we make sure that any of those (small) gains that have been made aren’t going to disappear, or worse, go backwards?

Black directors have always needed to be nimble and often have an entrepreneurial spirit to find their own paths into the industry, and I can’t see this changing much for new talent to be able to break through.

When I was starting out, if you had told me I would direct a superhero show for Netflix (forthcoming series, Supacell) with Black leads in South London, I wouldn’t have thought it would happen. Not because of a lack of ability or self-belief, but because growing up, we didn’t have anything on TV that really reflected young UK Black British culture. Did people like me work in TV?  Was this a career path for me?

But I had passion for storytelling, so in my late teens and early 20’s I took to YouTube to create my own content, setting up Upshot TV, where I created comedy sketches with people I saw at comedy clubs such as Mo Gilligan, Babatunde Aleshe, Kevin Garry, Axel Blake and Adot Comedian. This was me connecting the dots and working with talented people who never had a look-in on TV. Many of them are household names now.

Thiel directing on the set of Dreaming Whilst Black

I never went to film school; I learned via YouTube tutorials and an editing job. So, when I was making content, I had no clue what a director’s role actually was. I was holding the camera, editing, doing sound, casting—just doing what needed to be done at the time.

One of the biggest turning points for me as a director was when a producer friend, Nagajan Modhwadia, helped me with my first short film, building a team. This was where I saw how things actually work: sound, DOP, makeup, AD, etc. That support gave me a real insight into the mechanics of filmmaking. Then I was able to replicate and create more content, amassing millions of views online. This led me to create a web series called Just a Couple, which got the attention of Big Talk, and ultimately picked up by BBC Three.

I was fortunate that I got my shot at a time when the BBC was exploring online shows. Through that show, I was able to have work that could be used as a reference, securing me as director on the Dreaming Whilst Black pilot, as the lead director on ITV and Prime’s Riches and now Supacell.

My entry into the industry via creating for my own audience and garnering attention is a route that has been effective for many of my peers. To break into the industry, we had to almost ignore it. Whether it’s Adjani Salmon with Dreaming Whilst Black, Rapman with Shiro’s Story to Supacell, the careers of many in my generation come from being self-starters, entrepreneurs, and jack-of-all-trades.

But doing this leaves us open and vulnerable when it comes to the inner workings of ‘how things are done’, which in turn often means we’re perceived as a ‘higher risk’ in the industry. This is coupled with a lack of creativity in how to facilitate risk that ensures there’s a payoff or ROI.

When Saurabh Kakkar at Big Talk helped me transition from making YouTube content to doing TV, his support was essential in my growth and understanding the world of the screen industries. He invested time in me. There was no commitment, however, we would meet periodically, and I was given advice and help with developing my show. I needed to learn, so that process of discussing and sharing ideas with seasoned professionals was essential in helping me transition to TV directing. Being shown the realities and politics of the commissioning process and how productions work helped me carve a way.


That process is something that not many of us would know. When this is not supported or acknowledged, it can negatively impact shows as well as confidence and mental health. And while this can be relatable to online filmmakers in general, there’s an additional element of pressure and scrutiny that comes from being Black and getting things wrong in a predominantly white space.

I remember when I directed my first show for TV, I started getting notes from the producer on set, and it really made me feel uneasy – because I did not know that was how things worked. It was triggering, and it felt like I wasn’t trusted, only to realize through the DP that this is how TV is. It’s laughable now, but it knocked my confidence and led me to question why I was not being trusted when it had nothing to do with that.

Sharing expertise and knowledge with new talent will help create more opportunities and a better chance for them to cut through, and this is where I think industry peers can step up efforts and intentions to ensure our industry is nurturing Black talent early on.

And vice versa, from my experience and those around me, there could be a better cultural awareness when working with Black talent. Trust that when they speak to their culture, it will translate universally. It’s something the Americans do well, as seen with shows like Insecure and Atlanta. There’s a boldness that these shows can sit in, which feels much harder to get off the ground in the UK.

Combining these elements can only lead to creating a more diverse and culturally rich industry, that in turn creates exciting new shows for audiences. Which is a win for everyone.

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