IIf you scribble a list of all the British TV detectives you can think of, past and present, the sad truth is that only a few are played by black actors. It is a fact that does not escape Tala Gouveia, who occupies one of the main roles in the ITV crime drama McDonald & Dodds, which is about to return for a second season.
“There’s Luther and Thandie Newton on Line of Duty … I can’t think of many more,” says Gouveia. “It really means a lot to me to be a woman of color on a traditional British detective show, and for my character to be the boss. In fact, it’s one of the big reasons I wanted to do the show. “
Gouveia stars as the impatient and instinctive DCI Lauren McDonald, alongside Bafta winner Jason Watkins as the clumsy but brilliant DS Dodds. She is a city mouse, struggling to adjust to the sleepy pace of life in beautiful Bath, and he is her secret weapon: an unassuming underdog ready to strike. There’s nothing new about a mismatched detective duo solving crimes on ITV on a Sunday night, but audiences have enjoyed it.
“It’s exciting to be back and it’s great to know that the show resonated with people,” says Gouveia. “We wanted to make an entertaining and heartwarming series that people really enjoy, especially when the news is so unforgiving.”
The Nottingham-born daughter of two theater actors, Gouveia always knew she wanted to act. At the age of 16 he briefly flirted with the idea of ”a suitable job” but followed his heart and was educated at the prestigious Bristol Old Vic theater school.
“They gave me stamina and prepared me for how difficult business can be,” he says. “They put you on mock auditions, where they took notes with rough pencils and serious faces. That may have been an exaggeration – in the real world, most casting directors are really charming and pencils aren’t rough. “
His first television gig was a small role on EastEnders, and he had to wait nine years to direct a series. When the McDonald & Dodds script hit his doormat, he had no idea it would be a life-changing opportunity. “My agent kept offering me detective roles and I never thought I would get them. I’m a bit mean so I never saw myself as a policewoman! ” she says.
“But I loved the McDonald character and when I read the chemistry with Jason I knew it would work. Jason has been very encouraging and supportive. It was daunting, not just wanting to do a good job, but realizing that if Jason and I didn’t get these roles right, we’d never get a second series and it all falls apart. You look at everyone around you and you realize that they trust you.
“The show used to be called Invisible. When they switched it to McDonald & Dodds I was like, ‘Ugh, it’s going to be harder to fire me now!’ ”.
The first series turned out to be a Sunday night hit for ITV, securing 6.4 million viewers and attracting a brilliant array of guest stars for its second run, including Rob Brydon, Martin Kemp, Patsy Kensit and Sarah Parish.
But Gouveia has found some of the responses from social media disturbing. “People tweeted that our show ‘woke up’ just because it had me on it,” he says. “My family eventually took the phone from me; there were a lot of lovely comments from people who loved the show, but your brain only focuses on negativity.”
Do you think the color of your skin has slowed you down in your career? “I think so,” he says quietly. “To begin with, I spent so much time concentrating on the fact that I was a woman and how that limited me, I didn’t even dare to think about being a black woman.
“I didn’t get my first audition because my breasts weren’t big enough, welcome to the business! It used to go up a lot of parts that were written specifically for black people, and if they weren’t, the paper was usually for a white woman. I think that’s changing a bit, there are more parts for now. “
But landing the job is only the beginning of the story: Gouveia’s daily TV experiences reveal how ill-equipped the industry is to accept the diversity it needs. “There are things you get used to,” he tells me. “In previous jobs, I used to wear specific curling irons every day because I knew they wouldn’t know how to handle my hair in its normal state, and the answer was always toned or straightened curls. So you wonder why you get up at 5 in the morning to do this, when we could figure out how to do my hair in a more natural way. It was such a relief to use my natural hair for McDonald & Dodds. The smallest things can make a big difference to your sense of self … and the condition of your hair!
“I’m used to being on set and being the only black person there. Most of the time I’m so used to it that it doesn’t resonate. It is not until you start to notice a change that you realize how strange it has been for so long. McDonald & Dodds was my first time working with a black director on screen.
Killing Eve star Sandra Oh gave a similar account in a interview with Variety last year, she said she had gotten used to being the only Asian person on set, but noted that the UK was “behind” the US when it came to equality. But don’t we always hear about the push for diversity in the arts? What’s the delay and are we wrong to find hope in shows like Bridgerton and I May Destroy You?
“Things are changing, especially with the Black Lives Matter movement, but it’s not happening very quickly,” says Gouveia. “Recently, people have started to think more about the diversity among artists, but not so much about who is behind the camera. It’s also about the people who have great power in the media, many of whom are white, cis, straight, healthy men living in London. We tend to have a lot of stories about these types of people and they don’t represent our country.
“Think about LGBT + shows: we had Queer as Folk years ago and now we have Its A Sin, which is great, but in between it has been a very slow process. We had the gay best friend, and then there were a lot of great LGBTQ + indie movies, but we’re not really seeing this in the mainstream. Nor do we see disabled actors. There has to be a change.
“We need to fully understand the need for diversity and insist on that change. I want to see myself represented sometimes and think, ‘Oh, that’s me. But I also want to watch shows about people who are nothing like me. If we continue to make television about certain people, we strengthen the idea that these are the most “universal” and “normal” stories to tell. And I don’t think that’s good for anyone. “
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism