Netflix pledges to be 'force for good' by diversifying its programming

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Exclusive: service announces collaborations with Stormzy strategist Akua Agyemfra and writer Bisha K Ali among others

British rapper and film-maker Rapman is said to be working on a science fiction story.
British rapper and film-maker Rapman is said to be working on a science fiction story. Photograph: Ian West/PA
British rapper and film-maker Rapman is said to be working on a science fiction story. Photograph: Ian West/PA

Last modified on Sun 13 Dec 2020 17.12 EST

Netflix has declared it is on a mission to “be a force for good” by increasing the diversity of its programming, and that British film-makers and writers will have their voices “amplified globally” by the streaming service.

Announcing a wide-range of new programmes involving Stormzy’s cultural strategist Akua Agyemfra, the film-maker Rapman, and the Sex Education and Ms Marvel writer Bisha K Ali , Anne Mensah, Netflix’s vice-president of original series, said it was an “indication of how seriously” the global giant takes the UK.

Mensah also revealed that the Mr Bean star Rowan Atkinson was making a comedy about a housesitter plagued by a bee, while Succession writer Lucy Prebble is in talks about a new show.

Netflix has faced criticism from its rivals that it is signing up talent to the detriment of UK producers. Ofcom suggested recently that streamers could be asked to make some public service programmes as younger viewers feel “much less connection” to traditional broadcasters such as the BBC.

But Mensah argued Netflix’s drive was to “amplify British voices globally … we’re not in competition with any of the other broadcasters, we’re a totally different opportunity for incredible talent to come and do their thing.”

Netflix said recently it would double its UK programme budget to £1bn following the success of shows such as The Crown and Sex Education. Last month, the streaming service announced it would start declaring the £1bn-plus revenues it makes from millions of British subscribers each year to the UK tax authorities, following criticism that it funnelled UK-generated revenue through separate accounts at its European headquarters in the Netherlands.

Mensah said the deal with Agyemfra – brand director of Stormzy’s #Merky enterprise – involved “looking at projects and writers ... making sure that we’re not always talking to the same people about the same things all the time to ensure we’re better reflecting the whole of the UK and what’s authentically modern British. That then feels like our way of talking to the world.”

Rapman – the British rapper and film-maker whose real name is Andrew Onwubolu – is following up the success of Shiro’s Story and film Blue Story with a science fiction story while Ali’s deal, like Prebble’s, is bespoke and still being discussed.

Joivan Wade and Percelle Ascott in Shiro’s Story, a crime drama airing on YouTube, written and directed by Rapman.
Joivan Wade and Percelle Ascott in Shiro’s Story, a crime drama airing on YouTube, written and directed by Rapman. Photograph: James John

Mensah who worked at the BBC and Sky on hits such as Patrick Melrose and Chernobyl, said since she arrived at Netflix in 2018 she had been building a racially and socio-economically diverse strategy and structure.

Interviewed for the first time since starting her new role, she said: “We’ve got to get to a place where if somebody is doing something that doesn’t take an inclusive approach that should be surprising to you. It should be like washing your hands; it should be just what you do.”

“You have to focus on what are the systemic barriers that exist in our industry that mean over time these things haven’t happened … how can we help and work with our teams and creatives to ensure we are doing everything we possibly can to overcome [those] barriers. Because our audience is diverse – why wouldn’t you make shows for everyone around the world?”

Mensah thinks that Man Vs Bee – a largely silent comedy about a housesitter beset by a bee, created by Atkinson and Johnny English writer William Davies – will work globally, as Mr Bean did, although “he’s a totally different character – he’s not Bean-like.”

Mensah also announced Baby Reindeer, a series about a female stalker penned by Sex Education writer Richard Gadd and adaptations of Stuart Turton’s Costa award winning novel The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, Frances Hardinge’s horror novel Cuckoo Song and Sally Green’s trilogy Half Bad – produced by Lord of the Rings actor Andy Serkis’ company.

Mensah said Netflix’s “growing focus on serving diverse UK audiences through our own productions” provided a public service and the streamer already aired many shows that originally ran on British broadcasters, which can “extend the reach of those programmes, particularly with younger audiences [and] increase viewership when new seasons of those shows return to the PSBs’ channels”.

But she acknowledged it was important for Netflix “to be sensitive to where we’re coming into … and do our best to be part of a really brilliantly established industry”. She said Netflix had made “sure we are going above and beyond” by setting up training programmes for writers and crew and during the Covid-19 pandemic Netflix has supported the Film and TV Charity.

“It’s so important to work with brilliant British talent and I couldn’t be more excited about the people we’re working with. And it’s important to support the industry and, as far as we can, be a force for good.”