After Noel Clarke: can the UK film and TV industry bring an end to on-set bullying?

For many years, the actor and director’s behaviour was seemingly unchallenged. But there are hopes that the recent claims against him could help spur positive change

After 20 women came forward to tell the Guardian they had been sexually harassed and bullied by the actor, director, screenwriter and producer Noel Clarke, the question on many people’s lips was: did other people in the industry know about this? And if not, why not?

While some of the incidents of harassment or bullying took place without witnesses, others happened in front of colleagues and senior production staff. The assistant film director Anna Avramenko, who worked as an intern on the film Doghouse in 2008, told the Guardian that Clarke approached her on set and “started trying to kiss me on the lips, in front of everyone”. She added: “He probably tried it like three to five times with me, maybe more.”

Why was Clarke’s behaviour go seemingly unchallenged for so long? And are the problems it highlights symptomatic of a wider lack of safeguarding within British film and television?

Clarke himself has categorically denied all allegations of wrongdoing, and continues to deny them. In a statement to the Guardian in April, he stated: “In a 20-year career, I have put inclusivity and diversity at the forefront of my work and never had a complaint made against me. If anyone who has worked with me has ever felt uncomfortable or disrespected, I sincerely apologise. I vehemently deny any sexual misconduct or wrongdoing and intend to defend myself against these false allegations.”

Industry insiders talk about a culture on some sets where those in power could be bullying and demanding, but where people felt unable to complain. These actors, casting agents, union representatives and advocates describe the British film and television industry as an institutionally unsafe place, particularly for women. Job precarity, and the overwhelming power of producers, directors and stars on sets, all create a fear that speaking out about abuse will lead to blacklisting in an insular community.

“Having read all the stories [about Clarke’s behaviour], I’m left with this overwhelming feeling of impotence and frustration,” says Meriel Beale, the anti-bullying and harassment officer at Bectu (the Broadcasting, Entertainment, Communications and Theatre Union).

Beale founded the Unseen On Screen anti-bullying campaign in November 2020, after being a victim of workplace bullying herself. After the allegations against Clarke were reported by the Guardian, Beale wrote an open letter, now signed by more than 2,000 members of the British entertainment industry, calling for “an end to this culture that turns a blind eye to predators and harassers operating in plain sight”.

Sexual harassment and bullying from actors on sets can go unchecked because “stars are more important than the minions, who are replaceable and disposable because everyone wants to be in film”, says Samantha Horley, who sits on the bullying and harassment committee set up by the BFI and Bafta. In her 30-year career in international film sales, she frequently encountered bullies. “It was always accepted that you put up with bad behaviour,” Horley says. “I’ve worked with screamers and phone-throwers.”

Paul Fleming, the general secretary of Equity, the union for actors, places the responsibility for protecting workers with producers. “Producers don’t like being called bosses,” he says. “They like to be seen as exclusively artistic and creative people. But they have a moral, legal responsibility to make their workplaces safe.”

But what if the alleged abuser is the person in charge? “There is huge vulnerability if you are someone who doesn’t have huge amounts of power in the industry and you’re talking about someone who is extremely powerful,” says Philippa Childs, the head of Bectu. “That power gap is definitely even more huge in TV than in other workplaces. The people with money and profile and kudos are almost untouchable.”

Whereas on a big project, such as a Netflix show, for example, victims might be able to contact the streaming giant to raise concerns about the behaviour of a producer or director, that option is not available on low-budget productions. “In the entertainment industry,” says the casting director Tamara-Lee Notcutt, who worked with Clarke on the film Adulthood, “we don’t have HR, you don’t have anyone to go to, especially if it’s the producers or directors doing it. They’re the head of the food chain. Who are you going to talk to?”

Many of the women the Guardian spoke with were reticent about making complaints about Clarke’s conduct and behaviour, both at the time of the incidents and years later, seeing him as a man who wielded considerable power in their industry. They worried that if they reported the incidents, word could get around, and they might struggle to get work in the future. Others said there was a cultural reluctance to challenge the behaviour of senior actors and producers.

It’s clear that many people did know what Clarke was like. Some people have admitted that he was known to be bullying and demanding on set. Others have pointed out that he often produced his own projects, such as Sky’s now-cancelled police procedural drama Bulletproof. “There was absolutely no oversight on his projects,” says a former insider on Clarke’s productions, who does not wish to be named. “He was given complete autonomy. There was no one holding him to account and he surrounded himself with people who were 100% loyal to him. He mainly did his own productions and he was the power broker.”

Clarke’s lawyers say that he has never worked “on a single production where there has not been someone or a number of people above him”, instead reporting to executive producers, distributors or financiers, and that he has “never had complete autonomy on a production”.

Looking at the wider perspective, the UK film and TV industry is small, and reputation is everything. “People feel very anxious about speaking out,” says Childs, “because they are concerned that word is going to go around that they are trouble-makers or that they can’t cope, because they’re not capable of dealing with the cut and thrust of the film set, or the pressures involved in getting a production finished within time and budget.”

Noel Clarke in 2008. He categorically denies the accusations.
Noel Clarke in 2008. He categorically denies the accusations. Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy

People at the beginning of their careers can be vulnerable to superiors who may take advantage of their ambition and inexperience. Although the industry seems glamorous to outsiders, like many others it’s full of bad bosses and bad pay. “These abuses of power are no different from what they might be within a chicken factory,” says Fleming. “You have these short-term contracts, zero-hour agreements, peculiar freelance arrangements, very powerful, usually male bosses, and junior people who are very, very desperate to work – it’s the same everywhere.”

The industry’s reliance on short-term, freelance contracts over the years has created a systemic problem, where a compliant workforce is fearful of speaking out. “If you’re a freelancer or you’re just starting out, then you do worry about how you’re going to make a name for yourself or where your next job is coming from,” says Childs.

Kristina Erdely, a casting director who worked with Clarke’s production company Unstoppable on the Channel 5 drama The Drowning, says casting director jobs “are not advertised. There’s no recruitment process. There’s no equal opportunities. When a commission hits a producer’s desk, they want to crew up really quickly. It’s so hard to open doors, and this instills fear in freelancers, because it’s so hard to get work.”

Individuals can fall between the cracks of a system that is not set up to safeguard them. In extreme examples, people can be driven out of the industry altogether.

Former runner Hollie Ibson alleges she was bullied by Clarke during the production of Bulletproof in 2018. “I never reported him,” she says. She was worried that if she did report Clarke, it might get back to him, as the boss on the production.

She claims that Clarke would pretend not to hear her when she relayed messages to him, and then later blame her for not passing the messages on. She says that she would have panic attacks on set. “I would come home crying my eyes out most nights,” Ibson says. “It was awful … I felt insignificant and rubbish at my job, because I was ignored every day.” Although there was a phone number on the bottom of the call sheet (the document that tells the cast and crew what they need to do each day) to allow anyone to report any workplace issues anonymously to an independent person, Ibson never called it.

After Bulletproof, Ibson quit the film industry and now works in TV scheduling. “Until I had that job,” she says, “I knew I was good at my job, and progressing in the industry. When it all happened, it crushed me.”

Clarke’s lawyers state that he has “no recollection of Ms Ibson”, and point out that no complaint was made about his alleged behaviour towards her on set. They say there were female executives and higher-ranking people than Clarke on the set every day, and that there is no record of the on-site medical team attending anyone having a panic attack on set.

Bulletproof was made by the production company Vertigo Films, which terminated its relationship with Clarke last month. Lawyers for Vertigo confirmed that Ibson had not made any complaints of misconduct against Clarke.

The Guardian understands that Vertigo was made aware of two incidents involving Clarke on the Bulletproof set, at least one of which resulted in a formal complaint. In the first incident, which took place on 22 May 2019, there was a physical altercation between Clarke and a supporting artist. An official complaint was made by the supporting artist against Clarke, who subsequently apologised. In the second incident, which took place during the filming of Bulletproof South Africa, Clarke allegedly told a crew member words to the effect that he would “fire” them for making a mistake on set.

Additionally, the Vertigo co-founder Allan Niblo told an alleged victim in a 1 May 2021 phone call: “Don’t get me wrong, I know Noel can be an asshole, I know he can be a bully. But no sexual, none of this behaviour got back to me at all. If it had, I would have done something about it.”

The call was one of a number Niblo made to people who worked with Clarke after the Guardian’s original story appeared. In it, Niblo made clear that he was not aware of any sexual misconduct allegations against Clarke prior to the story breaking, and was “devastated” by the reporting.

Bulletproof was one of Sky’s most popular shows: its debut episode got the biggest audience for Sky One all year. Vertigo and Sky accept that both incidents took place on Bulletproof; however, they state that they were handled expeditiously and resolved appropriately at the time, to the satisfaction of the individuals involved. Lawyers for Niblo state that he did not know that Clarke had allegedly bullied people prior to the Guardian’s reporting, and that when he said that Clarke could be an “asshole” and a “bully”, he was referring to conversations he’d had with current and former Vertigo employees after the story broke, which had changed his understanding of Clarke.

“We are devastated to learn of the allegations made against Noel Clarke and we have been working hard since then to speak with and support anyone who has been affected,” said a spokesperson for Vertigo Films. “The isolated issues that were raised during production were resolved immediately on set. It is clear the current industry standards for safeguarding procedures need to urgently be reviewed. Our primary goal now is that Vertigo Films will help to shape the best working practices in entertainment, and we have already begun investing in this.”

Clarke states that the May 2019 incident took place after the supporting artist joked about his family, and the incident on the set of Bulletproof South Africa took place after a crew member incorrectly loaded a prop gun. “It would be neither fair nor reasonable to criticise our client for being firm with the crew member in question in circumstances where their actions could have endangered cast and crew,” said Clarke’s lawyers of the second incident.

Nonetheless, these incidents illustrate some of the difficulties that the industry now finds itself having to grapple with. The responsibility for fixing the industry is a merry-go-round of finger-pointing and blame-shifting. “The industry is full of people organising seminars and producing documents explaining what’s gone wrong,” says Fleming. “There’s a tendency to point fingers at the casting process, at agents, at drama school, the nature of short-term contracts and the short-lived nature of the special production vehicles of companies that make shows.”

Childs wonders whether the array of anti-harassment initiatives launched after Harvey Weinstein’s abuses in the US came to light in 2017 have failed. “I think we became complacent,” Childs says. “People thought they had put in place checks and balances, but they weren’t working.”

In 2018, the BFI, in partnership with Equity, announced that everyone applying for BFI funding would have to pledge a zero-tolerance approach to sexual harassment and bullying. Their guidance recommended that every production should have two people on set who are anti-harassment leads, but this has not happened.

Furthermore, in late 2020, Equity stopped operating its bullying and harassment helpline. The union says that not enough people were contacting it to justify its continued operation, and that it increased its spend on one-to-one counselling services by £10,000 instead. The Film and TV Charity does have a 24-hour support hotline, which Beale says is helpful. But she says that people are reluctant to call whistleblowing hotlines. “People have said to me that they don’t want to call those lines, because they don’t know who would be hearing the messages, or answering the phones.”

The charity Time’s Up UK has issued guides for nudity and sex scenes, while just last month, Equity negotiated with Pact, the trade association that represents the independent television and film production companies, to introduce new protections on performances involving nudity and simulated sex acts. But it’s clear there’s a long way to go. Beale wonders whether a neutral third-party organisation, capable of investigating abuse complaints, would be the best way to go. “We could do with some kind of independent body who is there to provide reassurance that, if you have a problem, you can go to them, and they’re not going to be tied in with somebody who could affect your next job,” says Beale.

Childs would like to see a dedicated anti-harassment representative on every set. “The big film companies, the broadcasters, Netflix,” she says, “everyone would need to contribute, pay for their training and agree that there should be someone on every production.” Vertigo said it has already taken action to secure the safeguarding of casts and crew on all its productions and in particular had hired an independent media HR consultant to be present on all sets to run compulsory training on harassment and bullying and to be available to all cast and crew to raise any issues confidentially that may arise. Sky has a dedicated, confidential web portal – SkyListens – to enable anonymous reporting of incidents either via phone or online and actively encourages reporting of incidents from employees and those working on Sky productions.

This cultural moment, although painful, may yet be a force for positive change. “I feel like we didn’t have our #MeToo movement here in the UK in the same way that they did in America,” Beale says. “People are really ready for it.”

• This article was amended on 28 May 2021. Due to a misunderstanding, an earlier version indicated that Meriel Beale’s comments regarding people’s reluctance to call hotlines related to support lines such as that run by the Film and TV Charity. In fact she was referring not to these, but to whistleblowing hotlines. This has been clarified.


Sirin Kale, Amelia Gentleman and Lucy Osborne

The GuardianTramp

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