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There Are a Million Poles in the UK – But None On British TV

Poles are the largest group of foreign nationals, and Polish is England's second language, but you wouldn't know that from our programming.

by Kamila Rymajdo
27 September 2019, 8:45am

Piotr Baumann as Jan Lozinski on 'Coronation Street'. Image via ITV

If you've been watching Coronation Street recently, you'll be familiar with Polish construction worker and lothario Jan Lozinski. Lozinski – who was complicit in the modern slavery storyline – is eerily similar to Konrad Topolski, a handyman in EastEnders. Not only do the characters do the same job, they're also played by the same actor, Piotr Baumann.

While it's common for actors to hop between soaps, the same actor playing virtually the same character at the same time is not – as Metro flagged up in March – which points to a larger issue. There are close to a million Poles living in the UK, with most migrating after Poland's accession to the EU in 2004, and at last count Polish was the second most spoken language in England. However, there is scant representation of Poles in mainstream British entertainment.

"In the last ten years I've played cleaners, masseuses, victims of trafficking and housewives – all speaking poor, broken English," says actor Aneta Piotrowska, who came to the UK in 2004 and recently played the complex character of Alicja in My Friend the Polish Girl.

This is an experience shared by performer and director Margot Przymierska, who came to London in 2003 from the northeastern city of Białystok. She says the situation is a reflection of real life representations of Poles within British society: "There are so many damaging stereotypes online, like dating websites specifically targeting western men that say, 'If you want an obedient loving wife then you should go for a Polish woman.'"

Przymierska tells me it's not only that the characters are one-dimensional and don’t reflect the wide range of professions that Poles living in the UK are in, but because they're written by British writers unfamiliar with the nuances of how Poles speak.

"The lines and the comedy timing are British in the delivery, and if you get a Polish actor reading those lines they may not get the same inflection or the melody of the sentence as a British actor would," she explains.

On top of that, when actors like Piotrowska and Przymierska are offered the roles of Polish characters, they are often told to intensify their accents. As a result, they sound rough and cartoonish, rather than like a Pole speaking English. "Sometimes, [saying] 'no' [to roles] is all you can do to not feed the beast of ignorance," says an exasperated Piotrowska. However, more often than not, Polish actors don't even get the chance to play Polish or other nationalities from Central and Eastern Europe. These roles, like the character of Marika in the Soho Theatre-staged Roller Diner, or Oksana Astankova in BBC television series Killing Eve, are frequently given to British actors.

Polly Thomas, a freelance audio drama producer and director, who worked on the 2015 BBC adaptation of the Teodor Szacki series by Zygmunt Miłoszewski, Reading Europe - Poland: Entanglement, explains that – within radio drama, at least – it's not as simple as choosing between a Polish and British actor, arguing that the decision to go with a British actor might be stylistic.

"With an adaptation we're just pretending we're in Poland, [so] none of the characters are played by Polish actors," she tells me, as it would actually sound more inauthentic for Poles to be speaking in English with Polish accents. "We do always get authentic Polish pronunciations recorded for all the words that are Polish, particularly place names and things," she adds, "but in Graeae’s Amy Dorrit, which was set in modern Britain, we had two Polish characters who arrived from Poland and were making their life in London – they were played by British-Polish actresses and they spoke with Polish accents, because they [naturally] would."

While Thomas makes a case for radio, there is little justification for the lack of Polish and Central and Eastern European actors playing characters from countries in that region on stage and screen. In a landscape where it's no longer acceptable to whitewash characters or cast straight actors to play those from the LGBTQ+ community, why are Polish and, more widely, Central and Eastern European characters still approached with such lack of respect and nuance?

"The main problem is we are not treated seriously. [It's like], because you're white, you can't be discriminated against, and therefore we don't need to do anything for you in order to support your integration or include you in society," says Adam Rogalewski, who completed a PhD on international relations focused on Polish domestic workers abroad, and is head of the international department of the Polish confederation of trade unions. Rogalewski cites funding cuts for ESOL classes brought in by David Cameron's coalition government as an example, but also emphasises that Polish talent and qualifications are ignored across British society – not just in the arts.

Wesele / Wedding by Piotr Charkiewicz
Wesele/Wedding, photo by Piotr Charkiewicz

Fed up with continuously being offered roles that typecast her as a domestic worker, Przymierska decided to write a performance that challenges these stereotypes. Rooted in the European tradition of absurdist political comedy, her immersive one woman show Wesele/Wedding is a collage of authentic and fictional stories set in the not too distant future: the last Polish-English wedding before Brexit-imposed borders close around the UK.

"I wrote the show after the referendum happened, and realising there aren’t any voices from the Polish perspective to describe what Brexit feels to us other than in media verbatim," Przymierska explains.

"This is a performance which plays with different levels of reception," says University College London's Dr Urszula Chowaniec, who is writing about Wesele/Wedding in a forthcoming academic paper. "Przymierska wanted to make it inclusive for everyone, and this is important. It’s a gesture towards multicultural communication."

"I speak on behalf of the generation that came after 2004, because that’s my generation," Przymierska continues. "We share the experience of growing up abroad and we embody this limbo land."

Wesele / Wedding by Ella Marak Freeman
Wesele/Wedding, photo by Ella Marak Freeman

The "limbo land" of living in the UK for years – even decades – or of being born to Polish parents but never being accepted as British is what reviews of filmmakers Ewa Banaszkiewicz and Mateusz Dymek's My Friend the Polish Girl have highlighted.

"When I read [reviews that said] it was a migrant story, I thought, 'Really?' Someone who’s lived in the country for 12 years and trying to make her way as an actress, that’s specifically a migrant experience?" says Banaszkiewicz. "There was a review in The Times about our film, and then it went on to others and it said, 'Now for the British offering,' and I was just like... so just because you have a Polish surname, you can’t be British? This film is an English language film, I was born here, I grew up here, it was considered a British film in Edinburgh [International Film Festival] and part of the Best of British selection, so where do you get off not calling it British? It's deeply offensive."

What Banaszkiewicz and Dymek think is important to stress, however, is that now is the time to continue with work that challenges the status quo. "I think it’s a very polarised time, so there isn’t really room for nuance, but there should be," Banaszkiewicz concludes. "Because in the discussion, in the nuance, is where we come together."

@kamilarymajdo

Wesele/Wedding will be performed at Streatham Space Project, part of Streatham Festival on 16-17th Oct, at 7:45PM, with more UK dates in 2020.

My Friend the Polish Girl will be available on VOD on 7th October.

Tagged:
Poland
soap operas
British television