THE thought of Alistair Sim in a frock still brings a longing smile to the face. His appearances as the long-suffering school mistress Miss Fritton in the St Trinian’s movies of the 1950s were truly a thing of acting beauty.  

Such casting wouldn’t be allowed now; it would regarded as both cultural and gender appropriation. The fear is that television and film making may be restricted if talent – and those with box office appeal – are bypassed by diversity demands.

The issue has been highlighted this week by arguments over the new  Cleopatra movie. Hollywood has now managed to bury the near bankrupting memory of Elizabeth Taylor’s 1963 journey to Alexandria and is set for a remake, starring Gal Gadot. 

Gadot was the massively successful Wonder Woman. So why shouldn’t she become the desert-storming, nation-rescuing, man-eating legend that was Cleopatra? Carry on Cleo, you say? Me too. 

But not those whose cultural detectors’ batteries are fully charged and claim that Gadot can’t be allowed to play Cleo because she isn’t Arabic. Gadot is Israeli and, according to journalist Sameera Khan, is guilty of “cultural imperialism”. Khan writes: “Your country steals Arab land and you’re stealing the movie roles.” 
Strong stuff. But there are problems with the journalist’s argument. Cleopatra wasn’t an Arab. She was born in Egypt but her ethnicity is Greek-Berber, her lineage dating back to Macedonia.

READ MORE: Do we need to switch off the Covid soap opera? Opinion by Brian Beacom

Does this mean a Greek actress has to be cast in the role? Well, perhaps ideally. But name a Greek star who can command international box office and help raise the production money. 

The Cleopatra tale also throws up fascinating questions about diversity. No one can argue the days of blackface were entirely wrong, where the likes of John Wayne could become Genghis Khan or Peter Sellers play an Indian. From today’s perspective,  Hollywood producers made an ass of themselves in casting English rose Elizabeth Taylor as the Queen of the Nile. But does Gadot’s ethnic lineage (being Ashkenazi-Eastern European Jewish) disqualify her from playing a Greek? 

Yes, we need to do all we can to achieve a balance in society, to encourage young people of ethnic backgrounds into the industry, to try and match up the ethnicity of the character in the script to the actor being auditioned. But there is a worry that absolute specificity may kill off productions during development, that diversity initiatives could reinforce stereotypes the proponents hope to transcend. 

We also have to be concerned that actors will be denied work that asks them to step outside of their native voice. Actor Ralph Fiennnes (whose commandant performance in Schindler’s List was chilling) said recently that a British actor putting on a German accent would be regarded as outdated. 

What would this mean for Scots actors who hope to follow in the footsteps of Bobby Carlyle who gave us a great Russian Bond baddie,  a terrifying psychopathic Scouser in Cracker, or an endearing  Yorkshireman in The Full Monty? Should the super-talented Alan Cumming never have been allowed to play a Russian in Bond either?  
Yes, Peter Mullan’s Texan accent didn’t really slot into Ozark. But would Martin Compston be denied a future Line of Duty role? 

Scots have long had to leave behind their upbringing at the door of casting agents. If not, Phyllis Logan could never have played the toity Lady  in TV’s Lovejoy.  

READ MORE: Brian Beacom: Andrew Neil, the Torquemada of political interviewers, will ask serious questions of the BBC

And didn’t Laura Fraser do well in Breaking Bad? (Sadly, the same plaudits can’t be thrown at Kelly MacDonald for her Irish performance in Boardwalk Empire. (“I’m not exactly sure where the accent’s from,” she recalled in self-deprecating tones.” 

Yes, we in Scotland have long criticised the non-Scots who tried to play one of us, from Bill Travers in Geordie to Christopher Lambert in Highlander. Jessica Lange’s delivery in Rob Roy was as convincing as sweet porridge.   

But we’ve been pragmatic enough to appreciate that film producers follow the money. Had we argued cultural appropriation, Mel’s Braveheart idea would have been left  back on Bondi. And hundreds of jobs that went to Scots lost. We also have to remember that acting is about dressing up and pretending to be someone else.  

And given the business of acting has never been more precarious – and Rishi Sunak would be happy if our actors retrained as school janitors – let’s try and keep an open mind when it comes to casting.  

Give Gal a chance. Anyone who could  sell the idea of saving the world from Nazis using just a couple of ankle bracelets and a piece of shiny rope is more than capable of convincing she knows her way around Macedonia.