Noel Clarke in 2019. Credit: David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images for dunhill

May 3, 2021   5 mins

At the beginning of April, Noel Clarke — actor, director, producer, screenwriter, shortly to be honoured by Bafta for Outstanding British Contribution to Cinema — did one of those celebrity Q&As for the Guardian. You know the kind of thing: short questions, sharp answers, no psychological delving or difficult follow-ups, classic weekend supplement material.

“What is your favourite smell?” Pizza, he says. “What is your guiltiest pleasure?” Peanut butter crunch HĂ€agen-Dazs ice-cream, he says. It’s fluff.

Then, last week, the paper published an extensive and detailed report of sexual harassment allegations against Clarke, based on the testimony of 20 women. Within 24 hours, ITV had pulled the finale of Clarke-starring primetime drama Viewpoint from its schedules. Sky had halted work on all projects with him. Bafta suspended both his membership and the award. Another six women came forward.

Clarke’s career is over, for the foreseeable future at least. A statement in which he expresses himself “deeply sorry” for the way his “actions have affected people” and promises to “[seek] professional help to educate myself and change for the better” suggests that he knows as much.

If Clarke were aware of the investigation when he did the Q&A, that might explain the strangely suspicious, embattled tone of some of his answers. Asked about the trait he most deplores in himself, he says: “I can’t help being a loyal person and I expect that back. When it doesn’t happen, it can upset or anger me.” Asked about the trait he most deplores in others, he says: “The inability to say what they mean.” The last question is: “What is the most important lesson life has taught you?” Clarke replies: “Don’t trust anyone.”

Does he feel let down that women were speaking out against him? If he does, he has no right to. The picture of his behaviour in the Guardian investigation is one of rampant entitlement to and casual degradation of women. But it’s the kind of rampant entitlement and casual degradation that can only happen in an industry which enables it.

Bafta was aware of the allegations when it decided to give him the award, and Clarke may well have considered it a vindication. “As far as we’re concerned,” his business partner told one woman, “the thing has now gone away as much as Noel can do in his power.” Women owed him no silence, but seeing your industry turn away from you after initially appearing to back you must feel like a cruel betrayal.

Because Clarke couldn’t have done all that he’s alleged to have done without, at the very least, a reckless lack of oversight from his collaborators. Some of the allegations against Clarke involve the kind of misconduct that happens between one man and one woman, and can only be made visible when multiple victims tell their story. A lot of them, however, do not: there are claims that Clarke not only sexually harassed women on-set, but that as a producer and director, he ran sets in ways that facilitated the harassment.

If, as alleged, he hired strippers in preference to professional actors who would have been aware of usual working practices; if he failed to run appropriate “closed sets” when filming nude scenes; if he demanded off-script nudity from female performers and spent time filming pornographic footage that could never be used on-screen; if he did these things (and Clarke denies that he mistreated women on-set), it’s very hard to see how any of this passed under the radar. Some of it must have appeared on budgets.

As is the way of these things, Clarke’s cancellation was savagely efficient when it came. The suspicion is that the savage efficiency marks not just the industry’s authentic horror at the allegations, but also a desire to restrict any reputational damage to one man alone. With Clarke cast out, quarantined with his reported misdeeds, the film and TV business can evade any difficult questions about the abuses it might tolerate.

There’s another betrayal, too — less severe than a filmmaker’s betrayal of the duty of care to women he employs, more sympathetically compelling than the betrayal experienced by a man who can no longer luxuriate in the complacency of his industry. When someone is famous in the way Clarke is, it’s because people like him. Why would anybody give over two seconds’ reading time to his favourite smell or guiltiest pleasure if they didn’t have some personal attachment? Clarke’s alleged behaviour is a betrayal of that attachment.

It’s why the wiping of Clarke’s work from the schedules feels so much less egregious than last week’s other big cancellation — that of author Blake Bailey, whose biography of Philip Roth was pulled from print by publisher WW Norton. That also followed allegations of sexual misconduct, with two women accusing him of rape and several more claiming that he had “groomed” them when they were teenagers and he was their teacher. (Bailey has denied criminality, while conceding: “My behaviour was deplorable.”)

The Bailey allegations are queasy stuff, but they don’t impinge on the book in the same way that the allegations against Clarke impinge on his work. Whether the biography is a faithful, insightful account of Roth’s life or not can be assessed on its own terms: liking Bailey is besides the point, and Norton’s decision smacks of panic and pointlessness.

In fact, wrote Judith Shulevitz (who was initially critical of Bailey’s book), Bailey’s work might be more interesting in light of the allegations: “Reading my suspicions about Bailey into the book now does make it easier to imagine how biographer and subject could have tapped into the worst parts of each other to construct a collective monument to un-self-awareness. And that, in turn, gives me a glimpse of how men collude to deny women reality and reduce them to inviting targets.”

There’s no such perverse redemption available for Clarke’s work. I thought Clarke’s girly heist film 4. 3. 2. 1. was sexist trash when I saw it on release in 2010 (inside the first three minutes, Clarke contrives a crotch shot of one of the female leads), and am not convinced that revisiting it as a “monument to un-self-awareness” would profit me much. Unlike Bailey, Clarke could use his work to further his abuse — and vice versa — which makes being a viewer a complicity too far.

Clarke was a star, and his kind of stardom is a contract of love. It does not make much material difference to most people if their favourite actor or singer turns out to be a bad person; except it does make a difference, because choosing a favourite is a statement of faith that they are a good person, and more than that, that you are a good person by implication of your taste. It feels like being cheated on to be contradicted.

Clarke was likeable because he was Mickey in Doctor Who — the resolutely ordinary boyfriend of the Doctor’s companion Rose, who eventually redeemed himself. He was likeable because he was a young black British man who established himself as an auteur (it would have been churlish to point out that his vision involved a lot of upskirting). He was likeable because his guiltiest pleasure was ice cream.

What has been suggested now is very much not likeable. Very much not a feelgood story. Some cancelled TV projects and a withdrawn award shouldn’t be the end of this. Perhaps instead of women sadly saying “Me too!” to each other, this time there will be men thinking frantically to themselves: “Me next?”

Sarah Ditum is a columnist, critic and feature writer.