Deirdre O’Neill and Mike Wayne explain why they are making a new documentary, The Acting Class
A small class war has broken out in the acting profession recently. Actors from working class backgrounds such as Julie Walters, Julie Hesmondhalgh and Christopher Eccleston have warned that the industry is becoming increasingly exclusive, hard to break into and dominated by a private school-Oxbridge nexus. In response, some actors from the other side of the class divide have predictably dismissed such concerns. Damian Lewis, the son of a City broker and an alumni of Eton (along with Eddie Redmayne, Dominic West and Tom Hiddleston) says it is a ‘nonsense’ to be worried. The topic recently moved Ralph Fiennes to denounce the issue of class domination in the profession as ‘bollocky’, a media construct and ‘not true’. For Fiennes, raising the issue was in fact part of the problem, a sign of Britain’s ‘obsession’ with class. If we all shut up about it, the problem itself will, it seems, disappear.
Although the arts professions like to think of themselves as models of inclusivity, the research does not support such complacency. According to the Great British Class Survey conducted by Mike Savage and colleagues at the LSE, 73% of actors come from affluent backgrounds. Other research based on the Labour Force Survey found around 50% of actors come from affluent backgrounds and that only 16% come from working class backgrounds. The Great British Class Survey found as little as 10% of actors come from the manual working class. Meanwhile, the Sutton Trust did some analysis of who has won all those BAFTAS over the years and discovered that 42% went to private school. The Sutton Trust also found that 67% of British winners in the best leading actor, actress and director categories at the Oscars were privately educated. Yet only 7% of the population attend private school.
Class stratification in the acting industry is part of a much bigger problem when it comes to the professions. Careers that require a degree and/or training have become increasingly difficult with the move from a grant based system to fees paid by the individual through loans. The media and cultural industries are highly casualised and this favours those individuals whose families can support them as they make the transition from student to regular paid employment. Once upon a time, the transition between leaving education or training and finding your feet in your chosen work could be eased by unemployment benefit. Many successful artists of past generations started that way and paid society back many times over through their taxes. Today, the disciplinarian ethos around benefits, which assumes everyone claiming is a work-shy parasite, makes such support impossible.
A vicious circle is now entrenching itself in the professions. The more they become dominated by the middle class and very wealthy the less welcoming they are to working class people. The psychological barrier of feeling that you do not belong, are not meant to be there, because no-one else there is like you, is added to the economic barriers.
The consequence of such class exclusion in the acting profession is particularly significant, because this labour is central to shaping the kinds of stories we, as a society, tell ourselves. When the stages and screens are crowded with the middle class and the aristocracy, then the audiences for those stories either become gradually more exclusive or the price paid for engaging with those stories is to accept, however tacitly, a subordinate place within the social structure. The stories of the working classes are either untold, marginalised or viewed stereotypically, unsympathetically and from a distance, reproducing the broader strains in our society as solidarity and mixing between classes is breaking down as social and geographical inequalities deepen.
Eighteen months ago we were approached by a young working class actor from Bolton, Tom Stocks, to make a film about this situation. Tom had had to abandon plans to do a post-graduate drama course at East 15 because, while he had an offer, he could not afford the fees. Tom had tried for over a year to save the money (around £20k including living expenses) while working as a chef in London but had to finally admit defeat after deferring the offer twice. Angered by this he started up a campaign called Actor Awareness to try and bring attention to class exclusion in the industry. This is where we hooked up with Tom and began talking to struggling actors, artistic directors, educators and academics and established actors about the situation. Everyone we spoke to talked about how money determines opportunity, the London-centric nature of the business, and how discrimination and snobbery in the industry raises further barriers to having a successful career.
Diversity of social experiences is the lifeblood of a thriving culture. If a culture cannot tap into that because it rests on a very narrow social base, then it becomes deeply impoverished. One of they key purposes of culture is as a means of communication that extends beyond the instrumental language of business and the vacuous sound-bites of the political mainstream. Through our screens and on the stage, we can find out about the kind of society we live in and perhaps breakdown down indifference and lack of knowledge, extend the circle of empathy and revivify that sense of civic concern that withers in a society that conceives itself as hanging together through a series of contractual exchanges in the market. Yet art cannot do this when it becomes exclusively dominated by the elites. Instead of art and culture being something people widely participate in, it gets defined as a luxury, an attractive add on for those who can afford it. A form of cultural theft is happening that mirrors and is driven by the seizure of economic resources by the rich from the majority.
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