Without the bank of mum and dad as support, opportunities in the arts are becoming non-existent. This new documentary is a cry of anger against this class injustice
Deirdre O'Neill and Mike Wayne’s important political documentary is a searing account of the rock-solid class ceiling in the acting industry. The feature film gives us a direct insight into an industry where it is not just difficult for working-class actors to become successful, but where working-class experience is wiped out of mainstream culture, and those who haven’t been to private school can’t even get on the first rung of the ladder.
The question of class in the arts has recently come to the fore, with a number of high-profile actors saying that if they were trying to break into the industry today, there is no chance they would get anywhere. A number of them feature in the film - Christopher Eccleston’s anger is palpable as he describes the psychological and material barriers both aspiring actors, and established ones such as himself face. He tells us how during the production of Our Friends in the North, the TV drama that made his name, one of the editors at the BBC questioned whether they should put the word ‘north’ in the title. 'That was in 1993, and it’s only got worse since' remarks Eccleston with disbelief - it is difficult to imagine this drama, an epic portrayal of working-class life across the generations, being put on now at all.
The film follows Tom Stocks, who set up Actor Awareness, an organisation which provides a community for aspiring actors who are finding things difficult. As he started to get some mainstream press, he found himself at the receiving end of much abuse for even discussing the idea that it is more difficult to find a place in the industry if you are from a poorer background. This only served to reinforce his conviction that the problem he is trying to solve is about class interest. Every time an actor from a working-class background, such as Julie Walters or Maxine Peake (who features heavily in the film), puts their head above the parapet they are shot down with more than a hint of class snobbery by the likes of Damien Lewis, and Helena Bonham Carter - who infamously said that ‘if you’re not pretty, and if you’re working class you have an easier time in terms of people’s attitudes to you’. Maybe Bellatrix wasn’t an act.
It is difficult not to notice the preponderance of posh boys on our screens and stages, and the lack of working-class stories amongst the endless period dramas. But underlying the debate about whether there are enough working class or BAME actors in top roles, is the stark reality for the majority of those working to live as an actor. Those working two jobs just to pay for auditions, or a foundation course, or for membership on websites such as Spotlight or Casting Call Pro, or for a £600 showreel and expensive headshots. Lots of young people have to defer their places at drama school because they can’t afford the fees. A friend of mine has found himself having to raise the money upfront by crowdfunding as, despite living here for all of his life, there is a confusion over his status as a citizen of the UK.
For many, the deferrals are never-ending. And even if you get through all the training, the cost of travelling to auditions, and the amount of the industry that is unpaid continue these problems indefinitely - until people just give up.
About more than the money
The account given in this film is pretty straightforward and political, but in the best possible way. Much like I, Daniel Blake, The Acting Class tells it how it is, painting a stark picture of working-class actors’ experience, and the state of our cultural sector as a whole.
But it does more than expose the disparity in opportunity, showing us the psychological impact, the guilt of working-class actors who feel it is their fault for not trying hard enough. Without the opportunity to focus entirely on their work as an actor, they fall short, and can’t make the connections and put in the work they want to. ‘The acting world expects you to be at their beck and call’, proclaims one actor. But if you need to pay the bills, this just isn’t possible.
One young woman tells us about industry personnel just not understanding why she can’t afford the foundation course she has been accepted on. I had a similar experience myself when I got accepted on to a 2-year acting course, and am reminded of a story a friend of mine told me about his agent suggesting a trip to L.A. to network. When he told her that he couldn’t afford to nip to the U.S. for the weekend she was left in shock.
A virtue is made of ‘the hustle’. Most actors I know are desperate to give their all and work very hard, but this ‘never stop’ ethic is used against them as a kind of moralism, and an explanation of why they don’t get as far. It is a weight off of your shoulders when you stop blaming yourself. Compare this to the trip to Eton that Tom makes in the film. The place where our award-winning actors seem to come from happens to have the facilities to provide aspiring young actors with all that they need. Actor Sam West makes an important point in the film - that it is about more than acting, and that this kind of training provides people with articulacy, emotional intelligence, self-confidence, understanding of conflict, a way of working together and feeling of being part of something bigger than you are. Things that the ruling class wouldn’t particularly want working-class people to be capable of.
A brighter future
What is encouraging, is that the actors in the film really show a determination to change things, and an anger at having been made to feel guilty about things that are out of their individual control, and are embedded in the system we live in.
The Acting Class ends on a positive note, and rightly so. There is only so long that people will put up with this state of affairs, and that people will blame themselves for their difficulties. The Actor Awareness campaign is hopefully just the beginning of a claiming back of the cultural space, and a class fightback, in the arts and across wider society.
Eccleston states that ‘All of the great writers spoke about inequality’. Maybe we will be seeing some great things happen on our stages and screens very soon. The Acting Class is a real declaration of intent. Go and see it, share in these actors' frustrations. And bring forth the angry young men and women of the future.
Cameron Panting was formerly National Organiser for Counterfire. He is active within the People's Assembly and Stop The War.
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