COMMENT: Chris Bryant sort of has a point about lack of social diversity in art – but it’s a lot more to do with connections than class.
Well, well, well, it’s all been kicking off today, hasn’t it? Last Friday Chris Bryant spoke out against lack of social diversity in the arts, singling out in particular middle-class ex-public school boys over working-class salt-of-the-earth types. He called for fewer James Blunts and Eddie Redmayes. James Blunt heard about this and wrote a rather sarcastic open letter back. It started off calling him a “classist gimp” but then went on to make some quite valid points about how little help his public school education was in becoming a singer (before signing off as “James Cucking Funt”). Chris Bryant tried to respond with a another letter trying to clarify what he said, but by now everyone was practically forming a circle round the two of them shouting “Fight! Fight! Fight! Fight!”
So before this escalates any further, let’s keep this in context. For the record, I fucking hate James Blunt’s songs, especially You’re Beautiful, but I do have a kind of grudging admiration for the second career James Blunt has carved for himself by being, um, blunt. My favourite one-liner was when a random Twitterer wrote “Who is a bigger twat: James Blunt or Robin Thicke?” to which James Blunt replied “Me! Me! Pick me!” As such, James Blunt’s letters should be taken with a pinch of salt, and “You classist gimp” should be treated as equivalent to “Excuse me, but I think you some of your assumptions are a bit unreasonable” from anyone else. Chris Bryant, on the other hand, wasn’t trying to engage in a classist tirade against James Blunt – he was just ill-advised to pick a couple of names out of thin air. Oh the whole, however, I see what Chris Bryant was trying to get at.
I will now try to give Chris Bryant a hand, because I think he’s underestimated how complex this problem is.
Don’t get me wrong. There is a class problem in many arts, theatre included. I’ve already written about my thoughts about the class problem for theatre audiences, and I won’t go over that again, except to repeat my point that I believe a lot of the problems are cause by our obsession to divide everything into working class, middle class and upper class. However, the fact remains people think of themselves as belonging to a certain class, so I’m going to use these terms for argument’s sake. And the fact also remains that theatre participants, like theatre audiences, are dominated the middle classes (or at least people who consider themselves as middle class), from the smallest amdram societies to the biggest West End productions. A working-class boy getting into a ballet school is such a big deal they make a film about it. And this is indeed a problem, but you are not going to solve it by assuming the middle classes have a easy ride.
For anyone who wants to know, my parents are a doctor and a teacher. All my grandparents had middle-class backgrounds too. I was the in the first generation of my family to go to a state school, but we lived in the catchment area of what was arguably the best comprehensive in the area. I went on to middle class-dominated Durham University. All in all, my background is as middle-class as can be. And I can categorically tell you that all of this has been no help whatsoever in my efforts to write and direct plays. I was excluded from the hand-picked drama group at school. No-one encouraged me to write, and when I started on my own accord, no-one took me seriously. It’s taken me ten years to be in a position where I can send small plays to small festival fringes. Where I self-funded productions, it has been off the back of a below-average salary. Okay, as far as I’m aware I’ve never been discriminated against for my middle-classness, but for all I know maybe I’m sometimes overlooked for my double-barrelled surname, which is insufficiently angry northern playwrightish.
All the same, that’s just me and Jamesey-boy. Maybe some other people have stories of how money helped them on their way. Or lack of money stopped it. But the point is it’s not as simple as class deciding everything. And this is where I’ll suggest my own theory. I don’t think it’s the middle-classes who dominate art. It’s one particular sub-set of the middle class. It’s people born into families that already have connections in the arts world. And at the risk of doing the thing I said Bryant shouldn’t have done, I’m going to give a named example: Victoria Coren.
Now, before I provoke any more letters of articulate indignation, I chose her because I like Victoria Coren (or Victoria Coren Mitchell as she’s now known). She is an excellent presenter, makes very intelligent objective comments as a journalist, she can very very funny, BBC Four wouldn’t be the same without A History of Corners, and she is totally my type (sorry David). But the fact remains her father was Alan Coren, a regular in BBC TV and radio. It is inconceivable that you could have a parent that well-connected without it working to your advantage, with with Alan’s son Giles also a successful media personality, that can’t be a coincidence. Okay, this is an extreme example, but there are many other people who have well-connected friends and relatives. Like it or it, who you know matters hugely in the arts world, and if they’re already your friends or family, or even just friends of friends of family, you’ve got a big head start on everyone else. The question should be whether it’s fair the Victoria Coren made it where she has – rather we should be asking how many other Victoria Corens are out there who’ve never had a chance?
So what can we do? You can hardly make it illegal for parents to help their children get ahead in life. If I was Alan Coren, I would have done exactly the same. What we need to do instead is do what we can to give opportunities to other people who aren’t so lucky. At that, I’m afraid, is where the simple part of the solution ends. From now on, what you can do varies hugely between the arts. Sometimes connections matter, sometimes money matters, and I cannot possibly suggest a comprehensive solution for this. All I can do is make a few suggestions about what I know.
Let’s start with writing. Loads of theatres go on about how great they are at supporting new writers. Typically this involves getting involved in schools to build enthusiasm for the theatre, and running cheap or free courses for people wishing to make a start with play writing. I’ve done the courses offered by Newcastle’s Live Theatre, which seems to be a standard approach across all theatres – and I’ve come to the conclusion that this approach is not working. It’s all very well building up enthusiasm from a young age, the course organisers mean well, and the advice they give on writing is broadly good advice. But the expectation is that one you’ve finished the course, it’s write-submit-write-submit-write-submit-write-submit-submit-submit-submit-submit. And almost everyone who follows this advice has their scripts rejected every time.
The problem is that the theatre world is a absolute labyrinth of who knows who, who can put in a good word for who, who knows who’s interested in what sort of writing. I’ve got some contacts now, and believe me, it help a lot, but it was a long hard slog building this all up from zero. Anyone who starts off with these sort of connections has got be at a huge advantage. It’s impossible to tell how many successful writers owe their success to family connections, but you only have to read through bios of writers to see how many of them worked in theatre or television prior to their break to see how much it helps to be well connected. If new writing theatres are serious about diversifying who writes plays for them, they’re going to have to try a lot harder. Exactly what they need to do on top of their existing efforts is a tough question. I have ideas, but I’m not going to claim to know the answer. All I know is that the current approach of eduction and writing courses isn’t enough to overcome the problem.
True, when it comes to self-production and acting, money can help. It is possible to achieve a lot with a plenty hard work and not much self-financing, and it is perfectly possible to do this on top of a day job, but you can go further faster if you can make it your day job. In which case, of course money is going to matter. And, day job or not, who you know is going to matter as well. On both fronts, there’s a lot of little things the arts world could do to help. They could take small-scale fringe theatre more seriously instead of only looking at bigger theatres. They could stop thinking in an artificial binary divide between amateur and professional theatre. They could look further than the prohibitively expensive Edinburgh Fringe for emerging talent – there is just as good talent coming out of the cheaper fringes such as Brighton and Buxton.
There is one thing where Chris Bryant make a good point, and that’s the stupidly high fees of the top drama schools. That, I agree is a serious problem (as are the questionable selection processes where I suspect family connections play a large part). For what it’s worth, I think theatres should take a long hard look about who they’re considering for auditions. Really, are audiences going to notice any difference between graduates of elite drama schools and, say, graduates of university acting courses? This is an area where I think Live Theatre is going the right thing: they routinely cast graduates from Northumbria University’s acting course rather than insist of only the best from RADA. Maybe they can go further. Must we only consider actors will costly professional training? I’ve been amazed by how good some people can act without any qualifications to their name.
Finally, it’s worth touching on the issue Bryant raised about the disproportionate funding going to London. This is an endless bugbear for the rest of us, and I agree it needs solving – but it needs solving properly. As I’ve previously moaned, the disparity of funding within regions is just as bad as the disparity of funding between regions. And worse, as I’ve again moaned, arts funding is useless if your local council spends the lot of importing big-name artists from outside the area and ignores their own local talent. If we support a government who simply throws money at the regions and hopes for the best, we may regret it later.
So, five paragraphs of ideas and I’ve raised more questions than I’ve answered. And I haven’t even touched upon film and music, which I know nothing about. The answer is going to be complicated. And this is what worries me. Politicians don’t like complicated solutions. They like simple solutions that are easy to explain and sound popular. My worry is that by telling the arts industry to come up with a solution, they’ll just create some crude quota based on middle-classness. The over-represented people born into families with the right connections will still find ways to make it though, but other people from middle-class families who don’t have these connections will be penalised, even if they were never advantaged in the first place. And the government will declare the problem solved when it hasn’t.
Really, I think the problem with class diversity in the arts will only be solved when a government tackles the class issue head on. James Blunt made a good point when he said the one way his public school helped was to encourage pupils to “aim high”. And quite right too – but every school should be doing this. I hope state schools are encouraging pupils to aim high. I don’t know if any schools are telling pupils to abandon their aspirations because of an unfair class-ridden stitch-up as Blunt suggests – and I would be disappointed if any schools are. What I do know, however, is that we are writing off a hell of lot of society in “sink schools”. Schools where the intake is entirely children from the roughest parts of cities. Schools where the kids don’t stand a chance in life, let alone arts. Schools which parents avoid if they can, either by sending their kids to a private school or by moving to a better catchment area. And because it’s someone else’s kids, someone else’s problem, successive government of both colours have behaved like sink schools don’t matter, obsessing instead of middle-class friendly initiatives such as academies. Deal with that if you’re serious about diversifying society.
In fact, if I had the power, I’d go further. I’ll go back to my original point: the sooner we abandon this class mindset the better. Yes, some people will earn more money than others, and yes, sometimes family money can help you get into the creative world, but the biggest barrier of all to “working class” representation is the idea that 1) you are born into a class in the first place, and 2) different classes are supposed to have different interests. This must end. And that brings me back to the example of Billy Elliot. Great film though it was, that illustrates everything that’s wrong with class diversity in art. We will only have achieved true equality when a working-class boy can be admitted to a top ballet school – and it’s not a big deal any more.