This week, Neil Calloway looks at a recurring issue in British film and television…
While the debate about the lack of nominations for black actors at the Oscars rumbles on in the US, a similar debate is happening in Britain. However, in the UK the debate is not about race; it’s about class. The argument goes that the top-tier of acting talent is dominated by a privately educated elite.
Last year Labour MP Chris Bryant bemoaned the lack of diversity in the arts world, complaining that it was dominated by those who were educated privately. More recently Damian Lewis was involved in a minor controversy about him being invited to his local comprehensive school for an event as he had been educated at Eton. This week acting icon Diana Rigg hit out at those complaining about upper class actors dominating our screens by pointing out that the opposite was true in the 1960s and those that missed out then didn’t moan because working class actors were getting a chance.
Along with Damian Lewis, Eddie Redmayne and Dominic West went to Eton. Benedict Cumberbatch went to Harrow. Daniel Radcliffe, Tom Hardy, Andy Serkis and Chiwetel Ejiofor were also all privately educated. When the Queen visited the set of Game of Thrones in 2014, she met Kit Harington. Almost unbelievably, he is more closely related to Charles II than she is.
Looking at that, it’s hard to argue that being privately educated doesn’t confer some sort of advantage on actors. Then you realise that James Bond is the biggest British film brand and Daniel Craig went to state school, and that not being privately educated doesn’t seem to have harmed John Boyega so far. Michael Sheen came from Port Talbot – a small industrial town that also produced Richard Burton and Anthony Hopkins. It is possible to make it without the connections and confidence that being expensively educated outside the state system often gives someone, but it’s probably harder than it ever has been for young actors who are not privately educated to forge a successful career.
It’s not just in front of the camera that the products of private schools dominate in the British film industry. In the late 70s and early 80s a pair of state educated brothers from the North East of England emerged from art school, sailed through commercials and became some of the biggest names in Hollywood. It’s hard to imagine Ridley and Tony Scott doing that now. The top British directors working in Hollywood now – Christopher Nolan, Paul Greengrass, Duncan Jones and Edgar Wright among them – all went down the private route. More years ago than I care to remember I interviewed British indie film director Jan Dunn, the first British person to make a film under the Dogme 95 rules. I asked her if she had struggled as a woman in a traditionally male dominated industry. She said no; she’d found it more difficult being working class. The Riot Club, a film that takes aim at the privileged upper classes of British society had amongst its producers Peter Czernin, a man who was not only educated at Eton but was later David Cameron’s flatmate.
To be honest, it’s not just the film industry dominated by those who went to private school. 74 people have been Prime Minister. 26 of them went to either Eton or Harrow. When Chris Bryant raised the issue of the arts being dominated by the privately educated, he neglected to mention that he himself was privately educated.
It’s hard to give a definitive answer as to what can be done about this; you cannot force casting directors to give roles to working class actors. It’s less about acting than it is about the whole of British society; those that aren’t privately educated need to be given the confidence and made aware of the opportunities out there. If you don’t want posh boys dominating our screens, we have to tell people who aren’t posh that they can succeed in the acting world.
Neil Calloway is a pub quiz extraordinaire and Top Gun obsessive. Check back here every Sunday for future instalments.