‘The ‘Class Ceiling’ for British Actors

‘The ‘Class Ceiling’ for British Actors: Why does it exist and where do we go from here?

The ‘glass ceiling’ is a term that symbolises a variety of barriers that prevent qualified individuals from advancing higher in their organisations. It is a well-known phrase thought to have been coined by Katherine Lawrence, a woman working at Hewlett Packard in the 1970s, in regards to gender inequality in the workplace: ‘[Women] hit this ceiling. This ceiling is invisible – a glass ceiling.’ It is described by the Oxford English Dictionary as an ‘unofficial or unacknowledged barrier to personal advancement, esp. of a woman or a member of an ethnic minority in emplyoment.’

However, while gender and ethnic minority discrimination in the UK arts is still very much present and important to discuss, we now face a new crisis: the ‘class’ ceiling.

Following the same premise as its glass counterpart, the class ceiling is the discrimination against those of a working class background and the struggle they face to make it to the top of any sector, whether it be the arts, science, business, or anything, for that matter. The Great British Class Survey, taken in 2013 and published in the journal Sociology, estimates that ‘people from middle-class backgrounds make up nearly three quarters of all actors, even though only 29% of people in Britain are middle-class…. Just 27% of all actors surveyed were from working-class backgrounds, with the remaining 73% all middle-class.’

The same survey also showed that working class actors on average earn £10,000 a year less than those from more affluent backgrounds. These statistics show how difficult it is for working-class actors to become successful in the realms of theatre, film, and television.

The revelation that actor Tom Hiddleston is in the running to be the next James Bond after performing a very convincing audition in the recent BBC drama The Night Manager was what inspired me to talk about this topic. While most of the country might be supporting the idea of yet another white, above-average looking, well-spoken man to play Mr Bond, others are not.  James Bond is a franchise that is slowly losing the attraction since Ian Fleming stopped providing the stories and the more recent films’ primary function appears to be as an advertising platform for fashion designer Tom Ford.

Hiddleston has quite recently joined the frontline of privately educated, upper-middle-class actors that are dominating both the small and big screens, standing alongside Benedict Cumberbatch and Eddie Redmayne. At the 2015 Academy Awards ceremony, Cumberbatch and Redmayne were both nominated in the Best Actor category, for The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything, respectively. The long-time Eton vs. Harrow rivalry became a running joke; Redmayne is an alumni of Eton College (along with Hiddleston, Dominic West, and Damian Lewis), while Cumberbatch was educated at Harrow. While the British press found this terribly amusing, they failed to notice that the trend was not domestic and two American nominees were also privately educated: Steve Carell at Middlesex School, Massachusetts, and Bradley Cooper at Germantown Academy, Pennsylvania.

With this evidence, I have to ask the question: why does coming from a wealthy background make you more likely to succeed in the arts?

Eddie Redmayne, often the ‘cover man’ for articles published about the class ceiling, has remained silent on the issue, possibly sitting back and accepting that he is extremely privileged. Cumberbatch, however, has spoken out. Speaking to The Mail on Sunday Event Magazine in 2013, he spoke about ‘lazy’, ‘stereotypical’ casting for ‘posh kids’. On his public school education, he said, ‘I was desperately proud of my parents for sending me to Harrow. It was a huge stretch for them. They were working actors who never knew when the next pay day might come.’

I have to say that, with fees set at £30,000 a year, I doubt that sending your child to Harrow is a risk you would be willing to take unless it was totally financially viable. Also, if Cumberbatch wants to be considered for castings for anything other than ‘posh’, perhaps he should consider using an accent that isn’t impeccable Received Pronunciation.

Cumberbatch mentioned in the same interview that ‘one of the best things about being an actor is that it’s a meritocracy’, which, as this essay proves, I could not disagree with more.

Julie Walters argues that the cost of an arts degree is limiting working-class students from being able to afford it: ‘People like me wouldn’t have been able to go to college today. I could because I got a full grant. I don’t know how you get into it now.’

It is a fact that the same student loans are available to everyone and, in fact, means-tested maintenance loans mean that coming from a lower-earning family results in more money. The same salary is to be earned by everyone before payments to pay it back commence and, in that regard, opportunities are equal.

The same cannot be said, however, for being able to afford the cost of living in London. The London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts (LAMDA), the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA), and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama are considered to be three of the best acting schools in the country, and are all situated in expensive areas of London.

Focusing on LAMDA, the students typically look to live in the Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham if they want to minimise their commute to school every day. Having done some research on property site RightMove, the most inexpensive property I could find in that area was a three bedroom maisonette for £1,625 per calendar month. Assuming equal rent split, that would be £541.67 each. The property mentioned above is located in Acton, a forty minute walk or thirty minute Tube journey to the LAMDA campus.

The average income for a British family with two adults working is £40,000 a year, according to the BBC, and based on that, the estimated maintenance loan for studying in London is £7,736 per term, plus a £547 grant, totalling £7,923 per annum or £660 per month (most rental properties in London are on twelve month contracts). After rent, that leaves the average student with £119 per month for bills, food, travel, and leisure, which is an unrealistic living allowance for students in London who are actively encouraged, as part of training, to keep fit, eat healthily, and visit the theatre and cinema often.

The conclusion I can draw from this is that unless you already have financial stability, going to schools like LAMDA and RADA are not a possibility; ergo, the majority of students who attend are not from a working-class background. While these schools unarguably provide excellent training and their graduates are extremely successful in the industry, it means they are mostly feeding yet more middle- and upper-middle-class actors into the UK theatre scene.

There are also issues about being working-class in a middle-class industry post-training. Expensive London is the central hub for UK theatre, auditions, and agency offices. An article published in the Telegraph revealed that ‘more than half of working actors are under poverty line.’ In 2013, 37.7% of Equity members earned less than £5,000 through acting work. Another 37.4% earned between £5,000 and £20,000. In order to pay rent and bills in or around London, it can be essential to have another full-time job.

Actors are also expected to work for free in order to gain experience and credits for their CVs. In 2013, 46.5% of Equity members did unpaid theatre work and 25.1% in film. Unless you have other means of financial support, it is not possible to work mostly for free. Here we face the poor actor’s crisis: do I work full-time to pay bills and never have time to go to auditions, or do I sleep on the streets and hope I can sneak into the shower of my local gym before my next casting?

Many working actors have spoken out about the industry being too middle-class. David Morrissey, from a working-class background in Liverpool, was able to train at RADA due to a full grant. He said on the matter of working for free: ‘We’re creating an intern culture – it’s happening in journalism and politics as well – and we have to be very careful because the fight is not going to be there for people from more disadvantaged backgrounds.’

Judi Dench has also spoken out about the cost of drama school and the price of theatre tickets: ‘I always say to young students, “Go and see as much as you possibly can”, which is what we used to do. But then we paid a pittance for sitting in the gods.’

Casting directors have admitted finding working-class talent is proving to be very difficult at the moment, with Julia Crampsie of the BBC blaming drama schools for not accepting enough working-class students. ‘I go into drama schools every year, and it’s getting less diverse. It’s the same old people.’ Crampsie casts the BBC’s long-running soap opera Eastenders, which follows the lives of normal working people in the East End of London, and she struggles to find new working-class actors to join the cast and play working-class characters.

One reason partly to blame for this problem is the cost of extra-curricular drama classes and theatre schools. With the arts constantly being pushed aside in the education system, children turn to after-school clubs and Saturday lessons for the performing arts. The cost of these, however, is not feasible for some families. Jigsaw Arts, a weekend performing arts club franchise in the South East, costs £70 a month and the nationwide Pauline Quirke Academy is up to £88 a month. More renowned schools like the Sylvia Young Academy, whose alumni go on to be very successful, costs £115 per term per subject for part-time classes; the full-time school is £4,500 per term.

Acting, like any other job, requires training. The people that have access to this training from a young age are bound to have the advantage on those who simply cannot afford to.

With so many actors, directors, and casting directors speaking out about the lack of working-class actors in the industry today, things will hopefully begin to change. Shane Meadows, director of film and TV series This Is England, has working-class roots and reflects this in his work. For the film, he recruited a cast of relatively unknown working-class actors, including Joe Gilgun and Vicky McClure, to play a gang of skinheads. The majority of the film and series was improvised, something that middle-class actors with RP accents may struggle with, not having experienced working-class life.

None of the major British television networks have (as yet) made any promises to start including actors from less fortunate backgrounds, but the main focus at the moment is about diversity in ethnicity, which is just as important. We are dealing with many inequality issues at the moment as an industry and hopefully, after the diversity issue has been tackled, the industry will take inspiration from projects such as This is England and start to commission more television, film, and theatre work created especially for working class actors.

One day in the future we could see a Cockney James Bond (or even a female Bond…) or a Mancunian Sherlock. Hopefully in a few years’ time it won’t matter that you leave drama school with a most perfect RP accent because you might get work without it. Take Danny Dyer, for example: he has never had to steer away from his native Cockney accent and is plenty successful.

As long as the Conservative government aren’t successful in their quest to cut arts out of the education system, children will still have access, however small, to art, music, and drama, and I hope to see the day where working-class kids with an interest in the art will get the same opportunities as the Etonians and Harrovians.