Have the arts become the preserve of the wealthy?

Young people today face difficulties, but shouldn't give up hope.

Do you really need to come from a privileged background in order to succeed in the arts? It's a question that is more topical than ever right now. For sixth-formers dreaming of an arts-based career, but with little in the way of financial backing, it’s more than theoretical – it’s a pressing concern. Should they apply to courses? Will they be able to afford to pursue that kind of career? Or have the arts become the sole preserve of the wealthy?

Olivier award-winning actress Clare Higgins certainly thinks so. She is so concerned about the current state of applications to theatre courses that she has revealed a plan to create a free drama school just for young actors from working-class backgrounds who “lack the means” to pay £9,000 a year for their training.  “One of the things I really care about is to get out there and say to young actors, particularly those who don’t have any money and who have not gone to Eton or Harrow, ‘Come and see me and I will train you for free’. If we don’t look out, LAMDA, RADA, Central and Guildhall are going to be full of rich kids, but there won’t be any working-class kids,” she told The Stage newspaper. “We can’t go on with this [situation] any longer, where only rich people can afford to train in the arts.”

Higgins is not the only high-profile performer to harbour concerns about the future of the industry. Although she won’t name names, she has hinted that she is working on the proposal for her new school in partnership with a few “very concerned” established actors. Earlier this month, Julie Walters echoed these views when she talked about what she considers to be a terrifying lack of opportunities for young working-class people in the arts right now. Talking about her own training, she said that “back then, it was still possible for a working-class kid like me to study drama because I got a grant. But the way things are now, there aren’t going to be any working-class actors. It’s just a shame that those working-class kids aren’t coming through.”

It’s an understandable concern. If you were to look at our television screens today, you might well conclude that the “Downton effect” is taking over. You could be forgiven for assuming that a plummy accent and convincing aristocratic air are now the main qualities required for entrance to the upper-echelons of British acting. If you were to read a list of the actors who have recently achieved success and have cemented their place in the public consciousness, you might have your worst suspicions confirmed. Dominic West of The Wire and Homeland’s Damian Lewis were both educated at Eton. Laurence Fox of Lewis went to Harrow. And if you believe the (slightly hysterical) hype, you may well have become convinced that you have to be born with a silver spoon in your mouth so that you can rely on the bank of Mummy and Daddy to support you if you wish to embark on this notoriously unstable career path. If you’re not a “rich kid” with stacks of connections and what amounts to a ready-made career, you’re doomed. That’s the message that teenagers are having drummed into them. There are no other options available, no possibility of an alternative path to the top. It’s hopeless. No wonder there are fewer working-class kids going into acting and the arts; this is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

But Benedict Cumberbatch, best known for playing Sherlock Holmes and looking a bit like an otter, offered an alternative view of the situation when he told the Radio Times last month that he believed his privileged background had actually been a stumbling block for his acting career. Tired of being typecast in “posh” roles and apparently thought of as a “rich, moaning, public-school bastard” (he too went to Harrow), he complained that the UK’s culture of “posh-bashing” made him long to up sticks to America, where, he assumes, he would not experience the kind of class prejudice that has hindered his career over here. Just who it was that thought of him in these terms is unclear and, unfortunately for Cumberbatch, his public whine only served to reinforce the opinion of his detractors and make it even more widespread. Personally, I had no idea what school he had attended until I read the article and, I suspect, neither did most people, barring the most ardent Cumberbatch fans. Who would have really cared, anyway? The beauty of acting is that it doesn’t really matter who you are or where you come from; nobody can really tell, because the entire point is that you are pretending to be someone else. There’s no reason why someone who went to Harrow couldn’t plausibly portray a more rough-and-ready character and it works the other way as well: a boy who grew up on a council estate could easily end up playing an aristocrat in a TV drama if he’s a good enough actor. Even if, for some inexplicable reason, you insist on only actors being hired whose real-life personalities fit the available roles, it’s clear to see that the BBC’s penchant for the “posh” is a passing fashion. The wheel will soon turn again.

An arts training is still a valid choice for young people with talent. Just as students from every kind of background are now expected to take out a hefty loan to cover their history or law degree, young people need to borrow money if they wish to be trained in a more creative discipline instead. Of course it’s tougher for young people from poorer backgrounds, with neither the money nor the connections to “make it big” in the arts – but then it always has been, whatever people might fondly remember, misty-eyed, about those halcyon days when tuition fees didn’t exist. The reality is that going into an arts-based career has never been the safe or sensible option and is naturally an easier choice for those with greater financial security. However, it’s not impossible to succeed, and would-be actors from working-class backgrounds with talent and drive should emphatically not be put off by tuition fees which admittedly at first glance look astronomical, but in reality are unlikely to turn into the crippling debt that they fear.

Certainly scholarships and schemes should be (and in most institutions are) in place to help disadvantaged students. But the overall outlook for young people in the arts might not be as bleak as we have all been led to believe. Perversely, it is probably the incessant gloom from the media that originally put off the despairing students whom Higgins wants to help. The more widely that these defeatist attitudes are propagated, the greater the number of talented “working-class kids” who will be put off applying to art, film or drama schools, and the more their understandably concerned parents will discourage them as well. Few people can afford to pay £18,000 up front, but with the way that student loans are structured and with graduates only paying back what they can afford, it is hardly unmanageable debt. Besides, contrary to what Julie Walters thinks, grants haven’t disappeared. Higgins’s intentions are good, but her concern is probably a tad premature and her proposed free drama school far from necessary. Young people who aspire to a career in the arts should keep their heads up, apply to courses and not let what they read discourage them from striving to achieve their dreams. Granted, this is much easier said than done, but if young people from poorer backgrounds give up on the system the arts really will become the  preserve of the wealthy. And it needn't be that way.

Benedict Cumberbatch: too posh to act?
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There’s no other explanation for Boris Johnson – he must be a Russian spy

When you look back over Johnson’s journalistic career, it soon becomes apparent that he was in the right place at the right time too often for it all to have been a coincidence.

I had a hunch some time ago, but a source very close to the Federal Security Service strongly implied it during an odd meeting that we recently had at a hotel in Charing Cross, London: Boris Johnson is an agent of deep Russian penetration. Obviously his first name is a bluff – Boris the Bear has been hiding in plain view of millions of us Britons. I have no idea when he was recruited (on this matter, my informant remained obstinately silent), but if we look back over the Foreign Secretary’s career, the evidence is clear.

Take his well-known inability to keep his trousers on. It might be imagined that a bedheaded Don Juan was the last person you’d entrust to enter the “wilderness of mirrors”, as the secret world is often euphemised. But if Boris were a Russian agent, his physical jerkiness would make perfect sense. All intelligence agencies use blackmail to control their assets and honeytraps are the preferred way of doing it.

However, what if you instructed your agent to keep his muzzle more or less permanently in the honey jar? Under such circumstances, it would be altogether impossible for MI5 to compromise him: “Boris shags secretary/colleague/newspaper editor”, say, would hardly be news.

Speaking of news, when you look back over Johnson’s journalistic career, it soon becomes apparent that he was in the right place at the right time too often for it all to have been a coincidence. His stint at the Daily Telegraph’s Brussels bureau, for instance, began in the year that the Berlin Wall fell. Johnson’s articles, in which he sniped consistently at the European Commission, helped to exacerbate the tensions between Tory Eurosceptics and Europhiles – fissures which, as the world has turned, have grown, precipitating the sort of fragmentation that the Kremlin’s spymasters seek to create in the West.

With my novelistic hat on, I can say that Johnson’s literary style has always bothered me. Replete with recondite yet poorly understood terms and half-digested quotations, his prose has the pretentious clunkiness you would expect from someone who isn’t writing in their first language. My suspicions, inchoate for years, have now acquired palpable form: Johnson doesn’t write any of this magoosalum. It’s all typed up by Russian hacks, leaving him free to shin up the greasy pole . . .

And slide along the Emirati-sponsored zip wire, as well. It has always seemed strange, Johnson’s apparently wilful determination to place himself in undignified positions. But again, it makes sense when you know that it is part of an elaborate act, intended to subvert our ancient institutions and the dignity of our high offices of state.

The dribs and drabs of distinctly Russian racism – the “piccaninnies” and “watermelon smiles” that fall from his permanently pink lips – are yet more evidence of the long hours he has spent being debriefed. An agent of deep penetration will live for years under so-called natural cover, a sleeper, waiting to be activated by his masters.

But it’s predictable that while waiting, Johnson’s handlers should have instructed him to throw suspicion off by adopting contrarian positions – his call for demonstrations outside the Russian embassy in London to protest against the bombing of Aleppo is entirely consistent with this – and it has also had the beneficial effect of further emphasising British weakness and impotence.

You might have thought that Vladimir Putin (who apparently refers to Johnson affectionately, in private, as “Little Bear” or “Pooh”) would want one of his most precious assets to shin right to the top of that greasy pole. Not so, and the debacle surrounding the Tories’ post-Brexit night of the long knives, which was revealed in Tim Shipman’s new book, was in reality a complex manoeuvre designed expressly to place Putin’s man (or bear) in the Foreign Office. Johnson’s flip-flopping over whether to come out for Leave or Remain makes no sense if we consider him to be a principled and thoughtful politician, loyal to his constituency – but becomes understandable once we see the strings and realise that he’s nothing but a marionette, twisting and turning at his puppeteers’ prompting.

After all, prime ministers can be rather impotent figures, whereas foreign secretaries bestride the world stage. No, the only way that Putin can be sure to have his way – bombing Aleppo back to the Stone Age, subverting Ukrainian independence – is by having his beloved Pooh bumbling about at summit meetings. Think back to Johnson’s tenure as mayor of London and the vast river of Russian lucre that flowed into the City. The Kremlin has also been able to manipulate errant oligarchs as if they, too,
were marionettes.

And now comes the final proof, as if any were needed: the government’s decision to support a third runway for Heathrow. Will Johnson resign over this matter of deepest principle? Will he truly represent his Uxbridge and South Ruislip constituents who labour night and day under a toxic smir to the accompaniment of jet howls? Will he hell. There will be a few of his characteristically garbled statements on the matter and then he will fall silent. You all know that slightly sleepy yet concentrating expression that comes over his face when he thinks that the cameras are pointed elsewhere? That’s when Johnson is receiving his instructions through a concealed earpiece.

Should we worry that our Foreign Secretary is in the control of a sinister and manipulative foreign demagogue? Well, probably not too much. After all, think back to previous incumbents: great statesmen such as Jack Straw, Margaret Beckett and William Hague. Do you really imagine that any of them struck fear deep into the heart of the Russian military-industrial complex? 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage