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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Young people want big ideas – that's why I refuse to dumb down Radio 4

My week, from finding a way through the fog to getting the quarterly audience figures.

I walk to work through Regent’s Park, when possible accompanied by my dogs, which my husband then collects on his bike ride and takes home. If there is time we have coffee together in the small hut just before the inner circle. This is a good way to listen to the Today programme, I find, as I can keep one ear in, achieve a rational, critical detachment and still enjoy the birds, and then add the other ear if a strong interview demands immersion, or take both out altogether when despair creeps up. On the subject of Today, I hope to have some fun with Sarah Sands, whom we have just appointed as the programme’s new editor; it’s good to see an experienced woman brought in at a senior level to the BBC.

 

A winter’s tale

The park through the seasons has become something of an addiction, measured out by inspired planting of appropriate annuals, the names of which I note and discuss with the gardeners when I dare interrupt them.

Memorable events occur quite frequently during this walk: I once stumbled upon a proposal of marriage involving a beautiful young woman who once had worked for me; an elderly Chinese gentleman practises t’ai chi regularly at a certain spot and I imagine talking to him about the changes he has seen in his lifetime back home. I have seen a rare green woodpecker on the grass pecking boldly in plain sight, and hopeless ducks, silent, puffed up, marooned in the fountains, unable to find their way back to the ponds, so close by.

At the start of winter, while walking home one day, I got stuck in the park, with a group of other stragglers, as the gates locked with the onset of darkness. Rather than retreating the way I had come, I accepted the offer (from a rather good-looking stranger) of a lift down from the top of the gate. The atmosphere then was alive, exhilarating, with crowds heading for the Frieze Masters marquee. How different it all is now, in 2017. There’s a new mood, a new American president, a new era.

 

Musical interlude

Recently, Roger Vignoles – the glorious pianist and a close friend – was playing, as he often does, in a lunchtime concert recorded for Radio 3 around the corner from Broadcasting House at the Wigmore Hall, with the baritone Roddy Williams. French songs: Fauré, Poulenc, Honegger, with a handful from Caplet (the latter quite new to me). All thoughts of politics fled, giving way to “L’adieu en barque”, set late one summer’s day on the river, a moment to clear the fog, both within and enveloping us that day in London.

I left an hour later in clear sunshine, feeling smug because we have commissioned Roddy’s Choral ­History of Britain for Radio 4 later this year.

 

Power trip

Waiting for coffee to brew, I was discussing Book of the Week with Gill Carter, commissioning assistant on this slot, when my drama commissioner, Jeremy Howe, put his head round the door. “Clarke Peters (yes, the one from The Wire) is here reading The Underground Railroad for Book at Bedtime.” Assured, deep tones rang out from a tiny studio on the third floor. “I have to keep stopping,” he said, as I thanked him.

Who could not be overcome by this story of slavery and bravery at this moment in American history? I am so glad to bring it to listeners this month. “Can you help?” the producer pleaded as we left. “We’re about to be thrown out of the studio.” That’s real power, I thought, as ten minutes later Jeremy had conjured up the extra time.

Clarke Peters will be back in the autumn with a series about the real history of black music in the UK which, he says, is little understood.

 

Culture and anarchy

This is the time of year when we launch the commissioning round calling for big ideas for next year. It’s a humbling thing to stand in our beloved art-deco Radio Theatre in front of hundreds of programme-makers, hoping that they will be inspired to bring “the best which has been thought and said in the world” (my guiding principle from Matthew Arnold).

I try on these occasions to lay out a little of how I see the shape of the world in the commissioning period ahead. This year the Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner overcame me. Better perhaps simply to outline the way we commissioned the first week of 2017 to catch the mood. T S Eliot, more or less all New Year’s Day, read by the formidable Jeremy Irons, raised an echo of the Thirties, then a factual series of considerable documentaries across the week described The New World, followed by writers around the globe Imagining the New Truth.

Finally, inspired by Twelfth Night and the spirit of misrule, the comedy writer John Finnemore, one of our favourites, took over as the Lord of Misrule himself.

The imaginative world and writers have never been more needed. Whether it is truth or post-truth, I suspect that dramatic, imagined and creative truth when properly achieved is probably the nearest we can ever get to truth itself.

 

Tuning in

It’s the week of Rajar. These are quarterly audience figures for radio. In the past few months, they tell us, over 11 million people have listened each week to BBC Radio 4, setting new records. Just under half are below our average age of 56 and 1.5 million are under 35. At the moment we seem to have over two million weekly visitors to the website and roughly 20 million monthly global downloads.

Who says young people don’t want intelligent content? Who says that dumbing down is the only way to attract big audiences? We at Radio 4 try to be all about smartening up. We mark Rajar Day (whether the numbers are up or down) with cake, so I make my way to Paul for two tarts, pear and blueberry this time.

Gwyneth Williams is the controller of BBC Radio 4

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times