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?
Photo: Martin Whitfield
Show Hide image

Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

0800 7318496