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Have the arts become the preserve of the wealthy?

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

Benedict Cumberbatch
Benedict Cumberbatch: too posh to act?

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.