Biking the election trail

Sian gets out and about as the Greens fight for more seats in 3 May elections

This year’s local elections have now kicked off in earnest. There’s no polling in London this year, so I’m not standing anywhere but, as Principal Speaker, I went up to visit local parties in Norwich and Colchester last weekend to help with canvassing and launching their local campaigns.

Norwich hardly needs the help. They already have nine city councillors and two county councillors and look set to break through in new areas this year to become the second largest party in the city. After the launch photos in the town centre I helped canvass in a ward where they currently don’t have a councillor and had trouble finding anyone who wasn’t Green-friendly. Similarly in Colchester, the doors in the ward where we aim to get our first borough councillor elected were a joy to knock on.

At the local shopping centre in Norwich I also helped the local ‘bag ladies’ (really a campaign to replace plastic bags run by the ‘Women Acting to Keep the Planet Unpolluted and Peaceful’ group) to promote their new design competition to create a reusable green shopping bag for Norfolk to rival the madly trendy, sold-out several times ‘I am not a plastic bag’ by designer Anya Hindmarch.

Gorgeously, both Colchester and Norwich had devised itineraries that involved putting me on a rickety bike to get from place to place – does that happen in any other party, I wonder? I couldn’t complain, except about the heat after I’d failed to read the weather reports and worn my big winter coat while everyone else was in vests. (Note to self: climate change means you can’t rely on April weather in April any more.)

Last Monday I joined Caroline Lucas MEP, London AM Darren Johnson, Councillor Keith Taylor from Brighton and my fellow Principal Speaker Derek Wall, for the main national launch of our local election campaign. We picked a room in Millbank Tower, of all places, to hold the press conference. Caroline said that, just as New Labour had vacated the building, now it was time for them to vacate local government. Seeing as Labour are only standing in two thirds of council seats this year, it’s something they seem to be taking on board already.

The most exciting fact about these local elections is the virtual guarantee that we’re going to exceed an average of 10% of the vote where we stand, after getting a tantalising 9.75% outside London in 2006. We’re fielding a record number of candidates so we’re standing for the first time in some places, but we should break through the threshold without a problem.

An average of 10% sounds impressive enough, but its full significance doesn’t become clear until you look back through our historical results in local elections. People outside the Green Party are always pointing out to me the received wisdom that ‘the Greens aren’t as strong now as they were in 1989’. The 15% we got in the European elections that year is still seen as the ‘high point’ of green politics in the UK, and as something we’re still trying to repeat.

But, in fact, a glance at the local election results from 1989 (an average of 8.6%) shows that this year we are going to do much better than we did then, and now with more than twice as many candidates and many more chances of winning seats.

The thought that we have quietly created a new ‘high point’ – and that this is the result of a record of success and a solid build-up of support, rather than a sudden rush of interest – has helped keep me in a good mood all week.

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
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Britain's diversity crisis starts with its writers. Here's why

What happens on the casting couch draws the headline, but the problem starts on the page, says James Graham. 

I’m a playwright and screenwriter, which – pertinent to the issues we’ll be discussing in this enquiry – still feels weird to say. I get embarrassed, still, saying that, in a taxi or hairdressers. I don’t know why I still carry that insecurity about saying I’m a writer, but I do, because it sounds like I’m lying, even in my own head.

Obviously I’m completely biased, and probably overstating the influence and importance of my own profession, but I think so many of the problems surrounding lack of representation in the performing arts start with writers.

If we aren’t encouraging and generating writers from certain communities, classes or backgrounds to tell their stories, to write those roles, then there’s not going to be a demand for actors from those communities to play them. For casting agents or drama schools to prioritise getting diverse actors on stage. We need to create those plays and TV dramas –like the ones that I grew up with. I didn’t have any access to much theatre until I was fifteen, but I did have Boys From the Black Stuff, and I did have Cracker, and I did have Band of Gold. I think the loss of those regional producing bodies – Central, Granada – now all completely centralised into London, means that we just tell less of those stories. I remember a TV show called Boon – anyone? – which was set in Nottingham, and I would see on the TV streets I’d walked down, and think, Oh my God, that actor is walking down a street I’ve walked down. That sounds like it’s insignificant. If you’re from a town that is deprived, that feels ignored, it isn’t.

I was very lucky that at my school (which was, at the time, the largest comprehensive school in the country), from the headmaster down to the drama teachers, everyone just believed that working class kids should do plays. Be in plays, read plays, perform plays to the community. Both inside the curriculum of the school day, and outside it – drama teachers dedicating their time to staying behind. Our head of drama identified a group of us who clearly had a passion for it. We weren’t likely thesps. One lad’s entire family were made unemployed when the pit closed. Many lived on the big council estate. My parents and step-parents worked respectively in warehouses, the local council, or as the local window cleaner (incidentally, my first real job. Which I was terrible at).

Our drama teacher was encouraged and determined enough to launch the first ever Drama A-Level in our school. Based on that, about 10 or 12 of us got the confidence – or arrogance – to take our own show to the Edinburgh Festival. We were 16 or 17, and the first people in our community to ever go to visit the festival. We did a play up there, and after that, a psychological unlocking happened, where I thought: maybe I could do a degree in drama (it was the first time I had ever thought to do so) at university (the first in my family to go. Well, joint-first. My twin sister went on the same day, but I walked into my digs first).

I enrolled in drama at Hull University. A high proportion of my peers were middle class. A higher proportion from London or the South East. They talked often about institutions I had never heard of. They were talking about the National Theatre: I didn’t know we had a national theatre that my parents had been paying tax for that I had never been to. Many had performed with the (again, apparently) ‘National’ Youth Theatre, also in London. Paul Roseby, also on this panel, has made such leaps forward in getting the NYT producing in regional venues, and making auditions possible for people across the UK, but unfortunately, at the time, that wasn’t the case for me – and I was the ideal candidate to be in the National Youth Theatre.

I started writing because I had the confidence after I read texts by people like Jim Cartwright, Alan Bennett, John Godber, Alan Ayckbourn: Northern writers, working class writers that made me think it wasn’t just something that other people do.

After returning home, and working at local theatres, I moved down to London. I had to. The major new writing producers are there. All the TV companies are there. The agents are there. I was lucky to find support in a pub fringe theatre – though the economics meant there was no money to commission, so I wrote plays for free for about four years, that would get produced, and reviewed in the national press, while I worked various jobs in the day and slept for a time on a mate's floor. The first person to ever pay to commission me to write a play was Paul Roseby of the National Youth Theatre. I’m now very lucky to be earning a living doing something I love. In a way, compared to actors, or directors, it’s easier for writers who don’t come from a background that can sustain them, financially, in those early years. Your hours can be more flexible. Yes, it was annoying to miss rehearsals because I had a shift in a call centre, but it was still possible to do it. If you’re an actor or director, you’re fully committed. And if you’re doing that for nothing, there starts to be cut-off point for those from backgrounds who can’t.

I’m sure that local and regional theatres are the key to drawing in talent from less privileged backgrounds. But the range of national arts journalism that cover work outside London has been so significantly reduced. In our little echo chamber a few weeks ago, we theatre types talked about Lyn Gardner at the Guardian. Her coverage has been cut, which is very directly going to affect her ability to cover theatre shows outside of London – and so the self-fulfilling cycle of artists leaving their communities to work exclusively in London takes another, inevitable, turn.

I am culpable in this cycle. I have never done a play at the Nottingham Playhouse, my local producing house growing up – why? Because I’ve never submitted one, because I know that it will get less national press attention. So I just open it in London instead. That’s terrible of me. And I should just bite the bullet and say it doesn’t matter about the attention it gets, I should just go and do a story for my community. And if I, and others, started doing that more, maybe they will come.

I also want to blame myself for not contributing back to the state schools that I come from. I really really enjoy going to do writing workshops with kids in schools, but I would say 90 per cent of those that I get invited to are private schools, or boarding schools, or in the South of England. Either because they’re the ones that ask me, because they’re the ones who come and see my shows in London and see me afterwards backstage, or because they have the confidence to email my agent, or they have the budget to pay for my train ticket. Either way, I should do more. It would have helped the younger me so much to meet a real person, from my background, doing what I wanted to do.

I don’t know how to facilitate that. I take inspiration from Act for Change, creating a grassroots organisation. I know that there is a wealth of industry professionals like me who would, if there was a joined-up structure in place that got us out there into less privileged communities, we would on a regular basis go to schools who don’t get to meet industry professionals and don’t unlock that cultural and psychological block that working class kids have that says, that is not for me, that is something that other people do, I would dedicate so much of my time to it. That’s just one idea of hopefully better ones from other people that might come out of this enquiry.

James Graham is a playwright and screenwriter. This piece is adapted from evidence given by James Graham at an inquiry, Acting Up – Breaking the Class Ceiling in the Performing Arts, looking into the problem of a lack of diversity and a class divide in acting in the UK, led by MPs Gloria De Piero and Tracy Brabin.