Peter White and Ed Reardon presented a spoof version of You and Yours. Photo: BBC Pictures
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Character Invasion: Radio 4 comedy at its worst

It started inauspiciously with the never remotely amusing Big Bird as the subject of Tweet of the Day.

Character Invasion
BBC Radio 4

Radio 4’s “Character Invasion” day (29 March), celebrating “great characters, past and present”, started inauspiciously with the never remotely amusing Big Bird as the subject of Tweet of the Day (5.58am). Dawn French delivered the Today programme’s Thought for the Day as the vicar of Dibley (7am), pointing out that Jesus was born in a stable rather than a Premier Inn (“The poor is where it’s at”). It was Radio 4 comedy at its worst: somehow there was always the whiff of Jeremy Hardy in the background, hooting at his own jokes.

Many of the characters being talked about had not been created by the BBC. For example, Hamlet: “He’s a lunatic,” concluded the actor Jamie Parker (Hamlet, 24-28 March, 2.15pm). But many had made their debut on Radio 4, not least Alan Partridge, a continually nation-tickling phenomenon discussed by a notably gracious Steve Coogan on the Today programme. “You look around you and you think, ‘Gosh!’” he said. “Is life imitating art or is art imitating life?” Success suits Coogan. Since his Bafta win and Oscar nod for Philomena, even his hair – greying, swept-back waves – is almost presidential.

The most striking moment of the Character Invasion strand actually took place a day earlier: it was Peter White taking a walk through a shopping centre with the saturnine writer Ed Reardon, pretending it was a special edition of the consumer complaints programme You & Yours (28 March, 12pm), once known among BBC staff as Moans & Moaners. Is it just me or is it not discombobulating when presenters or newscasters pitch up in movies or TV dramas playing themselves and turn out to be brilliant at acting? How seamlessly they slip into the spirit of it? Every time! Even Jenni Murray was at it on W1A, pretending to grill Hugh Bonneville without a hint of awkwardness. And here was the usually straight-up, get-the-thieving-bastards White, chatting with Reardon with all the largesse and ease of a chuckling plutocrat, a model of capability. Peter White as Suleiman the Magnificent. That’s more character than I can take.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 10 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Tech Issue

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Don’t worry, Old Etonian Damian Lewis calls claims of privilege in acting “nonsense!”

The actor says over-representation of the privately educated at the top of acting is nothing to worry about – and his many, many privately educated peers agree.

In the last few years, fears have grown over the lack of working class British actors. “People like me wouldn’t have been able to go to college today,” said Dame Julie Walters. “I could because I got a full grant. I don’t know how you get into it now.”

Last year, a report revealed that half of Britain’s most successful actors were privately educated. The Sutton Trust found that 42 per cent of Bafta winners over all time were educated independently. 67 per cent of British winners in the best leading actor, actress and director categories at the Oscars attended fee-paying schools – and just seven per cent of British Oscar winners were state educated.

“That’s a frightening world to live in,” said James McAvoy, “because as soon as you get one tiny pocket of society creating all the arts, or culture starts to become representative not of everybody but of one tiny part. That’s not fair to begin with, but it’s also damaging for society.”

But have no fear! Old Etonian Damian Lewis is here to reassure us. Comfortingly, the privately-educated successful actor sees no problem with the proliferation of privately-educated successful actors. Speaking to the Evening Standard in February, he said that one thing that really makes him angry is “the flaring up recently of this idea that it was unfair that people from private schools were getting acting jobs.” Such concerns are, simply, “a nonsense!”

He elaborated in April, during a Guardian web chat. "As an actor educated at Eton, I'm still always in a minority," he wrote. "What is true and always rewarding about the acting profession is that everyone has a similar story about them being in a minority."

Lewis’s fellow alumni actors include Hugh Laurie, Tom Hiddleston, Eddie Redmayne – a happy coincidence, then, and nothing to do with the fact that Etonians have drama facilities including a designer, carpenter, manager, and wardrobe mistress. It is equally serendipitous that Laurie, Hiddleston and Tom Hollander – all stars of last year’s The Night Manager – attended the same posh prep school, The Dragon School in Oxford, alongside Emma Watson, Jack Davenport, Hugh Dancy, Dom Joly and Jack Whitehall. “Old Dragons (ODs) are absolutely everywhere,” said one former pupil, “and there’s a great sense of ‘looking after our own’." Tom Hollander said the Dragon School, which has a focus on creativity, is the reason for his love of acting, but that’s neither here nor there.

Damian Lewis’s wife, fellow actor Helen McCrory, first studied at her local state school before switching to the independent boarding school Queenswood Girls’ School in Hertfordshire (“I’m just as happy to eat foie gras as a baked potato,” the Telegraph quote her as saying on the subject). But she says she didn’t develop an interest in acting until she moved schools, thanks to her drama teacher, former actor Thane Bettany (father of Paul). Of course, private school has had literally no impact on her career either.

In fact, it could have had an adverse affect – as Benedict Cumberbatch’s old drama teacher at Harrow, Martin Tyrell, has explained: “I feel that [Cumberbatch and co] are being limited [from playing certain parts] by critics and audiences as a result of what their parents did for them at the age of 13. And that seems to me very unfair.”

He added: “I don’t think anyone ever bought an education at Harrow in order for their son to become an actor. Going to a major independent school is of no importance or value or help at all.” That clears that up.

The words of Michael Gambon should also put fears to rest. “The more Old Etonians the better, I think!” he said. “The two or three who are playing at the moment are geniuses, aren’t they? The more geniuses you get, the better. It’s to do with being actors and wanting to do it; it’s nothing to do with where they come from.”

So we should rejoice, and not feel worried when we read a list of privately educated Bafta and Oscar winners as long as this: Chiwetel Ejiofor (Dulwich College), Emilia Clarke (St Edward’s), Carey Mulligan (Woldingham School), Kate Winslet (Redroofs Theatre School), Daniel Day-Lewis (Sevenoaks School, Bedales), Jeremy Irons (Sherborne School), Rosamund Pike (Badminton), Tom Hardy (Reed), Kate Beckinsale (Godolphin and Latymer), Matthew Goode (Exeter), Rebecca Hall (Roedean), Emily Blunt (Hurtwood House) and Dan Stevens (Tonbridge).

Life is a meritocracy, and these guys were simply always the best. I guess the working classes just aren’t as talented.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

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