Critic Pauline Kael demonstrated that you could make your own rules. Photo: YouTube screengrab
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Girls on film: it's time to celebrate women critics, the liveliest voices in cinema

Why has it taken us so long to realise that the strongest, most exciting voices, shaping our opinions of cinema are women?

It was encouraging to find such a celebratory air to the recent Sight & Sound feature on female voices in film criticism. Without playing down the levels of gender inequality in the industry, the magazine (which last year ran a competition to find new female film writers) opted primarily to highlight the influential contribution of women to the way movies are discussed, understood and appreciated. I’m grateful to the article for alerting me to Hilary Mantel’s film writing for the Spectator between 1987 and 1991. And for making me ponder the role women played in my own film education, which is to say: they were everything.

My main cinemagoing companion as a child, in fact the first person who ever took me to the cinema, was my grandmother. Our post-movie chit-chat was as much a part of the experience as the packed lunches she prepared for us to eat in the stalls in those days when cinema concession stands didn’t run to much more than pre-packed popcorn, a King Cone and a box of Matchmakers. That means the first voice that ever spoke to me, and with me, about films was passionate, giddy, funny — and female.

I didn’t find an equivalent of that voice in print until I was a teenager. Existing on a diet of film reviews in Time Out, I discovered the snappy dispatches of Anne Billson, and realised overnight that it was permissible, even preferable, to use humour when writing about cinema. I can even remember the review that flicked that switch on in my brain — it was Billson’s mischievous take-down of Wild Geese II (“A right load of proper gander”), a film so ridiculous that it merited only mockery. (Happily, the whole review is online here).

I wasn’t the only one inspired and energised by reading Billson’s writing: Jane Giles celebrates her in the Sight & Sound feature. That in turn reminds me that Giles herself was also an important presence in the life of any film buff coming of age in 1980s London: she was the manager of the Scala repertory cinema (and later wrote a study of The Crying Game in the BFI’s Modern Classics series—a film that was financed in part from the Scala’s takings).

From reading Anne Billson it was only a short leap to Pauline Kael, whose chunky collections looked unruly and gaily-coloured on the sober shelves of my university library.

Watch Kael in action:

If Billson showed that humour was an important tool in film writing, Kael demonstrated that you could make your own rules. As Nick Pinkerton notes in his own contribution to that Sight & Sound feature, to love and read Kael is to engage in endless spats with her. My love and admiration for her has been fierce and erratic. Paradoxically, that’s one of the reasons her reviews are so important to me: a disagreement with her is always a ruck worth having. Her writing is alive and boisterous, with shades of the bar-room brawl about it; closing one of her books, it still feels as though the arguments are still raging with the pages.

Film criticism has plenty of robust, distinctive female voices — from Charlotte O’Sullivan at the Standard and Catherine Shoard at the Guardian to Sophie Monks Kaufman at Little White Lies and my NS colleague Antonia Quirke (whose brilliant and engaging guests spots hosting BBC1’s Film 2015 render it absurd that the programme makers haven’t handed stewardship of that show to her on a permanent basis). The Sight & Sound piece has been chastening in one way. Just because the female voice in film writing and broadcasting is implicit doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be emphasised and celebrated. How strange, and telling, that it took that feature to make me consider and acknowledge the importance of the female voice in my own development.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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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.