Getty
Show Hide image

Why are so many British actors privately-educated?

The class hierarchy in acting doesn’t exist in a vacuum: it’s reflective of the rigged opportunities shutting the working class out of most positions of status and wealth in this country.

I’m a firm believer every award ceremony would be improved by an analysis of the class structure. This was proved yet again by last night’s Brit Awards. Sure, it had Ant and Dec, and Rihanna with tassels near her groin but – and this could well be why Mail Online editors keep refusing my calls – some extracts from the Sutton Trust’s latest research into the background of the UK’s elite would have fitted in nicely.

The figures (from the schooling of leading journalists to lawyers) make for interesting reading but the section on the entertainment industry stands out. It turns out that if you want to find someone in the entertainment industry whose parents didn’t pay a few grand a term to help get them there, best look to pop stars rather than luvvies. The Sutton Trust found top Bafta winners are twice as likely to have been to private schools as Brit winners. While 42 per cent of British Bafta winners went to a fee-paying school, just 19 per cent of British winners at the Brits were educated privately. That leaves a healthy 81 per cent of British solo Brit winners coming from state schools. (If you’re hungry for more stat-backed stereotypes, switching to Classic BRIT winners reverses that trend.) As Adele cried grasping her Brit Global Success award last night: “Not bad for a girl from Tottenham who don't like flying!”

There are exceptions, of course. Notably, the opening act to last night’s ceremony – Coldplay’s Chris Martin – seems to have never willingly put a foot in a fully state-funded school building (pre-prep Hylton School, prep Exeter Cathedral School, then boarding at Dorset’s Sherborne School). But – even on a subject that tends to be obscured by defensiveness and denial – it’s tough to ignore the privilege of Britain’s current crop of leading actors.

Eddie Redmayne, Damian Lewis, and Tom Hiddleston – on screens in the BBC series The Night Manager – are old Etonians. Benedict Cumberbatch went to Harrow (his drama teacher belives attending the £34,590-a-year school actually put his former pupil at a disadvantage). Listen to anyone from Julie Walters to Chris Bryant and there’s a genuine concern things are only getting worse.         

The class hierarchy in the British acting industry doesn’t exist in a vacuum: it’s reflective – perhaps an exaggeration – of the rigged opportunities shutting the working class out of most positions of power, status, and wealth in this country.

Whilst Etonians experience a school drama department with a full-time designer, a carpenter and a manager, as well as a part-time wardrobe mistress, kids from council estates watch their local authorities cut music spending.

Employers – themselves, more likely to be white, male, and wealthy – are drawn to people with similar traits and that’s the same in a law firm as it is in a TV commissioner’s office. (As schedulers fixate on Downton Abbey and the domination of Location, Location conservatism, think how rare it is now to see working-class lives on TV. Benefits Street doesn’t count.)  

Like a job in PR or Parliament, there’s also the ever-looming London Problem: acting, like many so-call leading jobs, happens to be based in one of the most expensive cities on earth. Unpaid internships or slumping between auditions are only genuine choices when your parents can afford to see your bills as the next stage of school fees. For young people from low incomes, the M25 may as well be an electrified fence. The crisis in London’s rental market won’t exactly improve that situation.

None of this easy. But if we want talent rather than money to matter – whether that’s in Parliament, the judiciary, or onscreen  – change is the only option this country has. Opportunity should be like music: it takes us wherever we want to go. As it stands, life chances in Britain are determined as if we’re forcing each child to follow a script.

Frances Ryan is a journalist and political researcher. She writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman, and others on disability, feminism, and most areas of equality you throw at her. She has a doctorate in inequality in education. Her website is here.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

0800 7318496