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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.

Photo: André Spicer
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“It’s scary to do it again”: the five-year-old fined £150 for running a lemonade stand

Enforcement officers penalised a child selling home-made lemonade in the street. Her father tells the full story. 

It was a lively Saturday afternoon in east London’s Mile End. Groups of people streamed through residential streets on their way to a music festival in the local park; booming bass could be heard from the surrounding houses.

One five-year-old girl who lived in the area had an idea. She had been to her school’s summer fête recently and looked longingly at the stalls. She loved the idea of setting up her own stall, and today was a good day for it.

“She eventually came round to the idea of selling lemonade,” her father André Spicer tells me. So he and his daughter went to their local shop to buy some lemons. They mixed a few jugs of lemonade, the girl made a fetching A4 sign with some lemons drawn on it – 50p for a small cup, £1 for a large – and they carried a table from home to the end of their road. 

“People suddenly started coming up and buying stuff, pretty quickly, and they were very happy,” Spicer recalls. “People looked overjoyed at this cute little girl on the side of the road – community feel and all that sort of stuff.”

But the heart-warming scene was soon interrupted. After about half an hour of what Spicer describes as “brisk” trade – his daughter’s recipe secret was some mint and a little bit of cucumber, for a “bit of a British touch” – four enforcement officers came striding up to the stand.

Three were in uniform, and one was in plain clothes. One uniformed officer turned the camera on his vest on, and began reciting a legal script at the weeping five-year-old.

“You’re trading without a licence, pursuant to x, y, z act and blah dah dah dah, really going through a script,” Spicer tells me, saying they showed no compassion for his daughter. “This is my job, I’m doing it and that’s it, basically.”

The girl burst into tears the moment they arrived.

“Officials have some degree of intimidation. I’m a grown adult, so I wasn’t super intimidated, but I was a bit shocked,” says Spicer. “But my daughter was intimidated. She started crying straight away.”

As they continued to recite their legalese, her father picked her up to try to comfort her – but that didn’t stop the officers giving her stall a £150 fine and handing them a penalty notice. “TRADING WITHOUT LICENCE,” it screamed.


Picture: André Spicer

“She was crying and repeating, ‘I’ve done a bad thing’,” says Spicer. “As we walked home, I had to try and convince her that it wasn’t her, it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her who had done something bad.”

She cried all the way home, and it wasn’t until she watched her favourite film, Brave, that she calmed down. It was then that Spicer suggested next time they would “do it all correctly”, get a permit, and set up another stand.

“No, I don’t want to, it’s a bit scary to do it again,” she replied. Her father hopes that “she’ll be able to get over it”, and that her enterprising spirit will return.

The Council has since apologised and cancelled the fine, and called on its officials to “show common sense and to use their powers sensibly”.

But Spicer felt “there’s a bigger principle here”, and wrote a piece for the Telegraph arguing that children in modern Britain are too restricted.

He would “absolutely” encourage his daughter to set up another stall, and “I’d encourage other people to go and do it as well. It’s a great way to spend a bit of time with the kids in the holidays, and they might learn something.”

A fitting reminder of the great life lesson: when life gives you a fixed penalty notice, make lemonade.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.