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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.

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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