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25 February 2016

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.

By Frances Ryan

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.

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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.)  

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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.