A conversation at a party:
“What school did you go to?”
“Just a comprehensive. In the north-east.”
“Riiiight… but you went to college?”
“A drama college, yes. In Wakefield.”
“But you went to college? Cambridge? Yes?”
It sounds like the beginning of a Two Ronnies sketch (more of that later), but this is a conversation I have had many, many times over the years. An assumption that, if you’ve done reasonably OK, then you must have gone to Oxbridge. Let me stress at once that the person asking the question was very nice and well-meaning. They had just assumed.
Class, that particularly insidious – and very British – disease, never goes away. And though there have been periods of abeyance (in the Fifties and Sixties, the working class actor and writer became fashionable), the old order seems always to reassert itself.
I am a working-class man. My dad was a colliery engineer, then an engineer in a psychiatric hospital. My mam (yes, mam) was a secretary in a paint factory. I grew up in the industrial north-east and went to a lovely primary school, then a rather more intimidating comp where the boys were scary and the walls were made of compressed cardboard.
Happily, apart from the Oxbridge assumption, I haven’t found my class much of a barrier, which must speak of progress. But let me, as Max Bygraves used to say, tell you a story.
My escape, growing up in the Seventies, was TV. With little access to anything else, TV was a window onto a wider world. I’d draw pictures of heroes like Ronnie Barker and Leonard Rossiter, and pored obsessively over the end credits of Doctor Who, trying to work out what the difference was between a script editor and producer. I suppose I vaguely wanted to have a crack at it. None of these things felt too achievable, though. How could a career in showbiz be for anyone like me?
There was something, you see, that we all took for granted back then. People on telly were posh. From continuity announcers to the Young Scientists of the Year, from actors on Play for Today to the contestants on Ask the Family, there was a preponderance of well-spoken, articulate people (mostly, looking back, with very dry hair) who had clearly been to the right school and had moved seamlessly into entertainment. There was little or no reflection of life as I knew it. I remember watching The Good Life and thinking that Surbiton must be made up as it sounded so like “suburbia”. Even the alien invasions that Jon Pertwee battled in Doctor Who always happened in the south-east of England. This wasn’t a particular source of aggravation; it was just the way it was.
And then, one evening, I saw a play on BBC Two. It was about a woman taking her daughter, who has learning difficulties, to the crematorium on a bleak Sunday afternoon. It was Alan Bennett’s Our Winnie, and I think I only watched it because Winnie was my mam’s name. It was a revelation. The patterns of northern dialogue were perfect. The deadly dullness of those Sunday afternoon visits to relatives was precisely captured. “How does he know these things?” I wondered in awe.
Alan Bennett became my new hero. His journey from a butcher’s shop in Leeds to an Oxford scholarship, from Beyond the Fringe to pre-eminent dramatist, was an inspiration. That authentic voice. That not-posh voice. I had no dreams of going to Oxbridge (“I didn’t have the Latin”), but it felt that there might be a path to the sort of career I had always dreamed of.
It felt possible because there was a system in place that actively encouraged what was once charmingly referred to as “the lively arts”. I did drama at O-level. Then drama club after hours. Then youth theatre on a Friday night, where I took my first giddy steps into an exciting grown-up world – not as a hobby or an indulgence, but an actual, possible job.
There were regular trips to Darlington Civic Theatre and the RSC (which toured to Newcastle in those days), where I saw Michael Gambon’s King Lear. And there was the Arts Centre in Darlington, a huge, buzzing place where, in proper Cliff Richard fashion, we put on our own shows. A lot. From this came the chance to do a degree in theatre with a grant from my local council, at Bretton Hall College. It was there that I met the rest of the League of Gentlemen – Reece Shearsmith, Steve Pemberton, Jeremy Dyson; from that collaboration, a very rewarding career has sprung.
A few years ago I was on Desert Island Discs and mentioned how much Our Winnie had meant to me. A couple of days later, I got a postcard. From Alan Bennett. He thanked me for my kind words and said it had bucked him up no end as he was going through a particularly blank patch. That was a very satisfying moment, not only paying back a debt of gratitude, but feeling a kind of kinship.
Now, Darlington Arts Centre has been converted into flats and the idea of a grant is so distant as to seem almost quaint. The arts are always the first to go, seen as a “soft” option; this government has systematically (and deliberately) downgraded their importance in favour of subjects it deems “useful”.
While TV itself has become hugely more representative of Britain, class remains a barrier. It’s the destruction of that ecosystem of ways in, without which I might not have had a career, that is more profound. You have to see a way through to believe it is possible. And those paths are simply ceasing to exist.
This piece is published in Michael Sheen’s guest edited issue of the New Statesman, “A Dream of Britain”, on sale from 25 March
This article appears in the 23 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, A Dream of Britain