Deirdre O’Neill and Mike Wayne discuss the decline and colonisation of working-class culture, introduce The Acting Class and call for culture to be at the cutting edge of counter-hegemonic challenges to the dominant culture
The products of film, television and theatre are disseminated in and through institutions and networks that are situated within economic and ideological constraints and hegemonic discourses. Representations of the working class within this circuit are often partial, uninformed and invariably negative. But, even so, they go on to have an afterlife as visual images recycled repeatedly until they harden into the taken for granted ‘knowledge’ of our society.
There is another recycling moment going on as well, the return, the doubling back from the progress made after the Second World War to the squalor, poverty, low wages, hunger and diseases that would have been recognizable to the Victorians. Nothing new to see here; just the British class system doing what it does best – allowing the middle and upper classes to use all the methods in their power to justify the cruelty and inequalities of the system it perpetuates.
The political and cultural expectations of the post Second World War period were conceptualised as an improvement in the living conditions of the working class – new housing, the welfare state, education, maintenance grants, a brave new world built by and made possible by the physical hard work and (to a certain extent) the tax contributions of the working class. The potential afforded by economic security – although far from accessible to everyone – led to a growing confidence amongst the working class at this time which in turn led to the demand for a more overt cultural presence.
There was an independent film movement in the 1970s, and during the 60s through to the beginning of the 80s television became more radical, showing the work of Ken Loach, Dennis Potter and John McGrath. Channel 4 signed up to the Workshop Agreement in the 1980s, which created an infrastructure of radical cultural workers whose praxis included political activism, education, and writing as well as film making. The work produced in all cultural spheres was often work that engaged with and explored in detail the lives of the working class. Seeing the lives of working-class people taken seriously on the television and cinema screens allowed an engagement with the cultural life of the country and provided the potential for political engagement and transformative politics.
The election of Thatcher in 1979 changed the way we think about culture and the way in which it is organized. Now it became something to be organized by an expert middle class, from the top down. It was to be sponsored, monetized, marketized and crucially, standardized. The support offered to radical cultural workers was removed and only those with independent means or rich parents could afford to take part in an increasingly narrow media landscape. In the process the popular culture of the working classes was appropriated and reinvented as middle-class culture.
The dominance of London in both the production and consumption of the arts, and the dominance of the middle class in London, has led to a situation where the middle and upper classes are able to dominate all areas of the arts: film, theatre, television, music and reproduce them in their own image, while at the same time ensuring the continuation of generational privileges.
The lack of social housing, the inability to rent cheaply, the lack of well-paid full-time contracted work, and the inadequacy of welfare benefits that are tied to stringent rules and surveillance all work together to marginalize the working class, and contribute to what has become a very narrow creative and cultural landscape. What appears to be the exclusion of the working class from geographical spaces gentrified by the professional middle class serves the additional function of excluding them from artistic production.
The decline of the culture of the working class has been one of the most powerful, telling developments in British society. John McGrath linked this decline of working-class culture to the systematic destruction by consecutive governments of the institutions embedded within the lives and history of the working class, out of which this culture grew and which sustained it. Crucially, for McGrath, these institutions were the very embodiment of working-class consciousness. If, as McGrath claimed, it was through these cultural institutions and the forms they took that the working class were able to recognize and identify themselves as a class with a distinct set of experiences differentiating them from other classes, then it follows that at the present moment, it is of the utmost importance that the working class produce their own cultural forms that are able to translate their own experiences.
Geographically we can consider gentrification as a form of internal ‘colonisation’. Colonisation is the practice of invading or settling on already occupied land for the purpose of acquiring assets and displacing indigenous populations by a more economically powerful and socially dominant group. Considering colonisation within this optic as a practice carried out by the middle classes brings into focus the ideological and material displacement of the working class. The success of the gentrification project can only be understood if we consider the physical, geographical aspect in a relational sense by mapping it onto cultural practices, forms of subjectivity and of course media representations which legitimise and normalise middle-class cultures of competitive individualism, status-seeking and accumulated and cumulative disdain for the working class based on feelings of superiority, career success and material acquisition.
The cultural and arts professions would like to consider themselves a meritocracy, magically escaping the structural determinants of class exclusion. In fact they are a perfect microcosm of the British class system, mediated through the lens of middle-class media workers who dominate the ‘creative’ industries which are responsible for telling the stories and projecting the images we have of ourselves and who ‘we’ are.
Our documentary feature film The Acting Class explores how this broader political economy works and with what consequences in the acting industry. The documentary won the International Labour Film Festival award 2017, an indication perhaps of the increasing awareness that the cultural industries are subject to similar dynamics of inequality and precarity as other sectors of the economy. The documentary interviews both established actors such as Christopher Eccleston, Maxine Peake, Julie Hesmondhalgh and Samuel West, as well as young aspiring actors trying to break into the profession today.
Maxine Peake with Tom Stocks
Among the latter are Tom Stocks, a working-class actor from Bolton who set up Actor Awareness when he could not afford to take up his Masters in Acting at East 15 drama school. Among the multiple barriers to entry are:
- the dominance of the profession by the middle class in key decision-making roles; the project-by-project nature of the profession that gradually weeds out those who do not have access to an independent income (or the Bank of Mum and Dad);
- the London-centric nature of the profession that excludes actors of working-class origin from outside the capital;
- the subtle shaping of expectations and knowledge from a young age that makes acting seem ‘not for the likes of us’; and
- the erosion of culture and arts provision on the school curriculum.
In addition, there are the elite networks forged in Oxbridge and perpetuated in the profession, networks which Actor Awareness for example tries to counter by developing a network and mutual support system for the working-class actor.
The film has been seen by actors, educators, students, activists and trade unionists, as well as members of the general public. Digital technology has made possible alternative networks of film screenings and facilitated the organization of screenings in non-theatrical as well as theatrical venues. In this way the film becomes more than a series of images, it becomes a political intervention into present circumstances and offers the potential to change the conditions it is dealing with. Question and answer sessions build on immediate audience reactions of anger and emotional responses. One of the questions we are always asked is what can we do to bring about change?
This question has already contributed to the possibility of change, since audience engagement can have tangible results. For example, we have screened the film at a number of Equity branches, to help raise awareness within the actors’ union, and the film has fed into a wider process within the union to prioritise the issue of class exclusion in the sector. We also worked with The Equality Trust and Just Fair as part of their campaign to see Section 1 of the Equality Act 2010 brought into effect. Section 1 requires public authorities to have ‘due regard’ to how their role can be used to reduce the inequalities of outcome that result from socio-economic disadvantage. This statutory duty could be a powerful lever for communities and activists to hold public bodies to account, for perpetuating class discrimination across all sectors and not just in relation to arts and culture.
Any counter-hegemonic challenge must begin with culture.
The film but can be purchased through the website and can be made available if anyone would like to arrange a screening.
Deirdre O'Neill and Mike Wayne are film educators and writers.