Jack Newsinger reviews the documentary film The Acting Class, by Deirdre O’Neill and Mike Wayne, which gives voice to the struggles of actors of working-class origin as they try to make it in an increasingly middle-class profession.
In 2014 Julie Walters worried that "Soon the only actors are going to be privileged kids whose parents can afford to send them to drama school. That’s not right. It feels like we are going backwards.” The response from some was less than positive. Lewis star Laurence Fox, for example, said that Julie Walters should “shut up”. Fox was educated at Harrow public school, as was Benedict Cumberbatch. Damien Lewis, Eddie Redmayne, Tom Hiddleston and Dominic West all went to Eton. The 'poshification' of acting has been a topic of public debate, alongside movements to improve BAME and gender representation in the cultural and creative industries, for a number of years. These issues have been forced high onto the agendas of some of our leading cultural institutions such as Arts Council England and the British Film Institute, and many now have official policies and guidelines designed to address the clear unfairness of access to different jobs in the cultural sector. But these initiatives, while potentially signalling a change in the mindset and practices of cultural institutions, are often top-down. There is little to suggest that there has been a transformation (so far) in the social composition of the people who make the decisions about what culture we get to see and hear.
That’s where films like The Acting Class come in. Deirdre O’Neill and Mike Wayne’s documentary follows Tom Stocks as he builds a campaign to improve the opportunities for working class actors. Actor Awareness started online in 2015 and grew like a snowball into a fully-fledged movement, highlighting the difficulties and barriers faced by actors from working-class backgrounds as they enter the profession and providing support and solidarity. The film uses this platform to take a broad look at the barriers built into the system such as the prohibitive costs of drama school education, the scandal of audition fees, the expectations of working for free to build a career, the typecasting that working-class actors suffer, particularly those of colour. (If you wanted to build a system that kept working-class people out, it would be hard to think of a better one.) O’Neill and Wayne have put together a powerful film that represents the experiences of working-class actors at all stages of their careers, from new talent like Andrew Ellis and Amy Stout to well-established stars including Julie Hesmondhalgh, Maxine Peake and Christopher Ecclestone, to dissect the problems, common across much of the cultural sector, that prevent genuine working-class participation.
The stories of raising money for travel to London and audition fees, the feelings of insecurity engendered by entering the rarefied middle-class environment of the London cultural elite, the thrill of being offered a place, then all for nothing as the realisation that drama school is simply unaffordable to those who don’t have parents with enough money to pay for it (around £13,000 per year) are genuinely heart breaking. Dreams dashed. Tom Stocks himself had to twice turn down a place through lack of money. Andrew Ellis describes being recognised for his role in Shane Meadows’ film This is England while working on the check-out at Asda. Presumably this never happened to Fox.
Why is it important that working-class people become actors? As well as an issue of basic fairness – why should the upper-middle classes be able to buy their children a place at the front of the queue for all the exciting opportunities? – the problem is well articulated by Hesmondhalgh: ‘if art is coming from one very narrow part of society, then the stories and the conversations are only going to be coming from that place and they are only going to be about that place.’ Art and self-expression are as important to working-class people as they are to middle-class people. Perhaps more important. As Scott Berry, Artistic Director of Salford Arts Theatre says, ‘when you’ve got nothing else, dreams are what you live on.’
And this is the real power of the film: working-class people telling their own stories, in their own accents. The decision to mix together those at the beginning of their careers with the established stars, to show that working-class people have something worth saying and it can’t be dismissed as a few diamonds in the rough. The Acting Class is as good a dissection of the profound class inequality that we have in the cultural sector as any industry or academic report. And I say that as someone who has worked on a few.