Are the rich winning a cultural class war?

By Samira Ahmed
Presenter, Front Row

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionWorking-class actors such as Michael Caine emerged in the 1960s

That Britain's cultural class war is complicated is perhaps most apparent in the fact that Labour's new culture spokesman, Chris Bryant, was educated at private Cheltenham College while the Conservative Culture Secretary Sajid Javid is a bus driver's son from a comprehensive school.

When Mr Bryant said: "We can't just have a culture dominated by [Eton-educated] Eddie Redmayne and James Blunt and their ilk," he uncorked a fizzing bottle of sensitivity and resentment and not just about acting.

Mr Bryant's comments have opened up the debate about worsening social mobility and the growing power and dominance of an affluent London-based elite, benefitting from private school and Oxbridge connections and the exclusive, because of benefit cuts, ability to ride out the years of training thanks to the bank of Mum and Dad.

Mr Bryant emphasised that his concern was not directed against any individual but against the inequality of opportunity.

But James Blunt, educated like actor Benedict Cumberbatch at Harrow School, responded with fury, calling Bryant "a prejudiced wazzock" teaching "the politics of jealousy" instead of aspiration, and claimed he, Blunt, was himself the victim of anti-upper class discrimination.

Even before the Bryant-Blunt row, many prominent actors and performers, including Julie Walters, Sandie Shaw and David Morrissey, had been speaking out about their concerns.

Impact of cuts

They cited increased art and drama school tuition fees, benefit changes especially when it comes to renting in London, and the rise of an intern culture with very low pay rates for those starting out, which they feel are closing down prospects for talented working-class men and women.

Judi Dench has said she is regularly asked for help by aspiring actors unable to take on such expense.

image copyrightAP
image captionTom Hiddleston is an old Etonian

Walters, who quit nursing against her mother's wishes to study drama in the early 1970s, got a full grant, and a salaried job at Liverpool's Everyman Theatre.

Local government spending cuts have closed down much of that sector.

Walters has said it would be impossible for someone like her to embark on such a career now.

James Blunt claimed he was discouraged from a career in music, but it is clear that the old middle-class parental push towards "professions" such as stockbroking or law has declined.

Eton College is now as famous for nurturing talented actors such Tom Hiddleston, Damien Lewis and Dominic West as future prime ministers such as David Cameron.

As with sports such as rowing, private schools now seem to offer many of the artistic "extras" that have started to disappear in the face of a more "vocational" push in the state-school sector.

Whether at the Olympics or the Oscars, it can seem that Britain is increasingly represented at an elite level by people who had access to an exclusive paid-for education.

Complex problem

Edward Kemp, the director of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (Rada) one of the UK's most prestigious drama schools, says the problem is more complex.

Speaking before the current row, he pointed out that the number of Rada applicants from working-class backgrounds had actually been going up - 36% of places in the previous year had gone to students from families earning less than £25,000 a year.

image captionSophie Okonedo has found few roles in the UK

Rada graduates from financially modest backgrounds such as Gemma Arterton and Ben Whishaw have achieved great success.

But in what kind of roles?

Chris Bryant in his comments on culture also expressed concern that a preoccupation with Downton-Abbey-style upper-class and period drama meant TV was no longer offering roles that reflected the full diversity of British society.

And that is without mentioning the challenge faced by actors of colour, such as Sophie Okonedo, who has won a Tony award on Broadway alongside Denzel Washington but has found few roles in the UK.

David Oyelowo, star of the hit film Selma, tweeted this week: "I had to leave Britain to have an acting career."

He has said that he had been told by a commissioning executive: "If it's not Jane Austen or Dickens, the audience don't understand."

The charge is that a narrowing elite of decision makers are closing down who gets represented.

Mr Kemp told the Independent: "It would be great to have another working-class drama, but where are those stories being told?

"They're not - it's shows with dragons or people in tweed suits on bicycles."

Mr Bryant has harked back to the British social realism boom in art of the late 1950s and 1960s that put a cultural focus on the state-backed creative output of the industrial north of England, not London.

Working-class stars such as Stanley Baker, from Mr Bryant's Rhondda constituency, Albert Finney and Michael Caine and writers such as Shelagh Delaney emerged at this time.

Rock music

Social inequality was at its lowest by the early 1970s.

It was cool to be working class. Is that what's changed most? Even in pop music?

image captionBands such as the Manic Street Preachers benefited from an era of more state support

Rock journalist Simon Price believes that the 1990s generation that produced the Manic Street Preachers was the last to benefit from a genuinely meritocratic state-support system, and the days of musicians such as Joe Strummer playing down their middle class roots are long gone.

"These days whenever I hear of an up-and-coming band and I look into it, it seems more often than not they are from the 7% [of the population] who were privately educated.

"There's this myth that on YouTube if you have a good song it will spiral, but it does take money."

Price says that changes to the benefits system have made it harder for working-class teenagers to develop their talent.

"David Cameron famously proclaims himself to be a fan of the Smiths.

"Well Morrissey spent years on the dole finding himself and finding his voice before launching his musical career."

It's hard to imagine any politician would advocate a more generous dole for aspiring pop stars.

But Price sees a direct link in the requirements now placed on benefit claimants to take whatever work they're told, and the focus on "vocational" training, which is undermining the very economically measurable success that Britain's creative industries are famous for.

The question underlying the current posh war remains: are too many careers increasingly an option only for those with the backing of an affluent family?

And what will Britain become if this continues?

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