WHEN thespians from public school dominate, can everyday life truly be represented, wonders Aidan Smith
If the Tardis functioned like a golf club, with Doctor Who’s former assistants afforded old-girl privilege on their return visits and the opportunity for honorary time travelling, I guess Karen Gillan might fancy whoosh-ing back to the 1960s, an exciting era in popular culture wherever you came from.
Cheeky-chappie popsters were all the rage, flouting convention with their haircuts and unrounded vowels as they demanded that the posh folk in the best seats rattled their jewellery, while in Gillan’s field the angry young men of acting were on the charge as films and telly dramas told kitchen-sink tales of plucky striving in the provinces.
This, though, is a different world. Popular culture has been gentrified. The last time anyone checked, the music charts were 60 per cent public schoolboy (and girl) and now comes the revelation that seven out of ten Brit Oscar winners were privately educated.
Gillan isn’t complaining about posh actors nicking all the best roles, but rather the funding cuts which will restrict the chances of young hopefuls from poorer backgrounds, and in particular those hitting Inverness’ Eden Court. “Sad to hear about the cuts,” she tweeted. “As Creative Ambassador I owe so much to the Higher Drama course and wish others could too.”
I’ve got nothing against the Eton-educated Eddie Redmayne, the Eton-educated Dominic West, the Eton-educated Damian Lewis, the Eton-educated Tom Hiddleston, the Harrow-educated Benedict Cumberbatch, the Ampleforth-educated James Norton – honest I haven’t. I enjoy their work and boxset-gorge on it like everyone else. But it’s becoming more and more difficult to get on in acting if you haven’t enjoyed their advantages.
Acting is supposed to mirror real life, of course, which means there must be Eton types running government, regiments and boardrooms – tell me if you spot any. But cuts like those concerning Gillan, prohibitive tuition fees and the whims of what’s always been a very persuadable profession are threatening to take it beyond the reach of a generation of awkward, scruffy dreamers.
TV has always stumbled across winning formulas and throttled them to death. The winning formula right now is: posho male, half-naked. Last month Norton in War and Peace – Phwoar and Peace, according to the more excitable journals – was the hot one. This month, Hiddleston is hottest for The Night Manager. Casting directors could themselves audition for the lead part in Shaun the Sheep. They follow each other around, copying moves. ITV and Sky are especially unimaginative and because these dramas, along with Poldark, are BBC productions I fully expect to see the rival networks try to nick the Corporation’s clothes with similar programmes (and demand that the well-spoken hunk carefully selected from a competitive field of ex-public schoolboys, nice and lean from all that fagging, removes his garments before the first ad break).
Art, and art college, used to be a place for the odd kids, the quiet but curious ones, the unentitled but quirky and talented ones. The painter Gary Hume learned his craft surrounded by “misfits and outsiders”. “That is exactly why they were at art college,” he says. “But art has become a respectable career path now, another professional option for the affluent.”
Julie Walters says the chances she got, as “a working-class kid with a grant”, aren’t there anymore. Brian Cox has a similar lament. David Morrissey is worried about an “intern culture” in acting, similar to what’s happening in journalism and politics, which will exclude kids from “disadvantaged backgrounds”.
Only the trust-fund thesps, able to pay the fees and support themselves during periods of “resting”, will be able to carry on acting. Redmayne recently decided to turn off his smartphone. This was portrayed as some kind of noble act but really, he could do it knowing there would almost certainly be plenty of messaged demands for his services when he turned it back on. The hard-up actor, though, would hear the offer of an extra shift in that hideous wine-bar if he was lucky, and the threat of loan default fines if he wasn’t.
Maybe you’ve met those nicely brought-up young people who don’t seem like they ever have to worry too much. They tell you about their jobs, maybe something to do with food or adventure holidays, and you think: “Hmm, doesn’t sound too livelihood-crucial to me.” Acting could become the preserve of those able to afford it. But might edginess, grit, hunger and passion then disappear from performance?
Stuart Maconie, the writer and DJ, grumbles about pop becoming “as bourgeois as the Boden catalogue” and acting is in danger of going the same way. But there’s a problem with labelling the Cumberbatches of this world posh and privileged because they know that’s what they are. A few years ago I interviewed the bold Benedict – charming fellow – who admitted to having “a fluffy old name, it sounds like a fart in a bath” which his actor-father hadn’t been brave enough to use. He also confessed to his ancestors having been “pretty dodgy” in slave-trade history and that he was unsurprised at being given so many “priggish shits” to play. “I can’t deny I lack knowledge of that type – I went to Harrow,” he told me. “I’m not one myself, at least I hope I’m not, but I’ve met a few. Philistines of a class. Harrow was a rich boys’ playground.”
The one consolation for the working-class actor wannabe right now is that if his advantaged rival thought he might be able to smirk his way through what another posh thesp I encountered called “cigarette-case movies”, while honing an evil James Mason accent for later in the career, he is instead having to suffer the indignity of getting his kit off. Last week Hiddleston’s abs were the big story. Yesterday in the Sun it was his arse. An awful lot of gym work seems to have gone into that bod, an awful lot of posh pop from Mumford & Sons on the headphones.