When someone mentions British actors, who do you think of? Your mind probably jumps to people like Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hiddleston or Eddie Redmayne. Certainly, this appears to be a leap made by many a casting director. Yet all three of these actors represent the same, incredibly small, part of Britain. All of them were born and raised in London and all of them attended independent schools. Hiddleston and Redmayne overlap even more closely – both are from Westminster, London, and both went to Eton College and then Cambridge University. These are just three names out of many: Hugh Laurie, Hugh Grant, Dominic West, Harry Lloyd, Kate Beckinsale, Rosamund Pike, Ian McKellen, Tilda Swinton, Sacha Baron Cohen, Rowan Atkinson, Hugh Dancy, Thandie Newton – all attended either Eton College, Oxbridge, or both. Include the other fee-paying schools of Britain and the list expands to include almost all the most successful actors our country has produced, to say nothing of our writers, producers, directors, comedians, etc. About seven percent of British children attend fee-paying schools and yet they as a group are vastly over-represented in our entertainment industry. As someone who attended a state school, and who depends on receiving the maximum amount possible in way of bursary and student loans, it is impossible not to become even more aware of this imbalance during my time at Oxford – where on average between forty and fifty percent of the new student joining each year come from independent schools, and far wealthier backgrounds than I.
Let me be clear: I am middle class. While financially I am not privileged, I still have a Southern, middle-class accent which makes the acting industry more open to me. Having an accent associated with the working class is a disadvantage for an actor, in a similar way to Scottish actors who wish to ‘make it’ first having to produce a decent English accent. Actress Maxine Peake has spoken about being told to ‘tone down’ her Lancashire accent for parts and Christopher Eccleston, also from Lancashire, has talked about his accent holding him back from Shakespeare in particular, as there is a perception that working class actors are not suited to classical theatre – and these are just two examples from working class actors who have managed to make a career for themselves and are in a position to raise awareness of this issue. Many would-be working class actors are put off ever even attempting to make a living at it because of these biases. Even if we imagine there is no prejudice involved, that no working class actor has ever been judged for their accent or their background, there just aren’t many working class parts, and those that do exist are often supporting roles designed for comic relief. I have seen this phenomenon in student productions here at Oxford. The University of Oxford has one of the highest concentrations of wealthy, privately educated young people in the country, and also a fantastic drama scene. It is disappointing that perhaps the most consistent representation of the working class scene in Oxford student drama is a servile, supporting role in a Shakespeare play portrayed by a privileged person in an exaggerated imitation of a working class accent – a character there to be laughed at, not with.
We must be conscious of our skewed demographic and make efforts to ensure the only portrayals of working class characters are not just supporting roles played out for laughs. Classism is something I have rarely heard discussed in Oxford, despite the fact that clearly, these discussions are more important here than at most other universities in the UK. We need to talk about discrimination against working class people, and acknowledge these biases within ourselves. How many of us have thought nothing of referring to people as ‘chavs’? In practical terms, the Oxford University Dramatic Society can focus their attentions and funding to putting on more plays written by marginalised people, encourage open discussion about class in acting, and raise support and awareness of vital charities like Open Door and Arts Emergency and campaigns like Actor Awareness, all of which are doing great work to encourage more working class people into careers in the arts, and offering support to make such a career more practical for people who have no family or family money they might fall back on.
The recent implementation of an Access, Diversity and Equity Rep and an Outreach Rep is a welcome step, and hopefully evidence of increasing awareness amongst our student population of class inequality in media. Alasdair Linn, President of OUDS, commented that “OUDS is making changes to improve the Oxford drama scene and the elitism that is inherent within it, a result of the many problems of access and representation within the institution of the University itself. We want to make it clear we are having these conversations, actively changing what we can do as a committee and are always open and wanting to hear from students about any issues and concerns. We aim to particularly support and encourage creatives from all backgrounds, especially working class creatives, to direct, produce and write for the New Writing Festival which aims to platform underrepresented voices on stage.”
I will be looking to see more of a working class point of view in our drama in future. Ultimately, after graduating many of us will go on to work in the entertainment industry, be that acting, writing, directing, or in any other capacity, and it is crucial that those of us who go on to have careers in entertainment remain committed to inclusivity, to tackling discrimination within the industry and to making such a career accessible to people from all walks of life.