New Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries has echoed concerns that careers in the arts are the preserve of the privileged.
Speaking at a Conservative Party conference this week, Dorries said ‘posh’ actors had an advantage over working-class ones.
“If you want to do well as an actress – yes, I always say actress – then your name has to be Daisy Edgar-Jones and your dad has to be head of entertainment at Sky.
“No matter what name you think of today that has made its way into theatre, television and the arts, they come from a pretty privileged background.”
“I think she’s right — and I think it’s interesting that we have a secretary of state pointing out this issue,” said Claire Malcolm, chief executive of New Writing North.
“Because of the care, emphasis and thought that my organization puts into the representation, I’d like to think it would be different.
“What really bothers me is that I don’t want to believe it’s harder now [for working class people] but I think so.”
Equity general secretary Paul Fleming said the performers’ union had “long demanded strong action from governments of all stripes” to mend the class divide.
“Our industry is big enough to nurture talent, whether it’s from Harrow School or Hartlepool. A different approach to funding broadcast and live performance can achieve that.”
David John, co-founder of Equity’s Class Network, said arts education, more flexible supports for job seekers and industry coordination can improve opportunities for working classes.
“It’s not going to go back to how it was – everyone gets a scholarship if you pass an audition – but if that’s what Nadine Dorries really wants is to bring in working-class people, there’s a lot she can do. “
The class divide
While it’s not impossible to break into the arts from the working classes, research suggests it’s up to five and a half times harder.
The Creative Industries Policy & Evidence Center (PEC) revealed last year that only 16% of creative occupations are occupied by working-class people, compared to 21% in other professional occupations.
More recent analysis found that the creative sector would need to employ another 263,200 working class people to be as diverse as the rest of the UK economy.
It is in music and the performing and visual arts that the gap is the greatest, where only 22% of employees come from a working-class background against 60% who are privileged.
Covid-19 threatens to further widen the gap: “Those with access to reserves and financial networks will have been better placed to withstand the heightened insecurity, risk and competition for roles created by the pandemic,” says the CEP.
“We still work with a lot of kids like Nadine,” says Malcolm.
“These issues are still there… I would like to see more focus on this generation as a priority.”
John said there is a “leaky pipeline” of working-class talent who are driven away by financial barriers to education, auditions and working in low-paying industries.
“The Tories have cut music and drama teachers – if Nadine wants to help, she can start there.”
PEC has its own ideas. Along with a long-term financial settlement for cultural education, it recommends a business-led social mobility task force for the sector and a “good job” strategy to stamp out unpaid internships.
Out of program
Dorries says she wants to use her new role to inspire organizations “to do more where the inspiration and the aspiration have gone”.
“I don’t think we ever got it,” Banner Theater artistic director Dave Rogers said.
Banner Theater creates productions ranging from working-class experiences to performance venues, pubs and festivals. Class, Rogers said, is often “perceived as problematic.”
“I think a big part of identity politics was that you could talk about gender or race but not class, and then it became more and more prescriptive where you had to check this or that box.
“Every time you apply for an Arts Council grant, you’re not talking about class, you’re talking about ‘disadvantaged communities’.”
John agreed: “We’ve had a lot of pushback saying ‘don’t talk about classes, it’s irrelevant’, but we want to talk about it.”
“Class is not a protected characteristic under the Equality Act (2010) and that’s the start. It kind of went off the agenda at that point.”
Malcolm said New Writing North’s 2018 project, Common People, was part of a “surge of activity” around the writing class at that time.
“I think we’ve put the class a bit more on the diversity agenda – more than before.”
She said it would be “terrible” to claim the sector lacked the inspiration or aspiration to correct its class divide.
But she was surprised at the difference having a celebrity ambassador – actor Michael Sheen – has made to her latest initiative, A Writing Chance. He received 750 applications for 11 mentorships spanning writing for stage, screen, print and digital publications.
Have working-class writers found a new champion in bestselling author Dorries?
“The irony hasn’t been lost on me,” Malcolm says.