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Tracy Brabin: Passion must always come before privilege if theatre is to survive

James Corden c DFree Shutterstock Actor James Corden has claimed his career is not as highly valued as that of Benedict Cumberbatch or Tom Hiddleston due to his working class background. Photo: DFree/Shutterstock
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At the recent BAFTA awards, actors and film-makers from Britain and across the world were celebrated for their outstanding work.

But behind the glitz and glamour a pattern of winners emerges. Research by the Sutton Trust has shown that 42% of British BAFTA winners went to a private school compared with 25% from comprehensive schools. Across acting more broadly, the picture’s even worse. Research from the London School of Economics and the University of Edinburgh based on the Office for National Statistics’ Labour Force Survey found that 51% of actors were from privileged backgrounds, while 16% were working-class. This compares with 33% of the nation from working-class backgrounds and 29% from affluent backgrounds.

A growing chorus of actors, writers, campaigners and industry figures from Steve Coogan to Andrew Lloyd Webber have raised the alarm about the lack of access and diversity.

Barriers to entry and success range from poor drama provision in schools and the cost of supporting yourself at drama school without parental help, to the precarious job market and demands for RP accents in casting calls.

Audiences as well as actors bear the brunt of this diversity crisis, with shows depicting less varied lives, played by actors from an increasingly narrow set of backgrounds. Little diversity on screen and stage in turn leads to a lack of inspiration for kids – as the actor Julie Hesmondhalgh says: “If you don’t see it, you can’t be it.”

The unfairness of this class ceiling that puts privilege before passion and promise is the reason Labour shadow culture secretary Tom Watson has asked me and Gloria De Piero to lead an inquiry into the problem.

Acting Up – Breaking the Class Ceiling in the Performing Arts will look at the whole length of the ‘leaky pipeline’, identifying when working-class people disappear, and aiming to develop policy recommendations to plug the gaps.

Part of the battle is quantifying the problem – these BAFTA and Labour Force figures are few and far between. A new scheme, Project Diamond, has begun detailed monitoring of diversity on TV and will lay bare the reality in a way never achieved before when the first results appear in August. We need a comparable project for theatre.

We’ll also be looking at backstage and offscreen roles: is a lack of working-class writers causing a dearth of working-class roles? Are privileged casting directors casting a small social set for the biggest roles? Do commissioning editors from middle-class backgrounds commission dramas about privileged people played by privileged actors?

UK performing arts are a jewel in our creative crown, but they’re tarnished by inaccessibility and exclusivity. This inquiry aims to identify barriers to entry and find ways to knock them down. If we don’t we’ll all be the poorer for it.

For more information about how you can contribute, visit tom-watson.com/actingup

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