Albert Finney’s death is a huge loss to stage and screen, but it has also served as a lightning rod for wider conversations around class in Britain today.
Born in Salford, the son of a bookmaker, Finney described his upbringing as “lower middle class”, but in obituaries he has invariably been referred to as a “gritty working-class actor” or “working-class hero”.
Certainly, from relatively humble beginnings, he went on to grammar school then RADA, before a stage career at major institutions such as the National Theatre. On screen, he became a four-time Oscar-nominated film star.
Writing in online magazine Spiked, Brendan O’Neill argues Finney’s death is “about more than the passing of a great actor and celluloid icon”.
He adds: “Finney’s death has struck a chord because the promise he so brilliantly represented – the promise of egalitarianism, the promise of talent, the promise of people from the lower classes using their swagger and skill to take their place alongside anyone from the silver-spoon set – has faded. And faded badly.”
If it prompts soul-searching about social mobility in 21st-century Britain, should Finney’s death also raise questions for the arts?
Would a young person from Finney’s background have the opportunity to appear in 15 plays at their state school? Would the teacher at that school have the knowledge and confidence to recommend that this young performer apply to RADA? Would they – in the absence of a grant system – be willing to take on the risk of significant student debt? Would that student be spotted by a national reviewer at drama school and then, on graduation, be able to enter a rep system that would give them the opportunity to play Hamlet, Henry V and Macbeth in a couple of years? And would there then be a high-profile working-class role for them to make their screen breakthrough?
This final point is key. Finney is identified as a working-class hero – and became a role model for performers from similar backgrounds – because he made his name in the role of Arthur Seaton in Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. Finney went on to embody a range of characters brilliantly, but the one for which he is iconic allowed him to play someone of a similar background, with a similar voice.
It’s a reminder that – while it’s crucial we focus on finding and supporting the next generation of Finneys – we should be just as concerned with unearthing and nurturing today’s Sillitoes.
Alistair Smith is the editor of The Stage. Read his latest column every Thursday at thestage.co.uk/author/alistair-smith