by Nick Evans
NICK EVANS is a Director who works professionally and in Youth Arts.
There is a silent, creeping revolution happening on our stages and film sets in the UK, and its not the kind of revolution that is founded on barricades or on the picket lines of the past. This revolution is finds its roots on the ‘playing fields of Eton’, and in the private schools that swim in its wake; and it’s a revolution that threatens the very DNA of our industry. It’s a direct inversion of the revolution that happened in the 1950’s and 1960’s across the working class communities of the UK, and -followed to its natural conclusion – it may make the acting profession a sparser, shallower place; populated only by those who are lucky enough to born to financial stability and opportunity. One thing is clear, if something is not done, it has the potential to be damaging to the UK Arts industry in ways one cannot yet envisage.
Let me clear one thing up from the offset. My concern for what is taking place is not born from some sense of jealousy, from chip-on-the-shoulder socialism that believes the private schools of the UK should be razed to the ground as hordes of unemployed steelworkers trample the ashes. On the contrary, it would be remiss not to shout from the dreaming spires just how vital schools like Eton and Harrow are to our industry. They have produced genuinely brilliant and exciting actors like Damian Lewis and Eddie Redmayne, both Old Etonians. Benedict Cumberbatch, whose poised Hamlet at the Barbican reminded us of the presence and possibility of this once in a generation actor was a product of Harrow. Add in privately educated actors such as Daniel Radcliffe, Carey Mulligan and Rachel Weisz, and one is reminded that we have a generation of exciting young actors who can carry the nation’s stage and screen industries forward with confidence.
And so they should. How lucky we are as a nation to have such a terrific crop of young performers who are some of the best-regarded on the planet. No argument about diversity in the industry should ever seek to lessen the huge regard for their talents, or to cast aspersions on the route taken to their success. Just be glad they feed our industry, that they headline work that is exciting and internationally renowned, and do so with a craft and professionalism that we should all cherish and aspire to.
But it is time to have an argument. It’s not good enough that nearly 70% of British Oscar winners are privately educated, in a nation where 93% of pupils are in the state school sector. It’s not good enough that only one in ten actors are now from ‘working class backgrounds’. It’s a national disgrace that there is an average pay gap between actors from private school versus state school of £10,000. So an argument needs to happen, and it needs to happen quickly. We need to decide whether we consider the arts to be something that everybody has a right to, or if we are happy to let it become the preserve of the well-to-do.
How different it must have all seemed half a century ago. A baby-boom revolution, inspired by the ideals of equality of Labour’s 1945 landslide administration, and nurtured on the milk of the fledgling NHS, were about to effect a revolution of their own upon the artistic landscape of Britain. In the theatres, and on the big screen, a new wave of kitchen sink drama brought angry young men, and driven young women, to the fore, as Richard Burton, Tom Courtenay, Rita Tushingham, Rachel Roberts, Richard Harris, Michael Caine, Albert Finney and Shirley Anne Field struck a working-class axe into the heart of a previously RP dominated arts world. It was a revolution being echoed across the arts, as Tony Warren changed the face, and sound, of television drama as he brought Elsie Tanner, Ena Sharples and Albert Tatlock into our living rooms, while just to the South four working class Liverpool lads were about to become the biggest music sensation the world had seen, or perhaps have seen since. The birth of television as mass-media, increased prosperity across all classes as the nation stepped away from the war, and the political attitudes of the day all played their part. But underpinning this new wave of talent was a sense that arts education was a right to be enjoyed by all; and indeed that the widening diversity onstage gave our arts industries a vitality and energy that were the envy of the world. Put simply, as comprehensive education arrived, it took the good practice of grammar schools in offering school plays, choirs, recitation, debating societies and school orchestras – and ensured that as many children in the UK as possible had a chance to take part. Many would have tried and decided it was not for them. But something had changed. Going to Eton was surely still a huge advantage in life, but suddenly going to school in Rochdale, Bolton, Glasgow, Port Talbot or Middlesbrough need not be a disadvantage either.
And so the mantle passed to Hoskins and Hopkins and Rickman, and then to Walters and McKellen and Oldman, and then onto David Tennant, and Maxine Peake and Chris Ecclestone. It felt like for three generations, a majority of our most exciting actors had taken a route from ordinary Comprehensive School, to the nation’s major drama schools (free-at-the-point-of-use, of course), and into many of the most exciting films and stage productions in the world. Dared we say it, there was maybe, even, something in the working class nature of these actor’s backgrounds, in the struggles they’d had to forge a career, in the diversity of their accents….well, maybe there was something that made them that bit ‘more’ remarkable.
So how have we got here? Where it seems such an impossibility for ‘ordinary kids’ to consider a place on the stage as a viable career. Well, the simple answer to a complicated question is this; a decade of quasi-ideological attacks on arts education. Of course the introduction of student fees must seem like a huge wall to many families, such that the discussion of university for too many families is now founded on whether ‘we are rich enough’, rather than whether ‘I am talented enough’ (and this is not just in the arts.). But far more significant is the unforgivable shift towards target-setting, league-tables, and attainment-obsessed education in every sector of education, driven down by successive administrations onto the shoulders of too-stressed teachers. The argument goes, if it can’t be immediately quantified, it cannot have worth. And so as school budgets shrink, head-teachers face the choice – divert funds to chase attainment in subjects deemed by those on high to be ‘more worthy’? Or indulge in expensive, and unquantifiable, ‘luxuries’ such as the school play, or the drama teacher.
And so, often regretfully, they cauterise the arts within the school. And a rich artery of potential and possibility for many children in that state-school, is cut away. And for head-teacher making drama staff redundant, also read local authority cutting youth arts opportunities. And quicker than you can cry “We’re all in this together”, literally hundreds of thousands of children lose the chance they might have to unleash a talent or passion for the arts.
So I think the time has come to argue. To stop shying away from a notion that we are in some way being unappreciative of our Redmaynes and Cumberbatches, and shout loudly that we want to find their equivalents in the next generation, but that we also want to find the next Anne- Marie Duff or James McAvoy. So many good organisations, not least our leading drama schools who genuinely try to further equality in their ranks, have a vested interest in this issue, that we need a national convention to put the issue on the table and come up with concrete plans to move forward. Our arts councils, our national theatre companies, our head teachers, our education unions, our leading drama schools need to sit in a room for 72 hours and thrash out solutions to the vacuum left by our short-sighted government. Because with every term that passes, the next Adrian Lester or Michael Sheen may be slipping through our fingers.
What should be on the table? Well obviously the creation of a vocal and angry campaign to try and put arts back into core education policies, and to embarrass any government that fails to do so. The creation of a national feeder system of regional youth theatres under the auspices of the national theatre companies and drama schools. And a team of ‘national theatre specialists’ to work as peripatetic staff with individual schools across the nation to inject drama specialism to schools without drama specialists (part-funded by tax breaks to actors, match funded by government).
All of which would be a drop in the ocean – but as a formulated, joined-up approach to practical theatre education for those who need it most (and perhaps bringing National Youth Theatre Companies under its umbrella) it would at the very least ensure an emergency Elastoplast to a very immediate injury.
Because in ten years I do want to see the next Eddie Redmayne at the Oscars. But I equally want to see the next Robert Carlyle nominated alongside him.