Should actors have the same characteristics as their dramatis personae?

The real issue is the lack of variety in the actors to choose from. Specifically, there is an ongoing scarcity of actors from humbler social stock.

Loved By Many: Open To A Few

Earlier this year, Emma Corrin from Netflix’s ‘The Crown’ and Lady Chatterly’s Lover, whose schooling cost £36,000-a-year, stated their ambition to ‘do a ‘gritty’ independent film in Scotland with an ‘outrageous accent’ and red hair.

The controversial statement opened a can of multiplying worms that has been lingering under the stage for some time and gone septic.

Corrin was accused of ‘appropriation’  and ‘indulging’ in unknown hardships far removed from her own background and lifestyle. Hanna actress Jessica Barden, a rare ‘working-class star,’ attributed Corrin’s statement to ‘working-class tourism’ that is somehow still ‘OK for posh actors’.

For all its defects, the row highlighted an important asymmetry within the acting profession. Namely, that an actor from a working-class background will be ‘limited’ in the roles offered, while those of more comfortable means have their pick of the bunch.

It stands to reason. There is a large bulk of actors and actresses whose on-screen persona is far more working-class than their actual selves. Pam St. Clement as EastEnders’ Pat Butcher, Wilfred Brambell as the eponymous dad in Steptoe and Son and Sue Holderness and John Challis — aka Marlene and Boycie from Only Fools and Horses — are just a few examples.

Nothing odd here, you might argue. After all, that’s what acting is: pretending to be someone you’re not and doing it convincingly. However, we seldom see the reverse: posher characters being played by working-class actors. At best, Kathy Burke surprised audiences when her voice did not change from her Linda La Hughes character.

The reason for the imbalance is an economic one. There is an abundant supply of middle-to-working-class actors and a meagre supply of working-class ones. Research confirms this with only one in 10 actors said to come from a working-class background. Further reports show that an overwhelming 73 per cent of existing British actors are firmly middle class.

The numbers reveal a scarce pool of working-class actors to choose from. This also means slim chances of finding suitable actors below the middle-class mark who can fill working-class roles. This glaring paradox of the Arts — open to few, loved by the many — is so predominant that it motivated ‘Game of Thrones’ actress Maisie Williams, to design an app to make the threshold of the creative industry easier to cross.

 A Closed Shop

The app and measures like it, such as Open Door, are much-needed adjustments to even out the acting field that has become ‘colonised by the posh’ and in which the only working-class accent allowed is a fake one. Not only do parts lending themselves to working-class actors get snapped up by well-to-do counterparts, but middle-class actors have also been known to pass themselves off as poorer to improve their public persona. Perhaps this is unsurprising given that these people pretend on a professional level, but the result is a kind of acting totalis that works against the idea of equal opportunities and keeps method acting out of social realism. And so, rather than working-class actors drawing on their experiences and immersing themselves into a role by evocating what they’ve encountered, we see those divorced from the storylines indulging with morbid curiosity in working-class struggles while living in a bubble. This somewhat explains the indignation of working-class actors like Jessica Barden: the very real struggles they grew up with are romanticised, fetishized and ultimately trivialised by those never affected by them. A working-class accent has become a means to aid public relations. Anyone who actually speaks with one naturally does not get very far.

Barden’s complaint of a ‘working-class tourism [that is] still OK for posh actors’ is applicable both on and off-screen. It has trickled into every nook and cranny of the industry becoming acting’s wider ‘posh problem.’ This culture, dubbed ‘dominance of rich-kid actors’ by working-class James McAvoy, explains the treatment of EastEnders actress, Katie Jarvis. Jarvis was job-shamed in 2019 for working as a security guard while ‘resting’ — an experience she described as degrading. And yet, ridiculing an actor for making ends meet between jobs simply reflects the industry’s reasoning that: ‘if you can imagine yourself doing anything else with your life, you won’t make it as an actor.’ This is the drama equivalent of Marie Antoinette’s ‘Let Them Eat Cake.’

Bring Back the Drama

Increasing the number of working-class actors will go some way towards reducing that uncomfortable feeling that better-off actors romanticise and fetishize the proletariat’s predicament while occupying roles they could thrive in. In truth, we are far away from having an inclusive acting scene in which actors of all backgrounds can get a taste of each other’s life through the medium of drama. This problem is far more deep-seated than the £34 audition fee for RADA.

Drama is a subject that has been disappearing from state schools and going the same way as Classics by largely becoming a preserve of private education. Research by Ipsos Mori indicates that ‘of the 27% of [state-funded] schools that report withdrawal of courses, the most commonly withdrawn subjects are drama and performing arts.’

Studying Drama is an expensive endeavour that keeps many talented people disenfranchised from gaining the necessary training. Even amateur dramatics is not cheap. Just go online and you’ll see it’s not uncommon for groups to charge £90, £70 or even £180 for a term’s membership. This is to cover the fees for the hall hire, royalty fees, recording license, musical director, rehearsal tracks, production fee … the list goes on. And that’s excluding any singing or drama training fees you may pursue alongside.

Drama is supposed to be a lens on life. And yet, it’s primarily accessible to those who experience an extremely comfortable version of it. Whichever way you cut it, acting is not a level playing stage. Jessica Barden’s point stands.

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