From the Observer 13 September 2014
Decades back, when the young Judi Dench starred as Juliet, her mother and father joined the cast. In Act 3 Juliet learns that Romeo has killed her cousin, and cries: “Where is my father, and my mother?”
“Here we are, darling,” shouted her parents from the stalls, “in row H!”
You cannot imagine the parents of today’s stars being so gauche. They come from a world that is closer to David Cameron’s Bullingdon Club than Dench’s Quaker roots in Yorkshire.
The forthcoming Riot Club – which bears the subtitle “Filthy. Rich. Spoilt. Rotten” – is meant to satirise David Cameron, George Osborne and Boris Johnson’s days at the Buller. Unintentionally it will also satirise itself. To put it as kindly as I can, the producers did not have to search far to find actors who could give a convincing impersonation of inherited privilege. Max Irons – son of Jeremy, since you asked – plays one of the sleek young beasts. Freddie Fox, son of Edward, another. The only difference between them and the current leadership of the Tory party is that they went into acting rather than politics. If there is a danger of reading too much into their slipping into their fathers’ shoes, there is also a danger of reading too little. The careers of Edward and James Fox show there have always been upper-class actors, and I would not have it any other way. It’s just that with Damian Lewis, Benedict Cumberbatch, Eddie Redmayne and Dominic West, there are so many of them. In arts that boast that they “celebrate diversity” everyone looks the same.
Dame Judi tells the Observer today aspiring actors beg her for money to help fund their training. She worries that acting may become an elite occupation for the children of the rich, because no one else will be able to meet the costs and take the risks. Ben Stephenson, the BBC’s head of drama, said much the same at the Edinburgh festival but did not add that television is a racket, too. You cannot get a job in broadcasting unless you are prepared to work as an intern. In most cases, you cannot work as an intern unless you have family money to feed and house you.
But then who am I to criticise Stephenson when journalism is as much of a rich kids’ game? Lindsey Macmillan of the Institute of Education found that journalists used to come from families 6% better off than average, whereas now they come from homes that are 42% richer. Indeed, British journalists, the supposed tribunes of the people, now hail from wealthier backgrounds than, er, bankers, an awkward fact that ought to cause embarrassment all round. I look at my younger self today and wonder if he could become a journalist on a serious newspaper. My parents were teachers. They were comfortably off by the standards of 1980s Manchester, but they could never have afforded to rent me rooms in London and cover my expenses while I went from internship to internship. They had to look after my sisters as much as anything else.
The hypocrisies of British culture are enough to drive the sane paranoid, but it is not quite the class conspiracy it seems. To be sure, it is suffocating, narrow and on the edge of a descent into a mediocre mush. But not a conspiracy for all that. Working-class actors or musicians cannot live on the dole now while they struggle to break through. The sanctions from the jobcentres whip them into line. If you want to know why British pop has lost its rough energy, you should blame the Department for Work and Pensions, not a plot by the record label executives. In any case, tens of thousands of young people want to work in the arts, television, music and journalism. Why shouldn’t their potential employers, often short of money themselves, take advantage of the laws of supply and demand?
Those who receive public money have no right to do so. Working- and lower-middle-class citizens should not have to fund through their taxes and the lottery arts organisations that deny opportunities to their children. One of the most admirable men I know is Martin Bright, who threw in a career in journalism to found the Creative Society, which gives working-class teenagers the same opportunities in the arts that their middle- and upper-class contemporaries receive. Diversity creates uniformity, he says, because it ignores class. As a result, projects for women or the ethnic minorities are colonised by the middle class. The only positive discrimination that works is for arts organisations to go into jobcentres and find talented young people on the dole who deserve a break, and too few want to try it.
What applies to artists applies to the audience. The National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts has told recipients of public money that they should at least think of putting Royal Opera House shows, for example, or National Theatre productions on the web once their runs are over. The overwhelming majority of people who cannot get to London, and could not afford tickets if they did, would then see the work their taxes helped pay for. It does no good. The notion that publicly funded art must be publicly available does not occur to today’s generation of cultural bureaucrats.
Expanding the range of British culture is not just an act of social justice, however. When the arts restrict their gene pool, they restrict their talent pool, too. No Premier League football club would give contracts only to children with private incomes and expect to remain in the premier league. The arts, broadcasting, serious journalism and publishing are coming dangerously close to doing just that, and its class-based culture is becoming a second-rate culture. British television drama could once boast that it was “the best in the world”. Now the best comes from America and Scandinavia. When Macmillan and her colleagues at the Institute of Education compared IQs, they found today’s younger cohort of professionals was, on average, slightly dimmer than the previous, poorer generation.
In writing this piece, I do not mean to disparage the young, privately educated journalists I see around me, the sprigs of the Fox and Irons families, the commissioning editors of the BBC and the staff of the National Theatre and Royal Opera House. They are all nice people. But there’s the rub. They are too fucking nice for Britain’s good. Their niceness is a noose that is strangling our ability to talk to ourselves and to the world.