Christopher Eccleston: Conservative policies will be the end of working class actors like me

Christopher Eccleston in The Leftovers.
Christopher Eccleston in The Leftovers.
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He is one of Britain’s most successful actors, so why does Christopher Eccleston think the working classes are being excluded from the arts? He talks to Finlay Greig.

Christopher Eccleston has always been known as straight-talking. It’s why when he says that he is part of a disappearing breed of working class actors you know that he’s not just after easy headlines.

“People like myself, Sean Bean, Maxine Peake – there’s not going to be people like us coming through in 20 years,” says the Salford-born 53 year old, who has just starred in the third and final season of HBO’s The Leftovers.

“The situation is not improving. It’s getting worse and worse. All areas of the arts are becoming ivory towers. It’s always been a policy of the Conservative government to destroy working class identity. Due to student debt, we are being excluded. You can’t get into drama school if you’re from a council estate. You can’t afford it. If you prevent them from having a cultural voice which is what’s happening, they achieve that.”

It’s not the only thorny issue on which Eccleston has much to say. In the Leftovers, which opened three years after 140m - two per cent of the global population - had done a mass disappearing act, he played Matt Jamison, a former reverend struggling to understand why he wasn’t taken. Each episode brings a tidal wave of existential crisis. However, Eccleston says that questions raised by the show weren’t new for him.

“These are questions I’ve been carrying around with me for life,” he says, adding the hyper-religious Jamison is quite the opposite to him. In fact Eccleston, who describes himself as “peace loving atheist”, doesn’t appear to have much truck with organised religion, adding: “We’ve had an industrial revolution, we’ve had a digital revolution, now we need a spiritual revolution.”

While in the flesh, his northern accent is very much intact, of late he has been forging a career on the other side of the Atlantic and thanks to his latest role, there are many who think he is a New York native.

“The only criticism of my accent has come from British viewers. Nobody’s picked me up on it in America, but in Britain people are going to pick me up on it because I’m part of the furniture over here, you just can’t please everybody. The point for me was to please the American producers and the casting producers and I can tell you for a fact that has worked because I’m receiving work offers over there.”

Whatever, he thinks about the current political situation he hasn’t done bad as a working class actor and over the last 20-odd decades has notched up some notable roles. There was Shallow Grave and Our Friends in the North in the early 90s, 28 Days Later in 2002 and a few years after that he landed perhaps the most sought after job on television, playing Doctor Who.

“It was different for me in the Eighties and look what I’ve achieved,” he says. “Look what Sean Bean’s achieved. Look what Maxine Peake’s achieved. “But there’s not going to be the numbers in 20 years, and it’s the same for people of colour who come from that background. We’re moving towards a white culture, but we live in a multi-cultural society.”

Eccleston is talking not long after Jeremy Corbyn’s vow that he would wipe out student debt if Labour came to power. While he hasn’t yet had to make good on the promise it was a popular manifesto pledge and one which was at least in part responsible for the huge youth vote that followed Corbyn to the ballot box at last month’s General Election.

“I have my problems with Corbyn, but the idea that you have to pay for your education?,” adds Eccleston. “It didn’t happen to me. It’s a policy to exclude the working classes educating themselves, and realising the corruption that goes right up to the top of the Conservative Party.”