Jayne Dowle: Blunt truth about a class stranglehold on the arts

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Trust Julie Walters to hit the nail straight on the head. The Educating Rita star says that acting will soon become the preserve of “posh” people because ordinary families simply won’t be able to afford to send their children to drama school.

Don’t assume that this is the cri de coeur of a frustrated luvvie who can’t get any work. It’s the opinion of a 62-year-old, multi-award winning and much-admired actress who happened to come into the profession at a time when governments truly believed in supporting culture in the widest sense.

I can speak with a certain amount of understanding here. My daughter, who is nine, has attended dancing and singing classes since she was three. Through Lizzie’s circle of friends I’ve come to know a lot of those ordinary families desperately trying to realise their children’s ambitions, for the simple reason that they love them and want them to succeed. Do you have any idea of the cost of lessons, special coaching, costumes, instruments and examinations though? The expense of petrol and train fares to transport youngsters to classes and auditions and performances?

And this is before they even start with formal education at a theatre school which can cost tens of thousands of pounds in fees every year. I won’t bore you with details, but special financial circumstances often apply. Post-18 theatre school is not like “normal” university. In many cases, students are not eligible to draw down funding from a student loan. This means enormous fees have to be found up-front. I know parents who have remortgaged houses. Grandparents who have cashed in pension funds early, leaving themselves nothing to live on in retirement.

Talk about sacrifice. But for countless families the option of their child ever becoming a professional performer is simply not on the programme. There is no money, full stop. We criticise shows like The X-Factor and Britain’s Got Talent for making the route to the top seem easy. What we forget though, is that for thousands of young people with a burning desire to perform, this is the only route even remotely open to them.

That’s why Julie Walters is right. And so is Labour MP Chris Bryant. He’s got himself into a war of words with singer James Blunt (Harrow, Bristol) after the shadow arts minister said that the British entertainment industry is becoming dangerously dominated by “posh boys” such as Oscar-nominated Eddie Redmayne (Eton, Cambridge) and Benedict Cumberbatch (Harrow, London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art).

In retaliation, Blunt, best known for his hit You’re Beautiful, has accused the MP for Rhondda of being a “classist gimp”. You might expect a more elegant turn of phrase from one so expensively educated, but we’ll let that pass.

Blunt argues that although he went to public school, no one helped him start out in his career. He points out that he signed a record deal in America, where they don’t worry about a little thing like class. He puts up a good defence, but from his comfortable position he misses the point. It’s about the money, for sure. However, it’s also about the confidence, the self-belief, the wherewithal to actually get on a plane and fly to America to sign that deal. And whatever way you look at it, a privileged background has to help. It gives a person a sense of entitlement, if nothing else.

I recognise that it is not the job of government to financially fulfil every dream. And the hopes of would-be actors, singers and musicians have to come somewhere near the bottom of budget priorities. However, what I would like to see is at least a recognition that our entertainment industry is a special case. It deserves support. It deserves imaginative solutions as to how to fund the next generation of performers, from more grants for youth theatres to bursaries for those taking it seriously as young adults.

Do we want to become known for producing actors who can only do one thing – stiff upper lip?

We are extremely lucky in Barnsley, because we have a thriving youth theatre at the Lamproom Theatre. It is supported by tireless fundraising, grant applications and the determination of the board to provide ongoing opportunities to bring out the best in every child. It costs £5 to join, and then costs are kept to an absolute minimum. Lizzie has already taken part in a production of Alice in Wonderland and is gearing up for the summer performance of Wind in the Willows.

The Lamproom provides local children with a chance that they otherwise wouldn’t get. And it works, because it has given stars such as former Coronation Street actress Katherine Kelly their first break. The question is though, what happens now? When the most talented of the children Lizzie sings and dances with decide they want to perform for a living, where will the money come from?

John Lennon once sang that “a working class hero is something to be”. The way things are going, our next generation of working class heroes won’t even be able to afford a guitar.