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A Privileged Position?

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Next Sunday there will be a big toff-shaped gap in the television schedules – ‘Downton Abbey’ has come to an end. But all those upper-class types released back into the wild should have no problem finding their next gig. It seems there is a healthy appetite at the moment for posh actors playing posh characters in posh stories.

There has been a lot of debate about whether this means that acting itself has become – well, posher too. Ben Stephenson, the BBC’s Controller of Drama Commissioning, noted that ‘acting has become a very middle-class profession’, and Sir Peter Bazalgette, chairman of Arts Council England, says that public school-educated actors are ‘out of all proportion’ to those from less privileged backgrounds.

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On the other hand, Edward Kemp, Principal of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, disputes this, pointing out in The Independent recently that ’36 per cent of last year’s intake of students at RADA came from families earning less than £25,000.’ He makes the claim that ‘there is absolutely no evidence that people from poor backgrounds aren’t coming to drama school.’ This is despite RADA charging fees at the upper limit, i.e. £9,000 a year. Mr Kemp also notes that his school is receiving more applications from ‘working-class’ students than at the start of the century.

To this I say: Fine – students from varied backgrounds may somehow find the money to pay their way through three years at drama school, but what happens next? I would be surprised, to put it mildly, if those students from low-earning families were able to cope on an actor’s salary.

Obviously actors need to be supported when they start out, and many colleges offer generous bursaries to help less well-off students, but the real problems can begin when those students are thrust out into a harsh profession. I would suggest that this is when actors really need help.

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It is increasingly expensive to embark on a career in the theatre. Many drama schools are based in London, the most expensive city in the UK, and we are told that we must stay here once we graduate in order to develop our careers. But the reality of attempting to survive on an actor’s wage can be absolutely prohibitive to many people contemplating a life in the theatre. I graduated from LAMDA in 1998, in a class of 29 people. Sixteen years later, probably less than a third of us are still pursuing acting in earnest. This is no great surprise; I’m sure the story is the same with every graduating year from every drama school. And things weren’t so pricey in my day, sonny.

The average monthly rent (note I don’t say mortgage repayment) for a one-bed flat in London is £1211 (January 20114 figures), whereas, according to the most recent Equity survey from December 2013, more than 56 per cent of its members earned less than £10,000 a year. This is officially classed as below the poverty line. Once you factor in utility bills, council tax, food, travel – it isn’t very surprising that many actors are forced to give up after just a few years. Faced with these obstacles, acting can start to look like an expensive hobby.

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So who can afford to act? While I’m sure there are some actors lucky enough to go from job to job, peppering meaty stage roles with a bit of lucrative film and TV work, and paying their way from acting alone, I would respectfully suggest that this is not the norm. Most actors have gaps between roles which have to be filled with ‘day jobs’, and unfortunately the temptation to start relying on those jobs and say goodbye to acting can be all too powerful, especially if you want to start a family, save to buy a house, or just go on holiday once in a while – you know, normal stuff.

Some might say this is theatrical Darwinism at work, and that those who choose to step aside don’t have the necessary resilience, commitment or, dare I say, talent to succeed. But I’m not sure this is the whole truth. Far too many seriously talented people are lost to the profession because they simply can’t afford to support themselves.

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In recent years, however, I have noticed that many of the younger actors I have worked with seem not to be struggling that much. Indeed many own flats and cars. These are actors in their early twenties who can afford to buy property in London and, at the same time, are somehow able to take low-paid jobs in one of the lowest paid professions there is. And afford to buy lunch every day from Pret or Whole Foods – if I’m working in the theatre I survive on a packed lunch of a ham sandwich, a yoghurt and – my one concession to fine dining – one of those lovely Bonne Maman madeleines. Well, it can’t all be self-denial, can it?

On one recent theatre job I was thrilled to find that I could walk to work (40 minutes each way) thus saving myself nearly £30 a week in bus fares. But I still struggled to find any spare cash after paying the rent and bills. I have generally attempted to be pure in my approach to acting, never signing on the dotted line for a permanent ‘proper’ job, always ready to drop any other work as soon as acting comes up, always ready to say yes to anything, even in the face of red bills and a burgeoning overdraft. The result of this is that whenever I get an acting job, the over-riding emotion I often feel is not joy, but relief, much like the drowning man who manages at last to haul himself onto the life raft. But I wonder if it’s different for those Pret-munching young actors. Many of them are privately-educated and come from well-off middle-class backgrounds, so just don’t feel the same petty money worries.

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Now this is not a class war; I am not saying that working-class actors are better than upper-class ones. John Gielgud is my hero, and you couldn’t get posher than him. And anyway, I sit squarely in the very middle of the middle-class. No, this is about money, as it always is. It’s a simple fact that those who are able to afford an actor’s life are the ones whose careers will last longest. This could be because they work a lot, or perhaps they just don’t mind sacrificing everything else for their art. But more and more these days, it seems to be because they either have money already, or they are subsidised by their families. Lucky for them, but not so lucky for an art form that is meant to be about representing all facets of society.

Of course, the acting profession has never had enough work to sustain the number of people who want to be part of it; it’s always a minority of each graduating year that is able to maintain a career for life. But now that we have a higher number of drama graduates joining the profession than ever before, it does beg the question – do drama schools and the wider industry bear some greater responsibility to the acting community? Shouldn’t there be a more established mid-career support structure in place?

Of course we mustn’t go blindly into the profession, expecting money and fame to be drawn to us by the inexorable magnetic tractor beam of our talent. Just to be able to act for a living, even some of the time, is a privilege in itself. But after three years of very expensive training it sometimes seems as though the business is happy to leave us to the vagaries of fate. There is often so much clamour to identify the hot young talents, to be known as the school that produced the big new stars or the casting director that discovered them, that if you are an actor who doesn’t fit into that category, as most of us don’t, you are left to fend for yourself.

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Actors are the lifeblood of the entertainment industry. Surely those parts of the business which feed off that blood supply should feel obligated to do what they can to keep it flowing.

 

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In Defence Of Actors

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Actors are, as a breed, some of the most socially able, intelligent and inquisitive people you could hope to meet. They are engaged with the world, highly dedicated to their work and constantly testing themselves. Acting is a risky and expensive career choice that requires determination, persistence and a good deal of courage in many areas.

But there is an intriguing dichotomy at work in the way actors are viewed. On one side, those who become famous and rich are idolised, endlessly scrutinised and obsessed over. On the other, the vast majority of the profession who are attempting to maintain a career are often pitied, patronised, or simply disregarded.

But do actors need defending? If so, from whom?

I believe that actors frequently suffer from damaging attitudes both outside and inside the profession. I think that many people view acting with a mixture of amusement and disdain – often underscored with the belief that it is not a serious job. In fact, of course, it is a very serious job, and what’s more, a precarious one with a high probability of failure – very high levels of unemployment and drop-out, and very poor pay. In my opinion, however, it is also a noble and entirely essential profession.

‘Luvvy! Darling! Sweetie!’

So why are actors denigrated? The stereotypical negative attitudes to the profession can be summed up by that dread word: ‘luvvies’. Can there be a more patronising, dismissive term? It implies a sort of emotional incontinence; an indiscriminate spray of superficial sentimental self-indulgence, coupled with a good squirt of self-absorption – they call each other ‘luvvie’ and ‘darling’ because they’re so wrapped up in themselves they can’t even remember anyone’s name.

Actors are often treated like children, as unintellectual and over-emotional, people who don’t really work for a living but just play all day, pretending to be trees and animals and sleeping in until lunchtime. Many times I have told people what I do for a job, and have been met with the amused response, ‘Oh, you’re an ac-TORRR!’ There is a clear element of envy underlying these attitudes. People often say to me ‘you’re so lucky to be doing a job that you love,’ which is certainly true, although it is assumed along with this that, because we have job satisfaction, we don’t really need those things that the rest of society considers essential, such as mortgages, holidays, cars, money and so on.

I think that this attitude is surprisingly pervasive, to the extent that it begins to erode an actor’s self-respect. Even within the industry, we often suffer from discrimation. Actors are easily dismissed for a number of reasons, the principal one being that there are just so many of us and we all want jobs. So we become irritants – the small fly that buzzes around your face. The industry Gatekeepers – directors and casting directors, even our own agents – must dread phone calls from actors, because after the small talk there will always come The Question: ‘Is there anything happening at the moment?’ Here’s a fun game – find the casting director at a first-night party and watch the look of panic in their eyes as you approach. Inevitably they build walls around themselves to hold back the relentless onslaught of desperation.

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The result of all this is that people lose respect for actors. It makes perfect sense, really – when someone seems completely needy and vulnerable it’s hard to respect them. The consequence of this is that we can start to lose respect for ourselves. So an actor’s journey through their career becomes about trying to navigate a way through these hazards – trying to maintain a career while constantly questioning our worth and our choices, and feeling reluctant to approach the ‘gatekeepers’ because we know how unwanted our advances will be. The ultimate result is that many truly talented actors decide that the rewards are no longer worth the effort and step away from the profession.

Now, some actors are ridiculous. Of course they are. They take themselves far too seriously and seem to view the fact of their raised public profile as an invitation to make pronouncements on subjects which they are entirely unqualified to comment on. People are quite rightly scornful of this sort of person. But fundamentally, actors are essential. Most people might not visit the theatre regularly, but nearly everyone watches EastEnders, or Downton Abbey, or listens to The Archers. Millions watch the Harry Potter films, spend hours playing Grand Theft Auto or sitting in front of CBeebies with their children. None of these things could exist without actors. We have always needed stories, in the same way we need music – to help us escape from ourselves for a while, or to help us cope with life – and in order for these stories to be told, we must have storytellers.