Tag Archives: posh

Fox Hunting

a theatrical fox

The poor fox has always been a beleaguered beast, chased from pillar to post and constantly living under threat of being torn to shreds. And without wishing to add to the misery of this handsome creature, there are a pair of foxes that I, too, feel tempted to hound.

The foxes in question come from a familiar theatrical skulk (collective noun, don’t you know) – namely father and son actors, James and Jack Fox. These two have lately been roaming the English countryside in a play called ‘Dear Lupin’. The imminent opening of the show in the West End has occasioned an interview with the Daily Telegraph, during the course of which the rather weary topic of ‘posh’ v. ‘common’ actors was raised. Now, this is something I have written about before, but at the risk of going over old ground, I think it’s worth another look.

james and jack fox in dear lupin photo by Manuel Harlan

When it was put to them that there are too many ‘posh’ actors about these days, the Foxes barked, almost in unison:

‘‘Complete balls!’ James exclaims. ‘Balls!’ his son echoes.’

Is the resurgence of ‘posh’ actors really, as James Fox suggests, just the pendulum inevitably swinging back the other way – from working class types like ‘Albie’ Finney (and dear Mickey Caine) back towards young toffs such as Eddie Redmayne and Jack Fox himself? I rather think it’s less a question of shifting tastes and fashions, and more about the ‘posh’ kids being the ones who can afford the lifestyle of an actor. It’s all very well to quote Lillian Gish, as Jack does, and suggest that all you really need is ‘taste, talent and tenacity’; these days, having an enduring acting career is more about being able to afford to support yourself while you try to find work – and once you do find it, to supplement the usually pitiful actor’s salary.

lillian gish by edward steichen

I have no desire to cast aspersions on Jack Fox’s acting ability – indeed, I haven’t seen him act. But he doesn’t seem to have been too busy thus far – certainly not as busy as his father

James Fox, actor. By David Levene 28/2/2008

or his brother Laurence

Laurence-Fox

or cousins Emilia

emilia fox

and Freddie

freddie fox

and definitely not as busy as uncle Edward

Daily Mail - FEATURES

He has had some work on TV and short films, although his only stage acting work to date has been ‘Dorian Gray’ at the Riverside Studios, not a high-paying venue. Often by this point, an actor might be staring at his dwindling bank balance and asking himself if the writing was on the wall. But I wonder if money worries are such an issue in the Fox household. Perhaps sensibly, Jack Fox lives with his parents – mother Mary and father-and-fellow-cast-member James – at their home in Wimbledon.

But regardless of all this, I think Foxes Senior and Junior are barking up the wrong tree anyway. The ‘posh’ issue is quite a separate thing from the ‘Fox’ issue…

The Foxes live in an alternative reality to that experienced by all other actors, with the possible exception of a Redgrave or two. On the cruise liner of the acting world, they have a standing invitation to the Captain’s cocktail party, while the rest of us queue up at the buffet. In Jack Fox’s case, it really isn’t a question of being ‘posh’, it’s about being a member of a showbiz club far more exclusive than the Groucho or Soho House. When asked about getting the part in ‘Dear Lupin’ alongside his father, Jack employs the traditional cry of the cornered Second-Generation actor: “I had to read for the part like everyone else,” forgetting that for ‘everyone else’, just landing the audition in the first place is as hard as getting the job.

Of course, the Foxes have an inevitably skewed take on the acting profession. In order to have a true insight into what it’s really like out there, perhaps young Jack should have changed his name, refused all financial help from his parents, moved out of the family home and gone it alone. Then his career really might be about taste, talent and tenacity. All right: luck, talent and tenacity. But even then, tenacity is only any good if you can afford to feed, clothe and house yourself while you hang on, waiting to be lucky enough for someone to recognise your talent. So if you really want to succeed in the acting world, perhaps the best answer is a simple one – change your last name to ‘Fox’.

fox escapes

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EXODUS! Movement of the thespians… (or Why Actors Should Leave London)

exodus!

London. Wonderful place, greatest city on Earth. When you’re tired of it, etcetera etcetera.

I grew up a half-hour train journey outside London, and spent all of my youth dreaming of the day I could finally leave the provinces behind and arrive in the Big Smoke to make my fortune. My school made frequent trips to the National Theatre and to see the RSC at the Barbican, and my dreams were filled with thoughts of moving to London to study at drama school.

LAMDA at tower house

Happily enough, this came to pass – the Three-Year Acting course at LAMDA, from 1995 to 1998. A wonderful, inspiring time, surrounded by amazing actors who became amazing friends, spending our days immersed in the one thing we all wanted desperately to do. We used to rehearse in Chiswick, so naturally I rented a flat there – or, to be specific, a knackered bedsit. In fact, most of us ended up renting flats or rooms in West London as we trained. It seemed sensible enough – in those days, LAMDA was based in Earls Court and there was no sense in straying too far. Gradually though, as we left training and money started to be more of an issue, people started to flee to the less-expensive parts, or leave London altogether – although this often seemed to coincide with them also leaving the profession.

And there’s the rub. It has always been an accepted fact of the industry that if you want to be a working actor, you have to live in London. After all, that’s where the work is, isn’t it? All the top drama schools are there, all the best agents; it’s where all the important auditions are held, and where you’ll find the headshot photographers, the show reel and voice reel studios, Equity, Spotlight, the Actor’s Centre – Theatreland itself. How can you even contemplate being an actor if you don’t live in London?

But let’s look at some rather scary figures. According to an Equity survey from 2013 quoted in the Daily Telegraph, 56% of its members earned less than £10,000 in 2012/13. Anything less than £13,000 a year is deemed to be below the poverty line. To rent a flat in London (let’s not even bother talking about buying a house in the capital) you will be paying an average of £1,160 per month (September 2014 figures).

For many of us, something has to give, and that something is usually acting. After a few years of trying to establish yourself, the financial burden becomes too great, so you pack up and leave London, knowing that probably means leaving the profession too. It’s hard to justify persevering with such a precarious career when you see your bank balance emptying, especially as the years go by, and you become conscious that this might be your last chance to make a career change. Hard too if you have a family, or want one.

Priyanga Burford 2 by Michael Shelford

I spoke to actress Priyanga Burford recently about this: ‘I think it’s a ridiculous demand to make of people to be living in one of the most expensive cities in the world on the off-chance that they might get some work,’ she told me. Pri and her husband Tom have two children, and made the decision to leave the capital: ‘We couldn’t afford anywhere in London that was big enough or nice enough to have the family life that we really wanted. You just have to make tough choices.’

Paul Miller Photo Mark Douet

Paul Miller, artistic director of the Orange Tree theatre in Richmond, told me: ‘I think there is a lot of burn off. You can see that in the proportion of people who are in Spotlight of a certain age. The people who get burned off are the people who can’t afford to pay rent in London.’

The Stage recently quoted Justine Simons, head of culture for the Greater London Authority on this issue: “London is now the biggest it’s been… and that has put a real pressure on housing. We all know how expensive it is. It means we are facing a crisis… which is compounded by low wages.”
She added: “We don’t want a city where there are no artists or creative people, but left to its own devices, London has a habit of extinguishing creativity.”

london is changing

We thesps are not alone, of course. Across the professions, there is an exodus from London as people battle the curse of gentrification, and the rising rents and cost of living that follow it – see the London Is Changing project, set up by Rebecca Ross, MA communication design course leader at Central St Martins art school.

But if leaving London means stopping acting, who is left behind?

The media has recently become preoccupied with the apparent rise in middle- and upper- class actors, something I have written about before, and the suggestion seems to be that there are simply too many posh people being accepted to drama schools. These stories, and the subsequent eagerness of various drama school principals to parade their working class students, seem to me to be missing the point. Getting through drama school is one thing – there are student loans, part-time jobs and willing parents to help.

The real problem comes after graduation, when all those students are propelled into a harsh profession. It’s fine if you immediately get work – provided it’s well-paid, and provided it’s followed by more. Even better, of course, if you already have money behind you – and this is where the ‘class’ issue comes in. Who can afford to live from day-to-day in London, waiting for the phone to ring, unless they either have one of those elusive super-flexible day-jobs, or they are somehow liberated from the pressing worries of finding the rent and the council tax? It seems that increasingly it is only those with parents willing to subsidise them who can afford to sustain a career based in the capital.

So are we really seeing a trend emerging in which the business comes to be dominated by people from wealthy families? That doesn’t sound like a recipe for a healthy and diverse artistic community to me. What about a vibrant industry, made up of people from different backgrounds, with different influences?

Some will no doubt argue that this is natural selection at work, and that those who can’t afford to be actors deserve to drop out. I mean, you chose the job, didn’t you? You know the score – if you were any good, you would be getting the work, wouldn’t you?

Let’s say you’re one of those drama school graduates who works a fair amount, but can’t stomach the cost of living in London any more. Like so many before you, you decide to pack up and leave.
But what if you don’t want to stop acting? What is it like to live outside the capital and still pursue an acting career?

sushil chudasama

I studied at LAMDA alongside Sushil Chudasama, who moved to Manchester to work (near his home town of Blackburn) shortly after we graduated. His experience is very informative, both in his frustration with the pressures of living and working in the capital, but also as a great lesson that it is possible to break away from London and still have a thriving career.

Chris Naylor How long after LAMDA did you decide to leave London?

Sushil Chudasama It was the first year after drama school, 1999. I got three jobs in a row all in Manchester, and all near to where I am originally from in Lancashire. I was not planning to leave so quickly, but as I was paying rent for a room where I hardly was, I thought it made financial sense to leave. I was planning to come back at some point but the opportunity never arose.

CN Did you have any doubts yourself about moving?

SC At that time I was excited about working as an actor – if I needed to move back to London then I would, and probably easily could. Other friends however did express that it could be detrimental to my career if I moved back ‘Up North’, but I was just thinking short term at that time.

CN Do you find the majority of your meetings are still in London?

SC With the BBC now in Manchester, I find I audition equally up North and in London. I am probably in London once or twice a month and have 2/3 auditions a month outside of London the rest of the month.

CN What effect do you think it has had on your career – for example, have you turned down auditions in London because of travel? Or have you missed out on work because you’re not London-based?

Four_Lions_poster

SC The only time it has really been an issue was when I was auditioning for ‘Four Lions’ by Chris Morris. I’d already had 5 auditions for the film and I’d had to travel to London for each one of them. I even met Chris Morris for the last of these, and filmed a couple of improvisations with him. I was equally delighted as annoyed that they wanted to see me yet again; I had already paid out about £300 in travel fees for this one job, so I asked my agent if she could ask the production company to reimburse my travel, which I thought was a reasonable request – normally if you get a recall you get your travel covered, but I’d had none of my travel reimbursed at this point. To my disgust they decided they didn’t want to see me either way – not just a no to the money, but they didn’t want to see me at all now – probably because I’d asked for my costs to be covered! That was the one time I felt discriminated against as a non-London-based actor.

CN Is there a good actors’ network in Manchester?

SC There is an amazingly supportive network in Manchester. Everyone is always posting about jobs and events on social media, and I even started a network on Facebook called mAnCTORS, which started out just for Manchester actors, but now anyone in the industry can join. The scene is very different to London. When I was in London, I found people were very cagey about what they were being seen for and what they were doing next, which I didn’t really warm to or agree with. There seemed to be a very individualistic attitude from people in London and in their attitude towards others. I find people have less time for each other, and that really turns me off. Up in Manchester, everyone is always trying to get their mates involved and putting each other up for jobs, and genuinely wants everyone else to be working. I think we have more of a social attitude towards work, and I definitely prefer that model than the London one I know. We really do believe we’re all in it together and we try and keep each other struggling together too.

CN Have you ever considered moving back?

sushil as scooter

SC With average rent hitting £1500pcm now, that option has been taken away. Even when I was on Corrie that rent would have been a stretch, so now I don’t think I will be back. When I am in London I look around and think to myself, “How are you all living here, and what have you had to give up to live in these conditions?” I absolutely love visiting London but it drains me of my humanity for others, and my money seems to fly out of my pockets quicker than I can earn it. It’s a shame, as I would consider moving back one day, but what would I have to give up in order to live that lifestyle? At the moment there is nothing that would drag me back to that. The arts scene is unrivalled there, I know, and I love that something is always going on, but I don’t think I need to be there to work, and most importantly, be content.

CN Thanks Sushil.

Let us try and develop some real respect for acting and actors. We need to tell our agents, casting directors, directors and the rest of the profession that if we choose to leave London, and thereby actually achieve a decent quality of life (a garden perhaps, a room for our child to sleep in, some fresh air) we don’t expect this to signal a change in their attitudes towards us.

Most importantly, the industry should be prepared to support us – it profits from actors, and relies on having a steady supply of talent, so it ought to do something concrete to prevent a large proportion of that talent disappearing. On a practical level, this might include things such as arranging auditions for later in the day when it is cheaper to travel into London, or expanding the practice of auditions via Skype – then everyone can stay at home and nobody has to pay for train tickets or room hire.

And for those occasions when we must travel long distances to audition, how about paying expenses? Sushil’s experience of travelling to audition for ‘Four Lions’ is a glaring example of the financial burden this can place on actors. I’ve made journeys up to York and Liverpool for meetings – I even once endured two hellish National Express trips in one day from London to Manchester to audition for a rehearsed reading – my journey home was accompanied by the sound of the man behind me vomiting into a plastic bag. Not a penny of my expenses from those trips was reimbursed.

How about more auditions outside London? In particular, let’s encourage those companies that receive a lot of public funding to be truly National, and hold auditions at different regional centres around the UK – casting days in Manchester, Glasgow or Plymouth, for example.

Perhaps this is all a fantasy. But why should acting be just a London profession for rich kids? Why should we just accept that London’s dominance as the centre of the acting industry can never be challenged, and that if you really want to be an actor, you have to live here and take the financial hit?

Actors should leave London, if they want. We shouldn’t have to put up with living beyond our means, probably in less-than-desirable accommodation, or if we do leave London, be forced to shell out to travel back in for auditions all the time. We should be able to find a better quality of life, and still pursue the job we love.

A Privileged Position?

Isis_top_hat

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.

RADA-foundation-class-in--001

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.

hair

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.

mckellen_1633697c

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.

maman

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.

Christopher-Lee-Dracula-006

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.

 

Acting, a meritocracy? Oh, Mr Cumberbatch…

benedictcumberbatch1

There’s a lot of discussion in the air at the moment about the supposed predominance of actors from public school backgrounds, prompted by the release of ‘Riot Club’, the film adaptation of Laura Wade’s play ‘Posh’. This is a fascinating subject which is, of course, merely one aspect of a much wider debate about privilege and access in UK society, but as a side-issue, I was very struck by this quote from an interview with Benedict Cumberbatch in the Daily Mail in April this year:

‘My parents wanted the best for me. I wasn’t sent to the school my dad went to. I’m not a hereditary peer. One of the best things about being an actor is that it’s a meritocracy.’

Now, make no mistake, I admire Benedict Cumberbatch very much. He is a fine actor and a great asset to the profession. But acting a meritocracy? I’m really not sure he’s got this right.

Larry or Vinnie?

Henry-V-(1944)---Laurence-Olivier-786625vinnie

Acting could indeed be considered a meritocracy if the most talented actors were always the most successful. The problem with this notion is that we immediately start to run into problems. Most importantly, how do we define who is the ‘best’? The question of talent is purely subjective – one man’s Larry Olivier is another man’s Vinnie Jones.

Of course, many of our most successful actors (i.e. the busiest, the best paid, winners of the most awards) would be deemed talented in anyone’s books. But most actors could point to contemporaries who haven’t achieved the level of success we thought they deserved – people who we considered the most accomplished actors at drama school, for example, yet who slipped through the net or didn’t move on to the career heights we expected for them. At the same time, we could name many more who have become successful, but whose achievements are harder to explain. And perhaps, in our most private moments, we might even admit to ourselves that there are actors more deserving of success than we are, but who never got a break.

Because I’m worth it

Success in acting is dependent on many variables, most of which have nothing at all to do with talent, but which instead are quite superficial. Looks, voice, physical presence – all these accidents of birth can have far more to do with whether an audience wants to watch us or not than the subtlety or effectiveness of our performances. This is without even touching on the question of luck, that great leveller to whose random and arbitrary whims we are all subject.

Let’s imagine that we have a scene of emotional intensity that needs performing, and two actors ready to perform it: one slightly ‘better’ than the other – a little more skilful with the text, say, a touch more sensitive in gesture and expression. Depressing to say, it isn’t necessarily the finer actor who would get the popular vote. At some point, the choice comes down to which actor we would most like to look at while the scene is happening. This can be because we find them sexy or scary, because they have a warm and comforting voice, or simply that they are closer in appearance to the character description – whatever the reason, audiences (and more importantly to those of us in the business, casting directors) are drawn to actors for so many intangible reasons, that the concept of a meritocracy within this peculiar profession of ours is pretty much meaningless. Does one actor really merit success because of how they look or sound?

beatlesEngelbert-Humperdi_2155508b

It is rather like claiming that the pop charts are a meritocracy – to which I can only respond by citing the UK Singles chart for the 4th of March 1967: at Number 2, the Beatles with ‘Strawberry Fields Forever/Penny Lane’, and Number 1, Engelbert Humperdinck with ‘Release Me’. I mean, honestly.

Sorry Benedict.