Examining the partisan advantages aiding British actors.
An unpalatable truth of the current UK acting industry is that it almost exclusively reserves its most glittering job prospects and abundance of praise for White, male, upper class actors from England. Unbiased sample of British talent should show more than just Anglo gentlemen who were Made in Chelsea - we need to talk about Kensington…
You know when you have a loose thought swimming about in your mind, and then you see someone articulate your intended sentiment perfectly, providing a coherent distillation of your underdeveloped talking points, backed up with evidence and sealed in polish phrasing? Well, I had that experience this summer when I swallowed Nathalie Olah’s electrifying, didactic, anti-capitalist Steal As Much As You Can: How To Win The Culture Wars in an Age of Austerity in one ravenous bite. It examined the rampant classism currently being wielded most violently by middle and upper-class cultural gatekeepers, and illuminates the political weight this carries. Specifically, Olah evaluates the distinctly non-working class IT girls/boys who represented Britain on the global stage post 2008: “The nineties figure of the posh anomaly, typified by Hugh Grant, would become the model for a new generation of actors, including Benedict Cumberbatch, Eddie Redmayne and Tom Hiddleston, who became inescapable during the 2010s…Under the blue-blooded auspices of David Cameron and his acolytes, and following the flagrant abandonment of the working classes by the Liberal Democrats and the centrist factions within the Labour Party, the wealthy elites were given carte blanche to flaunt their culture, almost to the derision and mockery of everyone else. Gone was the shame of being posh that bands such as Blur had suffered under” (Think Jack Whitehall milking the charming Waitrose jokes for nearly 10 years). Haughty and Royal Ascotty, the unholy trinity of Benedict Cucumberpatch and Co may seem indistinguishable from the OG Bullingdon Boys of BAFTA: Ralph Fiennes, Colin Firth, Kenneth Branagh and Jeremy Irons, however, these men are a generation younger, and crucially catapulted into stardom after the economic crash. With their gleaming CVs replete with prestigious gigs, they breezed through the unemployment crisis. After leading sycophantic establishment films celebrating valiant British men, the securing of big budget Disney and Warner Bros Sci-Fi contracts cemented their pop culture tenure.
An exercise, with an inevitably deflating outcome, that I inflict upon myself is scanning the “Early Life” section of Wikipedia pages. In such biographical soundbites, my predictions of private education consistently come true (all the aforementioned are alumni of some breed of independent boarding school or Oxbridge constituent college). Henry Cavill, Robert Pattinson and Tom Holland all hail from fee-paying institutions. Think Ezekiel 35:35 for this socio-economic hierarchy in the arts: “This land that was desolate has become like the garden of Eton”.
In a Hollywood Reporter Roundtable, the Imitation Game star admitted the easier time Brits have compared to Americans, when chasing the big La La Land dream. “We don’t have to make a specific geographical choice as to where we will begin our career [referring to the UK / New York / LA]. So, we don’t have to wait tables for years to get a break in a pilot season. We can cut our teeth doing Fringe shows”. Yeah, no shit Sherlock, of course that is your experience. What about the non-White British actors trying to consolidate a portfolio during a dry spell of employment?
In Simon Frederick’s 2018 Netflix series They’ve Gotta Have Us, Director Destiny Ekaragha described the UK’s sinister problem with inclusion for Black creatives: “America is extremely racist, but their racism is so upfront, they can fight it. You can fight what you can see. Through struggle and strife and all that kind of stuff comes the arts. And so, through that, they’ve created just slightly more opportunities. The racism here is slightly more insidious, because we almost pretend like racism never existed. That’s why we’re finding it so difficult to progress.” Thespian actor David Harewood’s experience of limited opportunity in Britain illustrates this: “In America, I can play the head of the CIA, or the President. But in England, if I was to play the Prime Minister, people would say ‘There’s not a black Prime Minister. There’s never been a black Prime Minister. How is he playing the Prime Minister?’ I haven’t worked in England for 10 years. That’s really quite extraordinary. I was a novelty, I was this classically trained Black actor with a received pronunciation voice, a classical voice, and there just weren’t any parts for me.” When Harewood took on the role of Shakespeare’s Othello – a Black General - The Independent published a slam piece affirming: “It’s a great shame to deprive White actors of one of the most demanding roles in the repertoire”. Analogously, the reaction to David Oyelowo playing Henry XI was blatantly racist, as the supposedly progressive Guardian declared “we open ourselves to ridicule if we allow black people to play these kind of parts”.
This insidious discrimination of casting still persists - the aforesaid cultural gatekeepers only permit a couple of Black British actors every ten years or so to be critically acclaimed- evidenced in Daniel Kaluuya and Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Best Actor nominations in 2017 and 2013 at the BAFTAs and Academy Awards - the only Black British men ever honoured. Gracing the GQ cover last September, John Boyega spoke about his character Finn in the Star Wars franchise being brazenly side-lined. When speaking on inclusivity in front of and behind the camera during her experience filming in London, Sandra Oh from Killing Eve, stated, “Being the sole Asian person is a very familiar place for me…The UK, I’m not afraid to say, is behind… Sometimes it would be me and 75 white people”. Furthermore, White actors are given free rein to disregard identity politics and put their “artistic stamp” on the experiences of oppressed groups they aren’t part of, like Eddie Redmayne playing a trans man in The Danish Girl and the disabled Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, while facing little contention for such entitled performances.
Compare the success of these plummy performers to other, UK actors who are just as talented. For example, why hasn't David Tennant entered that strata? In a 2019 Sunday Times interview the Scottish Doctor Who was compared to Doctor Strange, questioning why he has not procured a role that would confer upon him superstar repute. “I don’t think particularly tactically, I don’t think you can as an actor…Money, career, and art are the three reasons to do a job, and if you can get two out of three you should do the job. It’s quite a good formula”. I attended a talk last year where Alan Cummings spoke about the virulent Anti-Scottishness in London's drama scene and that such poisoned attitudes have affected his career. Now, he attests he wears his “Scottishness as a badge of honour” and implored the audience to do the same (the recent Euros qualifying victory has been a boost of national pride!). Indeed, any deviation from South England is never glorified - scouser Stephen Graham is only recently getting his mainstream plaudits despite being in the business for 30 years. Some may counter my argument by noting the success of Glaswegian Gerard Butler’s ubiquity in feature films (his inhaling of 10 shitty studio scripts a month is comparable to the artistic integrity bypass of one Mark Wahlberg) or Ewan McGregor. I dismiss this suggestion for two reasons: first, as long as purported Celt Stephen Colbert is stunned at James MacAvoy’s use of the word “Och!” and secondly that all of these Scottish stars have to adopt either an American or English accent in nearly all of their work. There is still much progress to be made.
A sexist element clearly applies to this selective state of affairs. The Eton to EGOT springboard is readily available for men, but not to the same extent for women. Women simply do not receive the same universal acclaim - in the form of a continuous stream of guaranteed work, intense fan bases or accolades. Despite nearly 20 years in the business, trained actress Sienna Miller (graduate of Marilyn Monroe and Harvey Keitel’s former acting school) only secured her first lead role in 2018’s American Woman. However, the race and class components prevail. Afterall, we have watched posh White English women such as: Emily Blunt, Felicity Jones, Emilia Clarke, Keira Knightley, Helena Bonham Carter (who is literal aristocracy) ride a meteoric rise to fame. They became household names in a relatively short space of time, especially when compared to Black and POC British actresses who have been grafting for years (an American parallel can be seen in Viola Davis’ acting prowess and trophy cabinet being commensurate with that of Meryl Streep, yet culturally Davis is simply not heralded in the same way). The same White privilege can be attributed to the new batch of Gen Z stars: Sophie Turner, Florence Pugh, and Millie Bobby Brown. Nathalie Olah, when speaking again on the last decade’s overt classism in the arts, stated: “the world of theatre would largely abandon any efforts to democratise, positing Polly Stenham as the voice of young London, despite her being the heir to Unilever millions and a graduate of the 12-grand-a-term Wycombe Abbey Girls School”. High-born White models can now instantly have fully fledged acting careers, think Cara Delevingne and Suki Waterhouse, seamlessly catwalking to the movie red carpet. Jodie Comer is the only example that I can conceive, of a woman with a regional accent currently making waves across the pond. The British women who have received Best Actress at the Academy Awards have all been White: Olivia Colman, Kate Winslet, Helen Mirren, and Emma Thompson. While they are undoubtedly doyens of their craft, the question remains why equally gifted and hardworking Black and POC actresses have not attained the same level of status. Naomie Harris, Thandie Newton, Zawe Ashton, Sophie Okoned,o and Freema Agyeman, have now found homes in American series and franchises. Unsettlingly, Cynthia Erivo was the first Black British woman to be nominated, in the award ceremony’s 92-year history, for the Best Actress Oscar, for her portrayal of Harriet Tubman (although, many take issue with the reality that the only times the talent of Black artists is recognised is when they feature in “Black Pain” narratives; positing that audiences should be able to respond to the multifaceted existence of the Black community and, most importantly, their joy). Already with BAFTAs under their belts respectively, young Black British actresses Letitia Wright (Black Panther, TopBoy) and Michaela Coel (Chewing Gum, Black Earth Rising, I May Destroy You), I hope their star power continues to be uplifted internationally. Ultimately, it is not my intention to launch personal attacks of character assassination on actors who have lived exceptionally privileged lives (apart from the breathtakingly irritating Eddie Redmayne). Instead, it is to critique the system and culture that allows such exclusivity to prosper. The consequence is twofold: it limits storytelling and perpetuates the cycle of huge portions of society growing up without seeing themselves reflected on screen. Elitism is an epidemic, that much is clear. And while I am happy in the meantime to self-isolate from the scourge of these Westminster Wankers, I hope the vaccine of diversity is round the corner.