Putting class back onto the UK's equality agenda

The directors of a new documentary about class stratification in Britain’s acting profession argue that class needs to be added back into the UK Equality Act.

Mike Wayne Deirdre O’Neill
14 January 2018

Tom Stocks At Eton. The Acting Class. Insideflim. All rights reserved.In 2010, the then Home Secretary of the UK’s new Conservative-Liberal Coalition government announced that she would be repealing part one of the Equality Act that had been passed in the last days of the Labour government. Her name? Theresa May. Part one of the Act mandated public authorities such as government ministers, departments, local borough councils, health authorities and others, to develop strategies ‘designed to reduce the inequalities of outcome which result from socio-economic disadvantage’.  

Interestingly, socio-economic disadvantage was not seen as part of the protected characteristics listed in part two of the Equality Act.  These characteristics were protected against discrimination and nine were identified: age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation.

It is not hard to see why the question of socio-economic disadvantage was separated from the question of discrimination in the Act.  How can a society structured around socio-economic inequalities admit that this amounts to discrimination against those crowded at the bottom end of the distribution of economic rewards?  In a market-based society it simply cannot be illegal to discriminate against people on the grounds of their economic resources. Still, the original provisions of part one, carefully contained as they were, was a potentially useful starting point in at least acknowledging the reality of socio-economic disadvantage and requiring the collection of relevant data that could feed into strategic decision-making to improve things.

It was of course too much for the incoming government of 2010, which was about to embark on an extensive austerity programme  designed not only to make the poor poorer by cutting social benefits but to eradicate any positive representation of working class life and working class culture from the public sphere. Theresa May claimed that:  ‘I do not believe in a world where everybody gets the same out of life, regardless of what they put in. That is why no government should try to ensure equal outcomes for everyone.’

In the conservative mind-set, a neoliberal one that shuns collectivism and is dedicated to the removal of the welfare state,  ‘opportunity’ is solely dependent upon individual effort and talent. The social and economic privileges that ease people into certain roles disappear in a fug of disingenuousness. The Equality Act did not in fact try and ‘ensure equal outcomes’ but asked public bodies ‘to reduce the inequalities of outcome’ that derived from inequalities of opportunity.

Had the provision of part one of the Act been in force it might have provided working class communities with legal leverage in their fight against local council ‘regeneration’ schemes that are forms of social cleansing. In partnership with property developers, local councils have been clearing out whole communities and cultures which were regrettably blocking cash-starved councils and cash-hungry private companies from the possibility of maximising land and building assets.  The V&A recently announced that it had purchased a large chunk of Robin Hood Gardens in east London, which was demolished to make way for a new £300 million building scheme. The V&A hopes to exhibit the remains of the council estate, including the possibility of walking into interior living spaces. One can only hope that they will stop short of having paid actors offer a V&A version of working class life inside the rescued remains for the edification of museum visitors.

Living categories

The erasure of class as a living category, the reduction of its historical legacy to exhibits in a museum allows legal and institutional structures licence to ignore not only the present struggles of the working class but to deny its very existence. Just as it is difficult to get socio-economic disadvantage recognised in law, academia and popular culture, we are increasingly disposed to see the working class and class in general as a residual category, always receding into the past, in the rear view mirror of history. Where they were once associated with modernity and progress, the working class is today associated with archaic blockages to a thriving, dynamic ‘entrepreneurial’ future. The consequences of this economic violence were laid bare by the Grenfell Tower fire. But the attitudes, values and national self-images that underpin policy-making and make it tacitly acceptable to broad swathes of people, are generated most energetically by the culture industries.

We like to think of the culture industries as having a magical opt-out of the kinds of wider structural filtering systems that make professions such as politics, law, the judiciary, the media, so very unrepresentative. In 2014 the Blairite New Labour MP Alan Milburn wrote a foreword to a report from the Commission on Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission called Elitist Britain? which would have been better re-titled without the question-mark. The report found that the small percentage of people attending fee-paying independent schools (7%) and going to Oxbridge were massively overly represented at the top of the professions. 75% of senior judges, 59% of the Cabinet, 50% of diplomats, 47% of newspaper columnists, 33% of BBC executives, 24% of MPs had gone to Cambridge or Oxford. Only 0.8% of the population make it to those hallowed halls.

Unfortunately the cultural industries do not buck the trend. The Sutton Trust found for example that 42% of BAFTA winners attended a fee-paying private school, while 67% of British winners in the best leading actor and director categories at the Oscars were privately educated. Sociological research has found that only between 10-16% of actors come from manual working class backgrounds.

Filtering and privilege

Our documentary feature film, The Acting Class, explores the cumulative barriers to actors coming from working class backgrounds, getting in and staying on in the profession. The filtering process starts at an early age with a lack of access to the arts, to theatre, to practicing drama, to family, community and educational support or knowledge about how someone with aspirations to be an actor can have a route into the profession. The government’s assault on the arts in the educational curriculum and cuts to school and local authority budgets, all bring the beloved market back into the equation as the arbiter of who has the opportunity to be involved. The debt which educational provision at University level now involves puts those with fewer resources at a distinct disadvantage to those who have the bank of ‘Mom and Dad’ at their disposal.

Along with all the professional fees associated with the industry such as having your profile on Spotlight, joining Equity, getting access to workshops by casting directors, travel costs to auditions, there is also the massively London-centric nature of the business. If you are an aspiring actor living outside London, one of the most expensive cities in the world now to live in, you are at a massive disadvantage. Acting is a very casualised profession and young or early career actors have to juggle paid employment outside acting with acting jobs when they come along. But this is difficult to do as employers tend not to like their staff just disappearing unexpectedly if they get an acting job. Gradually the economic pressures filter people out.

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Still from The Acting Class. Insidefilm. All rights reserved.It is shocking just how many of the British actors who are getting lead parts and being feted in the press come out of private schooling and/or the Oxbridge nexus. The BBC’s acclaimed drama The Night Manager from 2016 featured three male leads, Tom Hiddleston, Tom Hollander and Hugh Laurie, who all went to the same private school in Oxford, along with other alumni including Emma Watson, Jack Davenport and Dom Joly. Florence Pugh, set to be the break out star of 2018, who took the lead role in the film Lady Macbeth, was educated at St Edward’s, another Oxford private school. Here pupils benefit from the on-site arts centre The North Wall, which also attracts over 20,000 visitors a year to its public programme of theatrical shows. Endearingly, the school describes its pupils as ‘Teddies’ bursting with ‘creative energy’. That must be why other Teddies alumni include Emilia Clarke (Daenerys Targaryan in Game of Thrones) and numerous others who have gone onto have good careers in theatre, music and the arts. Of course it is not the fault of individuals who benefit from the currently prevailing inequalities of opportunity. It is nevertheless important to get a sense of how extensively the dice are loaded, while the acting profession itself tends to identify hard work, talent and a bit of luck as the key ingredients for success. Yes all that helps. But let’s add a fourth and powerful factor: a private education.

John Boyega, who plays the leading role in the new Stars Wars film, was by contrast, born to Nigerian parents from Peckham. He comes from outside the golden educational nexus that reproduces inequality of opportunity. He first came to prominence as the lead role in Attack the Block in 2011, a brilliant and unusual British sci-fi comedy.  Set on a London council estate it displayed a sympathetic engagement with the lives of its young working class characters in a sort of Steven Speilberg meets Ken Loach mash up. Yet despite the success of that film, it is interesting that the British film industry did not know what to do with Boyega and his career only continued on track after he was cast by J.J. Abrams as Finn in the Hollywood financed Star Wars: The Force Awakens in 2014. As black British actor Elliott Barnes Worrell, who we interviewed for our film notes:

‘the execs and producers and directors who are predominantly middle class and upper middle class white men are going to pigeon hole you into a place. If you want to act there are going to be roles for you, limited, but they are there and they are usually called Tyrone and a lot of the time they are in jail.’

As Maxine Peake says in our film, the working class need their ‘own club’ in order to counter the tendency of the elites to hire each other.


Current representations of working class people and working class life in the mainstream media, have been reduced to clichéd visual stereotypes mostly in reality TV shows. The proliferation of reality TV  representing welfare claimants in negative ways has only increased as welfare cuts have become more vicious. Shows such as Benefits Street and On Benefits and Proud represent the working class as culturally regressive individuals in a decontextualized landscape where lives defined by exploitation, oppression and numerous hardships are unlinked from the political decisions that are responsible for them. These representations are wrong, not just in the sense that they have very little resemblance to working class life but in a moral sense because of the ideological role they play in constructing degraded images of working-class people that are then utilized in the media to justify and legitimize the rolling back of the welfare state.

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Maxine Peake. The Acting Class. Inside film. All rights reserved.The relationship between the representation of class and the media is a historically changing one.  Beginning in the 1930s with the birth of the British documentary movement, as the free market economic model crashed around the world, representations of working-class people and their communities began to show them as the essential backbone of the country.

This was consolidated after 1945 in the shared goal of building a welfare state when a Keynesian consensus created a shared sense of cohesiveness. In the late 50s and 1960s there was a breakthrough of working class talent in the performing arts, with new writers (such as Alan Silitoe, Shelagh Delanney, Barry Hines and Stan Barstow) and actors with regional accents (Sean Connery, Tom Courtney, James Bolam, Rita Tushingham). The social realist films of this time brought working class narratives to the screen as important in their own right. Working class people were protagonists in their own stories and not just part of the background noise in stories of the rich and well to do. This in turn bled into BBC TV and radio in the 1970s where more women were able to break into writing and acting (Carla Lane, Victoria Wood, Julie Walters). While statistically the numbers of working class talent within the profession was still a small minority, culturally they had a very significant impact.

But the public service remit of the BBC and Channel Four, to say nothing of ITV, has gradually been stripped away by government legislation and increasing competition. Good work is still being made even today, such as Sally Wainright’s Happy Valley and Jimmy McGovern’s Broken. Both series feature authority figures (the police and the priesthood respectively) failing to cope with the fall-out from deepening social inequalities.  But such work is fighting against the grain, which favours low-risk entertainment with a high export potential to the American market, usually trading on a heritage culture that gives an anti-democratic and out of date optic on Britain.

Our stories

The class bias in the acting profession is not only a social justice issue for people who want to act, but it is an issue for everyone. Acting, and star talent in particular, is central to shaping the kind of stories that get written, the kinds of experiences that get represented and the kind of images we have of ourselves as a country. That, in turn, feeds back into the policies and laws that governments and local authorities make which have very direct effects on wellbeing and livelihoods.

Our film The Acting Class, is part of a wider and ongoing debate about how class inequality scars British society from top to bottom. As Maxine Peake says in our film, Britain is ‘rotten to the core’ with it. We think that at the earliest political opportunity, the provisions for addressing socio-economic inequality in the Equality Act should be brought into force to not only require public bodies, but also to encourage the private and third sector, to address the issue. 

But we do not have to wait for government to act. The cultural industries, where the debate on class exclusion has already been very lively, can act independently now to implement the spirit of the yet-to-be-enforced first part of the Equality Act and help bring about wider change.

The Acting Class is currently being shown around the UK. For further details see: To contact the directors email: [email protected] 

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