There’s been much written in recent times about it being harder for working class artists to break through in their field. From problems with a lack of much needed money to gain access to education, to a general feeling that many of the fields are now being dominated by the privileged. I.e. those with money (or their parents money) to spare.
It’s not new the prejudices against the working classes in the arts. Over centuries it has been debated that Shakespeare didn’t write his own work because he was of too lowly a standing. To me the idea it was written by someone of nobility is ridiculous. Why would a noble in all their comforts have to strive to produce the best they could? They can just fall back on being…err…noble.
I think it’s certainly worth noting that just recently we lost two working class giants of their craft in David Bowie and Alan Rickman. Bowie himself left school with little qualification but did attend one of the many now eradicated 60s art schools. Rickman received sponsorship and a scholarship to get him started. All great supportive avenues for us ordinary folks to gain access to arts, now all gone.
On a personal level as a comedian I’ve certainly seen a hell of a lot of class bias in my own industry. Sometimes it’s prominent critics who hear a northern or working class voice and immediately dismiss whatever is being said as “club comedy” A now derisory term invented by a London based, self anointed comedy policeman. It’s a weird term as much comedy comes from and is created in clubs. Sure I understand that comedy designed to please those on a night out isn’t perhaps best suited to a festival going punter. But if that comedy does turn out to actually rock a festival crowd with laughter then surely it’s of some merit somewhere along the line? According to many critics absolutely not. And who is it we find most adept at this type of comedy? That’s right, working class comics. Because it was a working class crowd the comedy was created in front of. Yeah…but what are the working classes doing at an arts festival? This seems to be the notion behind such thinking.
In an attempt to not be judged as just a “club comic” I personally now write social and political comedy or satire as it can be known. How many working class voices have you heard over decades on telly or radio tackling that stuff? No, it would seem some forms of comedy are only to be uttered by those folks in the middle. What would a working class person know about the real issues? I was actually told once by the head of BBC comedy North, and I quote, “Look there’s a lot of good stuff here but you’ve got a wall of Oxbridge school tie to get over before anybody will look at it.” Do we hear a lot of working class voices on BBC Radio 4? Well I suppose sometimes we do, but usually they’re not being spoken by working class artists. All this does beg the question what would someone from Oxbridge know about the vulnerability of life at the bottom. Or as we would call it, “the real issues.”
It used to be different. The working classes were celebrated on TV and radio in the 70s and 80s. But for every Boys From the Black Stuff there’s now a Shameless. For every Alf Garnet there’s now Mrs Brown. We’ve been moved sideways in our portrayals from pathos to panto and nobody seems to have noticed it happening.
But it’s not all a negative picture we have here. My dad and many others were always ready to offer the advice for anybody wanting to study the arts, “You need a trade to fall back on.” Bizarrely as I head off to do a degree in Drama and Script this year I do have a trade to fall back on…the performing arts.
The problem with such thinking is those with something to fall back on will invariably fall back on it. If those coming from a more comfortable background can always opt out and go home, then home is where they will go. Working class kids can’t just up tools and go home. That’s actually their greatest asset. Once they enter the arts with nothing to fall back on…they are home.
Once you do find that home I would pay little attention to those outside performance or writing or music or busking who try to justify their existence by intellectualising the game. Art doesn’t come from the brain, it’s from the heart. That’s exactly what your audience will pay for. It’s an expression of joy and awe. Speak up, stand up…shout at the teacher.