There’s a theory among those who make and watch TV, that we should be able to see people like ourselves on screen. While this ignores the escapist delights of storytelling, television remains one of the most accessible mediums, enjoyed by the largest audiences. It stands to reason that it should look at human life in all its diverse and multifaceted glory. So why is it that, both in front of the camera and behind it, British drama remains an overwhelmingly middle-class stronghold?
The most feted name in television right now is Phoebe Waller-Bridge, creator and star of the television series Fleabag, and the writer of the first series of the equally exalted Killing Eve. Waller-Bridge deserves the praise heaped upon her. That she is a woman is also cause for celebration, given the scores of male writers that have long inhabited TV’s lauded list. But the fact that she is the privately-educated granddaughter of a baronet is hard to ignore. Since Fleabag ended, the protagonist’s poshness, and her “relatability” to non-posh viewers, has been a matter of exhaustive online debate. But more significant, surely, is how Waller-Bridge’s privileged status has helped clear her path to success.
Last year, a report from Create London and the charitable foundation Arts Emergency looked at class and inequality in the cultural industries, and found that only 12.4% of those working across film, TV and radio had “working-class” origins. The figures were even worse for BAME workers, at just 4.2%. A review from the media regulator Ofcom, published last autumn, offered a marginally brighter picture, noting that “diversity and inclusion are an increasingly core focus of the BBC’s agenda”, and that there is a “more nuanced approach to understanding and measuring representation and portrayal”. It did, however, acknowledge that there is more work to be done.
The invisibility of disability on screen
The problem of TV’s class ceiling can be found at every level of the food chain, from the commissioning editors whose decisions are influenced by their own biases and experience, to the script editors second-guessing the commissioning editors’ tastes, all the way down to those in graduate schemes and entry-level roles, often working for peanuts with the help of parental support.
Lisa McGee, the Northern Irish writer of Channel 4’s BAFTA-nominated Derry Girls, says that in the early stages of her career she had assumed “you just work hard, and talent will out”. But her attitude changed. “I have had my eyes opened. It’s not just the writers, it’s the people in the room with the writers. I find myself in rooms with script editors who are all lovely, clever people, but a lot have gone to Cambridge and Oxford, and that affects the storytelling. And the accents you’re hearing are pretty revealing. I’m conscious that a lot of people don’t understand what I’m saying.”
At the heart of the debate is authenticity: Shane Meadows, the son of a fish-and-chip-shop-worker mother and a lorry-driving father, doubtless knows of what he speaks when writing about working-class lives on housing estates in his This is England series. At the other end of the social strata, you sense that Lord Fellowes of West Stafford knew a thing or two about the early 20th-century aristocracy before he sat down to write Downton Abbey. While no one’s suggesting you have to be a space traveller to write a sci-fi drama, an emotional connection to your subject is broadly seen as good thing.
Too posh to fail
There is an increasing number of initiatives aimed at opening the door to less privileged young writers – last year the BBC launched two schemes, one offering training to 50 school students to help them secure BBC roles, and another, based in Cardiff, offering ten traineeships to “high potential raw talent”. Meanwhile the Edinburgh TV Festival has launched the 2019 New Voice Award designed to make the industry accessible to marginalised writers.
But as well-intentioned as these schemes are, the broader impact is negligible. As Lisa Holdsworth, writer of Midsomer Murders and Call the Midwife, and the deputy chair of Writers’ Guild of Great Britain, explains:
“The things that get in the way of diversity, gender equality and multiple voices on television from different social backgrounds are all down the same thing: it’s people getting commissioned on a nod and a wink, and the sense that people who are not white, cis-gendered, and middle-class are a risk.”
Holdsworth says that the Guild has spoken to scores of commissioners who “genuinely think they have open doors. They think it doesn’t matter whose name is on the front of the script just as long as it’s a good story”.
What they are not doing, however, is looking at how the scripts land on their desks. “You’ve got to get through lots of gatekeepers before you’re even close to the door,” Holdsworth explains. “They need to look at the people who are bringing the work to them. That’s production companies, development producers and in-house editors, all of whom are looking for lower risk stuff. So that’s a narrowing of the field right there.”
Why don't we talk about television anymore?
A further narrowing of the field occurs in the actors who make it to the screen. It pays to be privileged. In a recent interview, the actor Vicky McClure, currently on our screens as DI Kate Fleming in Line of Duty, spoke of the advantages enjoyed by actors who have never faced financial hardship. “I have friends who are millionaires. I have friends who are piss-poor. I know that at the end of the day you can’t help what you are born into, that it doesn’t make you less talented… But I just find it frustrating that if you haven’t got funds, you haven’t got the same opportunities.”
For young actors and writers attending state school, the doors begin to close during secondary education, with subjects such as drama, music and theatre studies the first to be squeezed as budgets come under pressure. Small wonder our actors and TV executives are still disproportionately privately educated.
Once you’ve overcome those barriers, there is also the problem of typecasting. In 2016, the actress Maxine Peake complained: “If you’re a northerner, you only play one character and that’s northern… Nobody says, ‘Oh, Judi Dench is doing it posh again’.” Eyebrows were raised when the Eton-educated actor Dominic West was asked to adopt a Yorkshire accent for his role as Valjean in Les Misérables. It would, said the director, help audiences understand the social divisions in Victor Hugo’s novel and the character’s earthy, peasant roots. Because, while TV viewers may not be au fait with the literary classics, we all know that anyone north of Peterborough lives in a bog and subsists on a diet of raw turnip.
Why we can't ignore the working-class identity crisis
There is a distinction, too, in how plots vary according to the backgrounds of the protagonists. The storylines of working-class characters and are invariably issue-led, and involve trauma or deprivation – recent examples include Three Girls, about the Rochdale child sex abuse ring, starring Lesley Sharp and Maxine Peake; and Happy Valley, with Sarah Lancashire. In both dramas the protagonists’ class is integral to their identity.
“I would love us to be able to tell the stories that anyone can tell, only with working-class characters,” explains McGee. “But it’s as if being working-class has become a genre of its own.”
Inequality off-screen is actively reinforced by the stereotyping on-screen, an endless cycle of marginalisation and ghettoisation – and misunderstanding. This seems especially galling in what is, we are forever being told, a golden era of television.
But as arts budgets shrink and risk-averse TV networks look for guaranteed hits, it’s always the supposedly niche or challenging work that is first to go. If the aim of art is truly to imitate life, though, then the networks need to do more to dismantle the barriers encountered by those unable to rely on benevolent parents or a fallback job in the City. A lot of white middle-class types working behind the scenes making key decisions inevitably leads to a lot of stories about the white middle-class – or, worse still, stories of other cultures and classes told through the same old middle-class lens. And TV is the poorer for it.