James Blunt’s letter to Chris Bryant MP merely demonstrates the millionaire singer has dramatically missed the point, says Hannah Dunleavy.
If James Blunt’s incandescent (and misjudged) response to shadow culture minister Chris Bryant was an attempt to shut down the conversation about the number of rich kids in the arts, it’s failed.
The singer, who’s gained a reputation for barging into Twitter conversations maligning his music (as is his right), inevitably stepped up to defend himself after the Labour MP bemoaned the lack of working class people in the arts.
Eddie Redmayne, who was also namechecked in the story, has maintained a dignified silence. Perhaps he doesn’t care. Or perhaps he’s more prepared to accept that his public school education and wealthy background has given him advantages that children from poorer backgrounds didn’t have.
Let’s be clear from the outset: no one is saying that Blunt or Redmayne are any less talented than their poorer colleagues, or that they haven’t worked as hard. Or that any middle class person who has succeeded in their chosen field is in some way undeserving of that success.
What they’re saying is the arts, like almost every other profession in the country, is an easier nut to crack if you enjoy the financial safety net of a middle class background.
Journalism certainly isn’t immune from this problem. In the “good old days”, the best way into the business was through your local paper. You started at the bottom and you worked your way up, either to a better job or a better newspaper. Nowadays, the best way into the national press is via an unpaid internship, which excludes thousands of youngsters, either because of economics or geography. In fact, a 2013 National Union of Journalists (NUJ) survey found just three per cent of journalists had parents who did “unskilled work”.
In Blunt’s defence, music is not as elitist as journalism or acting, by any stretch of the imagination. But by wading so gung-ho into the argument, making assertions that Bryant’s criticism is motivated by the politics of jealousy, he’s done nothing to further the debate. In fact, his argument that sheer hard work alone can lead to success makes him come across as, to borrow a phrase, a poundshop Norman Tebbit.
Bryant is far from alone in calling for a meritocracy in the arts. In recent years Julie Walters, Judi Dench, Brian Cox, Maxine Peake, Sir Ian McKellen, Helen Mirren, Stephen McGann, David Morrissey, Arts Council chairman Sir Peter Bazalgette, Edward Kemp, artistic director of Rada, and Ben Stephenson, the BBC’s controller of drama, have all voiced concerns over the obstacles keeping working class youngsters out of the arts.
And they’re right to do so. Some of this country’s finest acting talents – Timothy Spall, Gary Oldman, Sir Tom Courtenay, Kathy Burke, Lennie James, and Bob Hoskins – have come from working class backgrounds. And some – Ben Kingsley, Daniel Day-Lewis, Helena Bonham-Carter, and Julie Christie – have not.
But a quick glance at any list of “hot” British actors and you’ll find it’s now dominated by people who attended Eton, Harrow and other public schools, such as Dominic West, Damien Lewis, Tom Hiddlestone, Benedict Cumberbatch, Freddie Fox, Carey Mulligan and Ruth Wilson.
To suggest that the benefits these schools, in terms of facilities and opportunity, offer their pupils doesn’t give them an advantage over kids whose only experience of acting is a Christmas play is disingenuous to the point of lying.
Which brings me back to Blunt’s open letter. “Perhaps,” he rages “what you’ve failed to realise is that the only head-start my school gave me in the music business, where the VAST majority of people are NOT from boarding school, is to tell me that I should aim high.”
And that, right there, may be the crux of it all. Poverty of aspiration.
My (comprehensive) school careers advisor told me I’d make a good secretary.
Fortunately, I was in a position to ignore this advice. I don’t come from a wealthy family, but my family gave us a vital kind of support by raising us to believe we could do anything. They encouraged us to go to university (which they didn’t have the opportunity to), to travel and to apply for jobs we were crazily under-qualified to do. They got behind my bid to become a journalist, which was successful, and my bid to become a comedian, which was less so. And, despite my refusal to even consider having children, they’ve always told me I’d make a great mum. It wasn’t until I met other people who hadn’t enjoyed this kind of encouragement in life that I realised how lucky I’d been.
Sadly, there are working class families all over the country where this doesn’t happen, either because they don’t care or they lack the imagination or, more commonly, because, in the current economic climate, they fear their children will be left career-less if their bid to be an actor or a pop star doesn’t pan out.
So, with a mountain to climb and no one to push them, is it any wonder many youngsters are thinking twice about a career in the arts?
This, despite what Blunt may believe, is the genuine hard-luck story here: not a millionaire being called posh by an MP.
Hannah Dunleavy is the deputy editor of Standard Issue. She likes whisky and not having to run anywhere.