Posh-basing has escalated recently, dressed up as championing the cause of downtrodden working-class performers. The tabloids seem torn between hailing the achievements of actors Eddie Redmayne and Benedict Cumberbatch, and then telling us they only succeeded because they are privileged, not to mention the inverted snobbery of Labour MP Chris Bryant towards singer James Blunt.
Actually hailing from a good background has mostly spelled doom for aspiring young actors over the last 30 years. Admitting that you were raised in Richmond in a detached house and had any kind of private education was unacceptable. People would assume that everything came too easily to you, that you were emotionally constipated and that you were unable to conjure up the range of feeling required.
Preferably, you needed to have been beaten by a violent stepfather in Leyton or, better still, have a couple of previous convictions to boost your credentials. There were exceptions, naturally, but, unless you wanted to appear in a Coward or Wilde play, it was a no-no to be well-bred. You could, of course, make a career of lampooning your own poshness by playing a succession of silly arses, a bit like Hugh Grant or Stephen Fry, or, one of the greatest actors of them all, Boris Johnson, who’s been playing a bumbling London mayor so successfully for the last seven years. Otherwise, most TV drama, especially longstanding soaps, favoured working class actors. As for the music business, all traces of poshness had to be erased if you wanted to have any appeal, hence violinist Nigel Kennedy transformed himself from well-spoken youngster to mockney football fan and the late Joe Strummer, a public schoolboy, became the lead vocalist of punk rock band The Clash.
I got so bored by being told that I “don’t speak with a London accent” or that I “come from a good background” when I lived in the UK. Yes, I went to an independent school and I don’t speak like Vinnie Jones (a distinctly unposh footballer turned actor, by the way). But how can anyone presume to measure my background from such a slender acquaintance? I don’t go around telling people they “come from a bad background” just because they don’t pronounce their aitches.
Danny Dyer, from the dreadful EastEnders, commented that if Cumberbatch walked into a pub he’d get “annihilated by geezers, he’d be bullied” and that he’d be unable to play a working-class character. So what does that say about the kind of people who frequent pubs? And I’m not so sure about Dyer’s second assertion. I wrote a biography of a great actor named Ian Hendry, privately educated, who became known for his iconic hardman roles in The Hill and Get Carter and in guest roles in TV series like The Sweeney. He was so good at playing them that a couple of other actors I interviewed for the book thought he was an East End boy. In reality, it’s easier to dumb down rather than play up; it’s easier for a posh actor to play a ruffian than vice versa. Just give Cumberbatch a short back n’ sides and bovver boots and he’d get into character straight away, just like the great Daniel Day-Lewis in My Beautiful Laundrette.
Struggle comes in various ways throughout life. I bet that Cumberbatch, Redmayne and Blunt have had to overcome substantial prejudice to succeed. Most artists have a hard time waiting for recognition and their big break. But I bet if you’re a talented working class actor then one day someone will recognise your appeal. And, if they don’t, it’s more to do with the impersonal nature of today’s society than cuts in arts funding