Yesterday saw Labour’s shadow minister for the arts, Chris Bryant MP, amusingly and justly savaged by the pop star James Blunt for some ill-advised remarks about the predominance of public school boys in the arts: he cited both the Old Harrovian Blunt and the Old Etonian Eddie Redmayne as evidence of a lack of diversity.
Now, I am sure the multi-award-winning, multi-platinum-selling former Captain Blunt can look after himself, and during awards season, the Oscar-nominated Redmayne has other things on his plate, but it reminds this former actor of how narrow the arts really are.
It was after my first successful audition in 2007, for a part in a Jacobean tragedy at the Hackney Empire studio, that it was pointed out to me that putting Eton College on my CV was tantamount to career suicide. Then, during rehearsals for my second play, a piece of new writing at Pentameters Theatre in Hampstead, the Oxford graduate director took me aside to suggest that I take our shared university off my resume, instead demoting my master of science from the LSE to a bachelor’s degree to polish the picture I needed sell, ie, anti-establishment and ideologically Left.
This also has the added benefit that directors are not threatened that an actor might be brighter than them, an important feature in the strange power relationships of dramatic art. (One I learned early on watching my Oxford contemporary Hugh Dancy – one of the better undergraduate minds in the department of English literature – saying that he wasn’t very bright in interviews.)
The fact is that the evolving political prejudices of the arts are far more complex than Bryant implies in his glib political point scoring. If anything it seems like the shadow minister – an Old Cheltonian and Oxford graduate himself – has simply failed to do his homework. He asks ‘where are the Albert Finneys and the Glenda Jacksons?’ Yet even a cursory look at the Academy Awards lists tells you that they are right up there: Christian Bale, Gary Oldman, Janet McTeer and Helen Mirren have all been nominated during the course of this government.
As for pop music, Blunt is definitely the exception. The list of number one albums in the charts is an almost exclusively state school list: you have to go back to May last year – via 23 non-public school individual artists and groups – until you get to Coldplay, whose lead singer Chris Martin went to Sherborne.
There are some areas where public school dominance is arguably a bad thing – an argument I myself have made about politics – but the astonishing level of blatant inverted snobbery in the arts shows that Bryant simply doesn’t know his brief.
I remember going to the book launch of Charles Cumming’s thriller Trinity Six at Daunt’s in Holland Park in 2011 and watching with bewilderment as our fellow OEs, Damian Lewis and Dominic West, manoeuvred around the cramped bookshop like repelling magnets, until it was explained to me that they were avoiding ‘the OE Photo’ and thus becoming the Boris and Dave of British acting.
Of course, this rank classism is why so much of our talent flees over the Atlantic. It was to avoid being judged under these narrow and intransigent canons that I went to train as an actor at the Stella Adler Conservatory in New York (alma mater to the likes of Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro), where you are ranked according to the industry standard ratio of 30 per cent talent and 70 per cent looks. Whether or not that is any better, I leave for the reader to judge.
Alexander Fiske-Harrison is a writer and actor, and was consultant on the Marlon Brando biographical documentary, Listen To Me Marlon (Passion Pictures), which debuts at the Sundance Film Festival next week
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