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‘I’m sick of it!’ The diabolical reality of being one of the few working-class people in TV
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‘I’m sick of it!’ The diabolical reality of being one of the few working-class people in TV

Lucy Beaumont is furious. A new report shows that just 8% of TV and radio workers are from working-class backgrounds – the lowest figure in a decade. Beaumont – who grew up in a low-income, single-parent family in Hull, and is now an award-winning TV comedian, creator and writer – feels forced to speak out: “My mum became a writer with no qualifications, really struggled and couldn’t carry on in the industry. I was an actor, and then it was the recession and regional theatre went under.”

“Nothing has changed. It makes me want to leave. I’m sick of it. I can’t tell you the amount of scripts I’ve tried to help people get away and the actors I’ve tried to champion. I’m really upset, you know, it’s crippled me for years. I honestly want to jack it all in, because I like helping working-class talent – and I can’t.”

The report shared by Channel 4 (one of the broadcasters found in 2019 to have staff twice as likely to be privately educated) used research from the mentoring charity Arts Emergency. It also showed that the number of middle- and upper-class people in TV has been at its highest (60%) during the past 10 years. Across the arts, 90% are white, nearly 70% in managerial positions are men and 1% of those managers are Black.

Lucy Beaumont.View image in fullscreen

This is particularly shocking considering the rise in fantastic working-class stories being told on screen in recent years. Think Sophie Willan’s Alma’s Not Normal, Jack Rooke’s Big Boys, Candice Carty-Williams’s Queenie or Nicôle Lecky’s Mood, which picked up the best mini-series award at last year’s Baftas. Things seem to be on the up.

According to Arts Emergency managing director Neil Griffiths, however, the findings are not surprising at all, because the reality is: “Really successful people – mainly women, and some are Bafta winners – get in touch, saying, ‘Do you know what? I can’t afford my nursery fees this month.’ There are people who come from working-class and marginalised backgrounds who have achieved all the success that you would want to have and still struggle to sustain a standard of living.”

While more working-class faces are on TV, behind the scenes it’s the same old story. “The controllers aren’t from what I would consider a ‘normal background’,” says Beaumont. “The commissioners, the execs, the writers, the directors, the casting agents … the norm is seen as middle-class London. It’s diabolical. They don’t go north of Watford! They don’t know anyone who works in a factory, they’ve never stood in a dole queue.”

While making Queenie, Carty-Williams said that “executives take this idea or a story from someone who is working class, then that is written by moneyed people and put on the screen”. Lecky also shared a strong message about Mood, after feeling pressured to tell more working-class stories: “You are one person. You can’t represent your whole community. I’m like: ‘You lot who are commissioners, commission more people from the community who have different experiences.’ It’s not for me to do that.”

There’s a lack of recognition, adds Griffiths, that “many of the gatekeepers now didn’t have to do unpaid work, or break their backs to get into the industry in the way that people do now. Nepotism and who you know are still absolutely fundamental to how screen industries work.” Plus, it’s “very easy to put people in the shop window”.

Sam Oddie, an award-winning 23-year-old film-maker from Manchester, whose goal is to make TV documentaries, knows the reality of this. After years of being expected to work for free, Oddie now says yes to every freelance opportunity he is offered, never sure of when the next job and payment will come: “I’m hoping to turn it into a full-time role somewhere. I want to feel like I’m progressing, instead of just trying to survive all the time. I know a lot of people who have done it for a year or two and had to leave because it’s not financially viable. Middle-class people have that safety blanket: parents to give them money that we simply don’t have.”

How does he feel when he does get in the room? “I feel like I’m very lucky to be there. That’s stopped me from speaking up about things. I think, ‘Am I someone who shouldn’t be here? So should I just take whatever’s coming?’”

Elsewhere, Adeel Amini, a TV producer (Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, 8 out of 10 Cats Does Countdown) entered the industry from Bradford in the 2000s: “I was bullied for my accent, as far back as university, and had to adapt to my environment to be taken seriously.” In 2015, there was no support when he experienced mental health issues – he couldn’t get time off work for therapy. He now runs The TV Mindset, offering support for freelancers, and the Coalition for Change, a pan-industry group to improve working practices in the UK TV sector.

‘You are one person. You can’t represent your whole community’ … Nicole Lecky in Mood.View image in fullscreen

“People are now leaving in droves, there’s a massive crisis going on – 68% of the workforce are unemployed at the moment,” he says. “The people being hit the most are the ones with the most to lose.” TV freelancers are “working long hours with no extra pay, just to try to get those credits and jobs. Then there’s not enough work. They’re the first ones to leave because they’re like, ‘This industry doesn’t want us’.

“I know executive producers who have worked for 15 years, who are now getting second jobs and just thinking: ‘What is the point? I’m being chewed up and spat out.’ There’s no reward; in other industries, the longer you work, the higher up you get. Here, that’s not the case.”

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Why, exactly, is the industry in the worst state in a decade? Well, the pandemic and cost-of-living crisis have had lingering major effects, along with Tory cuts to the arts over the past 14 years. There have been 12 culture secretaries during that time. Last year, the BBC’s creative diversity head, Joanna Abeyie, left because “these roles can become untenable when autonomy, influence and decision making is minimal to absent”. This year, the BBC’s director of diversity and inclusion, Chinny Okolidoh, also stepped down and will not be replaced. The organisation has restructured, introducing a new role – chief talent and inclusion officer – but until that position is recruited, its responsibilities will be taken on by another senior staff member, in addition to their current duties.

It’s clear what Amini means when he says that real change can only happen in such a fragmented industry with government intervention. Or, when “all broadcasters and streamers – everyone – put their egos aside and realise they need to work together and look at it holistically”. In fact, everyone interviewed said how hollow the overt efforts to address class diversity are. Broadcasters made promises during and after the pandemic, says Griffiths, “but it’s just all gone out of the window now … There’s no incentive for commercial companies to really do anything about it beyond [dealing with] a bit of bad rep.”

Film-maker Sam OddieView image in fullscreen

Surely there are some positives to be found? Willan’s sitcom, for example, was made possible after winning a BBC writing scheme. After its release, though, she said: “I found it very difficult to make that transition into TV … to get people to take you seriously, or hear your ideas, or get in the room, or know where the room is, can still be challenging.” It also means that working-class people need to rely on a golden ticket for success. For Oddie, another issue is that they are short term: “I don’t think they work. I think they’re a temporary fix to a long term problem.”

The fact that fixing this would make TV so much better is obvious to Beaumont: “It’s an energy that we’re talking about, not just a social status. It’s been tough if you’re from a working-class area. You grow up with a different understanding of the world than if you’ve never struggled with money. That energy is so powerful. You get Kes, This Is England, A Taste of Honey.”

Or to put it another way, it’s not like TV wouldn’t benefit from more diverse stories to tell: “How many more documentaries on air fryers do we need?” adds Oddie.

When a woman in a deprived area of Hull contacted Beaumont to ask for advice on her son’s acting career, she was stumped: “You could see instantly on camera that he’s got it. But I thought, ‘What do I say?’ I went and sat down with him and told him the truth: ‘You have to wait for a Shane Meadows film or series.’ He’s not going to get cast. He can’t afford drama school or live in London. No agent is going to take him on, because it’s impossible to get one without high-profile credits now. What has it come to?”

Source: theguardian.com