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Michael Sheen giving a speech
Actor Michael Sheen. Jeff Morgan 09/Alamy

Michael Sheen is right – there is a class crisis in the arts

The actor Michael Sheen recently complained about the lack of opportunities in film and journalism for working-class people. Writing in the New Statesman, Sheen said that the path he had taken into the film industry – as a working-class young man from South Wales – has all but disappeared. But Sheen isn’t just complaining, he is doing something about it.

He’s started a creative arts scheme for people from working-class and under-represented communities. Sadly, he is right to be concerned. The latest Office for National Statistics Labour Force Survey data, collected in the summer of 2020, suggests an ongoing class crisis in the arts. The screen industries, with which Sheen is closely associated, key roles are dominated by the middle classes. For producers and directors, 61% were middle class. In screen occupations, only 25% of the workforce is working class – the lowest proportion since this data was first collected in 2014.

Our research found that a complex blend of social inequalities, labour market failures, and outright discrimination are making these jobs so exclusive and keeping talented working-class people from making it.

Early obstacles

We know that low pay and work insecurity, the costs of education, and the importance of networks and nepotism, all influence who makes it in Britain’s screen sector. Yet there are more subtle barriers stopping working-class success.

In our research for The Arts and Humanities Research Council’s Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre, and our recent book Culture is Bad for You, we found class inequality starts early in the life of our cultural workers.

Access to culture, both in school and extracurricular, was important in shaping whether a job in the screen sector would be plausible as a career. Unequal access to culture in childhood also had important implications later in life. Not having the “correct” cultural references shaped working-class origin workers’ sense of confidence in the workplace. It was also part of the feeling that they were not at home in the middle-class environment of the film set, the TV studio, or the office where productions are commissioned.

While issues of unpaid work and internships have seen lots of policy, screen sector, and academic attention, these unwritten cultural rules have not. One painful, example of this came in our interviewees’ discussions about discrimination as a result of their accents.

They told us their accents would be mocked and joked about in ways that went far beyond “playful banter”. Discrimination based on accent connects directly to well-known issues of sexism and racism in the screen industry. The markers of social class, such as someone’s accent, aggravate the injuries felt by women, people of colour and disabled people, as they struggle to get in and get on in the industry.

Social barriers

Even if the financial and social network barriers to success were solved, these cultural barriers would still exist. Consciously or not, those who are well connected via school and university, and are middle-class starting points, may find new ways to exclude those who make it into places that they dominate. This is not to say that more senior people working in cultural jobs actively seek to reinforce these inequalities, but what they say is often at odds with their practice.

Recent data from the Centre for Cultural Value’s impact of COVID on the cultural sector project suggests 2020 saw huge numbers of job losses and reduced working hours in key parts of the cultural industries. While film and TV seem to be recovering from restrictions on working hours as a result of the first lockdown, music, performing and visual arts occupations saw the numbers of workers reduce by 55,000. The loss of a third of the workforce, the huge uncertainty about reopening and recovery, means the class crisis is only likely to get worse.

There is significant discussion of social mobility in relation to the government’s current “levelling up” agenda. This sits alongside changes in the media industry, with the BBC’s new focus on social mobility and Channel 4 moving to Leeds. These are starting points to address this class problem. The stories of discrimination will continue until there is a change in the culture of our cultural industries that are still comfortable excluding people because they are different from the dominant, middle-class norm.

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