Drama in Crisis
Hilary Cornwell reports on the final session of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on social mobility’s inquiry into access to leading professions.
Swapping Hollywood for Westminster, Michael Sheen addressed the All-Party Parliamentary Group on social mobility at the Houses of Parliament last night. The actor, best-known for his portrayals of Tony Blair and Brian Clough, spoke about the barriers that stop disadvantaged young people accessing careers in media and the art.
Sheen warned that cuts to arts budgets mean pathways into acting are now closed for many young people. He had benefited from drama classes at his comprehensive school in Port Talbot, before joining a youth theater and then going on to receive a grant to attend drama school, but warned that these opportunities no longer exist for young people in his area.
He went on to argue that a lack of funding for youth arts projects is often down to the perception that artistic talent is innate and doesn’t need nurturing. Sheen was quick to point out that “acting is a craft” and “part of being a good actor is making it look really easy”, but in reality “it takes ages before you are really good at it”. The actor was joined by Stuart Worden, Principal of the BRIT school in Croydon, who added that: “we say, ‘that’s not exactly rocket science’ – we should also say ‘that’s not exactly contemporary dance,’ it’s just as hard”.
Worden spoke passionately about the importance of making sure all young people have access to a good arts education at school. He warned that curriculum changes have led to a dangerous devaluing of arts subjects in state schools and highlighted that 46,000 fewer students will take a creative subject at GCSE this year. The educationalist pointed out that this was an economic problem as well as a cultural one: the creative industries are one of the fasting growing sectors of the UK economy but “if society is hell-bent on creating an arts-free education, there will be nobody there to take these jobs”.
Both Sheen and Worden agreed that improving access to careers in the arts industries is critical. Sheen said that failure to ensure working class voices are heard in film, theatre and TV will have a wider impact on society as a whole. He added that we have to make sure that theater appeals to everybody and reflects the experiences of the country as a whole, not just the privileged few.
These sentiments echoed those of the session’s previous panel, made up of figures from the world of journalism. Andy Cairns of Sky Sports News, Megan Bramall of BBC Breakfast, Helena Carter of ITV News and Joanne Butcher of the National Council for the Training of Journalists all agreed that it was important for society to have a more diverse group of people producing the news that we consume. However all the panelists thought that access to work experience and a lack of good careers advice was stopping many less advantaged young people from considering a career in the field.
Unpaid internships were the focus of the first panel of the evening: Sir Peter Bazelgette, Chair of the Arts Council and ITV, described them as ‘the curse of the arts industry’. Both Bazelgette and Carys Nelkon of Arts Emergency said that the expectation that young people will work for less than the national minimum wage was the major barrier for disadvantaged young people interested in accessing jobs in the creative industries. Sir Peter called for employers who don’t pay a fair wage to be named and shamed.
The session followed the Sutton Trust’s Leading People research, which found that almost half of British BAFTA winners were educated independently.