Class Acts

10/05/2015

The Politics of Thespian Representation

In The Independent, David Lister proposes that he doesn’t care where an actor comes from. Whether they’ve been privately educated or comprehensively schooled, what matters is the performance. “If I look at the greatest actors, from Laurence Olivier to Simon Russell Beale, Mark Rylance and Judi Dench, I have not the slightest idea where any of them went to school, and it has never occurred to me to wonder about their family backgrounds. All that counts is the quality of the acting.” This seems like a variation of Lawrence’s too often quoted trust the tale and not the teller. Yet quite a few articles have taken a different view from Lister’s, as if wondering whether Tory toffs in government have been matched by actors, musicians etc. coming from similar backgrounds, and musing over what this says about diversity in the UK. A piece by Sean O’Hagan in the Guardian asks whether certain social changes lead to a very different aesthetic demographic. What he sees, he says, “contends that popular culture is becoming increasingly gentrified, not just in the elitism that still holds sway in so-called highbrow forms like opera and classical music, but in the drift of society at large towards privilege and exclusion.” Julie Walters in an interview in the same paper insisted that the films being made today were far more middle-class in their casting and representation. “The lack of opportunity is not simply limiting the people coming into the acting profession,” she says, “it’s restricting what’s being written.” “Working-class kids aren’t represented. Working-class life is not referred to. It’s really sad. I think it means we’re going to get loads more middle-class drama. It will be middle-class people playing working-class people, like it used to be.” (Guardian)

Lister’s response seems naive on both aesthetic and sociological grounds, while O’Hagan’s argument, though hardly aesthetic, does usefully comment on various artists who benefited in the post-war years from student grants and dole money. He at least looks at how this transformed the representation in aesthetics, and how it is changing again. “The world of pop culture has changed dramatically since then, becoming more fractured, atomised and less culturally important” O’Hagan says. “If pop music is characterised by anything today it is a curious lack of meaning. “When I formed a rock group back in my teens,” says Primal Scream vocalist Bobby Gillespie, ‘it really was all or nothing. It was literally my one chance to express myself or to resign myself to a life of drudgery in a factory. I’d heard The Sex Pistols and recognised immediately that their music was born of essentially working-class anger and frustration, and that in itself was empowering. When was the last time you heard music like that, music that said something so strongly with so much genuine and justified rage?’” (Guardian) Equally, when Walters mentions how many roles there were for working class actors when she started out, and how the writers are no longer creating them, she pointedly if perhaps accidentally does hit on aesthetic questions, ones picked up on in another recent Guardian article on writer Jimmy McGovern. “Speaking to the Radio Times about his new series Banished, which explores the lives of early British settlers in Australia, McGovern said that the lack of working-class actors was affecting “the kind of British drama that gets made.”

Yet the reason we are especially inclined to find Lister’s comments irritating is because they are couched aesthetically but are also hopelessly unthought through. Unlike writing, directing and making art, the actor is more obviously than most a product of their background and their breeding: we mean here no more than they exist as existential facts as philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre would define them (and more on this later). Though Albert Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus could see in the actor a certain freedom absent from the rest of us, that freedom lay not in a comparison between an artist, like a painter, director or writer, and the actor, but between the actor and the self: the absurd freedom available in playing a part. “The actor has three hours to be Iago or Alceste, Phedre or Gloucester. In that short space of time he makes them come to life and die on fifty square yards of board.” The actor can play many parts while generally in life most humans only get to play one: themselves. But if Camus compares the actor with people, if we compare the performer with, say, a writer, the actor can seem much more ‘limited’, because while the writer can create characters who are six foot five or five foot three, who have any background the writer cares to give them, and can show characters with hair or without, with whatever eye colour they wish, the actor is surely more limited by virtue of the body they happen to be working with.

They exist as bodily facts however adventurous the roles they play may be. Jack Nicholson has played detectives, TV reporters, struggling writers, disaffected lawyers and disillusioned musicians, but we have no problem extricating Nicholson from all those roles. The notion that an actor becomes unrecognisable through the roles they play is rare indeed: John Hurt in The Elephant Man is an extreme case, and all we have to go on in the film is Hurt’s voice hiding inside the grotesque prosthetic. Even De Niro with a false nose and sixty pounds of extra flab is still easily recognized in Raging Bull. It isn’t that a couple of the actors recently name-checked in this debate (Harrow educated Benedict Cumberbatch; Eton’s Eddie Redmayne) can’t play a broad range of roles, it is partly that what we want from actors is not an especially wide repertoire but a capacity for singularity. We want not only an actor brilliantly portraying Jake La Motta; we also want the specific sensibility of the actor playing the role. We easily see La Motta as a De Niro part, finding many similarities with the actors’ work in The Last TycoonTaxi DriverThe Deer Hunter and The King of Comedy. The roles are far from interchangeable, but they are all decidedly De Niro-esque.

Cumberbatch and Redmayne might be able to ‘do’ a range of accents beyond their public school standard, but why have an actor put on an accent when there would be, in a world of greater social justice meeting the world of greater aesthetic choice, plenty actors who have the accent already? De Niro for all his so-called range as an actor has often played in his key films characters struggling to find the right words, wary of the presence of others, and projecting his unkempt feelings onto women who might prefer that he didn’t. Of course De Niro rarely played characters who were from money, and even Monroe Stahr, the Hollywood producer in The Last Tycoon, came from poverty. De Niro’s own background was an artistic one: his parents were both painters who exhibited with Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, according to Patrick Agan. (Robert De Niro). But it was also not easy. “In the battle of art versus survival”, Virginia, De Niro’s mother, “chose the latter.” She started “a typing and offset-printing service to support them” after her marriage broke down. De Niro attended a public school in the Village, but wasn’t seen as much of a student, preferring to check “out the small and seedy poolhalls and bowling alleys.” It is the latter aspect we find in De Niro’s performance much more than the former. How many would be surprised to hear that De Niro’s parents exhibited with Pollock and Rothko; how many that he liked hanging out at poollhalls?

Generally we find it rare that an actor’s persona is completely divorced from the life, and even when it might appear to be (who could easily see Cary Grant as Archibald Leach, Bristol born son of Elias, who pressed suits in a garment factory?), perhaps it gives the performer a certain evasiveness, as if the actor is living up to the audience’s expectation placed upon them, rather than playing out the subtle transformations where life is turned into art. If David Thomson can see in De Niro an actor “who reminds you how genteel American moves are”,  an actor who counters films that fail to give “us the coarse, monotonous, and unpredictable undergrowth existence of life” (Biographical Dictionary of Film), Grant is the opposite. While De Niro is “threatening and ungraspable”, he sees that Grant is someone whose “strength as a screen actor is in giving us a sense of the doubt and dismay that lies in being ‘Cary Grant’. (Movies of the Fifties) While De Niro sets out to shatter our cinematic illusions, Grant was always someone who wanted to confirm them, but usually with a hint that an illusion is taking place. The poor boy made good sits behind many of Grant’s performances: there is a gracious charm that seems to suggests he can’t believe his own luck,

Now of course some would insist this isn’t acting at all: that the more De Niro played dangerous and demanding; the more Grant played darkly hued and carefully honed, the less acting was getting done. Shouldn’t an actor be able to change his accent according to the demands of the part, alter his gait, disappear into the role? Perhaps theoretically this might be so, but the reality of screen acting lies in the facticity of an actor’s existential presence. It would be possible to have Clint Eastwood play a little guy: you just cast around him actors like Richard Kiel, Peter Mayhew and other seven-plus foot performers to make him look small, and enlarge all the objects with which he interacts. There Eastwood’s character would be, intimidated by the world he is in, and the actor would be defiantly playing against type. But this would seem less an instance of great acting; more an interesting play with perspective. Surely better to cast Dustin Hoffman or Billy Crystal. Finally and pragmatically actors usually play close to their social and existential reality. Unless the film works from the idea of a big man literally made small, it would seem like a very elaborate waste of money.

Now let us imagine however a role that needs someone who plays, within the one film, a variety of parts, from underclass to upperclass, from someone who is utterly disenfranchised from society, to someone who occupies its upper echelons. The role could plausibly be played by anyone from the social spectrum who can incorporate within their acting repertoire various social classes. It wouldn’t really matter whether it was Daniel Day-Lewis, Eddie Redmayne or Benedict Cumberbatch at the upper end of the social ladder, or Robert Carlyle, David Thewliss or Jack O’Connell coming from less well-off backgrounds. But if the role simply requires the portrayal of a working-class character living in a poverty-stricken milieu, then doesn’t it makes more sense to cast an actor from that environment who will understand the world, rather than deploy an actor who must learn much more radically to transform his body language and accent for the part?

This doesn’t mean the actor from the working class milieu hasn’t moved into another one that might make the performance far from automatic, but it is still likely that the body language and accent will be accessible rather than performed. We can’t pretend that an actor who achieves fame will be inclined to remain within the milieu of the class he came from, but he or she will still be a lot closer to that world than an actor whose background was upper middle-class and where he was given a private education. The point Walters, O’Hagan, McGovern and others seem to be making, and that Lister chooses to ignore, is that there is an interaction between aesthetics and the social, between parts written because there are plenty of working class actors around, and writers creating roles for them: that in film, TV and theatre the actor is not just a thespian factotum who turns their hand and the rest of their body to whatever is demanded of him or her. The actor is an existential fact that writers and directors draw upon. This is a point Walters makes when she invokes writers like Willy Russell and Alan Bleasdale, and both Stephen McGann and Brian Cox make in the O’Hagan piece. Cox says, “I feel awful that young people don’t have the opportunities that I had. It’s like we’ve excluded a root element from cultural life, and I think that’s very dangerous. McGann says “opportunities are closing down.” (Guardian)

McGann and Cox are talking chiefly about the social options: “what counted for me and my brothers”, McGann says “- and for mates of ours like David Morrissey and Ian Hart, all growing up in Dingle and Toxteth – was the real change in education.” While we don’t want to underestimate this aspect of the problem, our chief interest here is one of aesthetics, with the representation of life in film form. Daniel Day-Lewis once expressed his admiration for Ken Loach. “My hero [is] Ken Loach, who can do no wrong as far as I am concerned.” (Independent)  Perhaps one day there will be a role in a Loach film that would work for Day-Lewis. Yet our first response shouldn’t be why Day-Lewis gets to play the part when there would be dozens of people (professional or non-professional actors) who could offer it up without the sort of research that would have Day-Lewis hanging around a housing estate for six weeks soaking up the atmosphere. No, it should be instead that Ken Loach’s best work requires from the actor something that is close to non-acting: a sort of behavioural register where agency is limited, frustration often more evident than progress. Now when Day-Lewis played working class in Jim Sheridan’s work (in My Left Foot, in In The Name of the Father and The Boxer), Sheridan wanted a hyperbolized aesthetic that could turn each film into a genre work: whether it is the triumph over adversity film, the prison movie or the western, these were the genres Sheridan sought to invoke. This was very explicitly so in The Boxer’s case, where the typical western duel was turned into a clash of Protestants and Catholics, Irish and English exchanges.

Loach has never shown such interest in broad-stroke mythmaking and generic incorporation, and his films have gained little from their application. When the albeit entertaining The Angel’s Share becomes a comedic heist film, we yearn for Bill Forsyth’s subtler hand: we wish for the presence of a comic director, and perhaps even comic actors. The film feels caught between its need to explore a lower working class Glasgow milieu, and the desire to fashion a story around a whisky heist, with the young characters off up to the Highlands to snaffle some of Scotland’s finest. The acting remains rooted and edgy, but the performances seem to go against the grain, so to speak, of the film’s comedic throughline. This of course isn’t to say non-professionals can’t do comedy (Forsyth’s early work shows they very much can), but that Loach doesn’t do genre: the acting gets caught between Forsyth’s wry sensibility and Loach’s nervy demotic. As with many a leading part in Loach’s films, however, the strength resides on milieu realism over generic execution, and this is partly why he is very specific in his casting, and where most of the interest in his work lies. It is also why Day-Lewis would not seem suitable casting in a Loach film.

When Graham Fuller asks the director about how many of the cast on Riff-Raff had actual building site experience, Loach replied: “Pretty much all of them. Robert Carlyle had been a painter and decorator for five years before he became an actor…Ricky Tomlinson had been a plasterer and was one of the ‘Shrewsbury Three’, who were building workers imprisoned for organizing a strike in the early seventies.” (Loach on Loach) For Family Life Loach went along to the Conservative Association of Walthamstow, meeting with the ladies’ committee. There he found Grace Cave who plays the formidable and authoritarian mother in the film. Loach doesn’t especially look for professional or non-professional actors; what he insists upon is finding for the role an aspect of that facticity we briefly mentioned at the beginning of the article. When the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre says “the for-itself is in the manner of an event, in the sense that it has not chosen, as Peter is a French bourgeois in 1942, as Schmitt was a Berlin worker in 1870…” (Being and Nothingness) this factive dimension to the self fascinates directors like Loach and also Mike Leigh. When casting the upper working class film Life is Sweet, set in and around London, the heads at British Screen wondered whether Leigh had “thought about Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep.” Leigh replied “They’re really good, they’re character actors, and they’re bright, but that’s not the point.” (Leigh on Leigh)

It is this notion of the point that is paramount for directors like Loach and Leigh, and also what concerns Walters, Cox and others. Hoffman and Streep are great actors, but how much facticity can they bring to the role;  could they carry the type of being Loach and Leigh looks for in their bodies? They might offer a fine performance a posteriori, but not a priori. In other words they might work really hard to get the accents right and make their body language plausible, but this wouldn’t be because of an aspect of their own lives, but for a thespian display. When Loach says, “the energy comes from working with people like Ricky Tomlinson and Bobby Carlyle…” this is partly due to the reality they bring to their roles, not only the thespian ability that comes from playing a part. Thus Leigh can say: “something I love…is when an actor performs a skill of which they are very capable. Ruth Sheen is actually a rather good singer. So when [In All or Nothing] she gets to sing you think it’s going to be awful, but actually it’s rather gorgeous.” (Leigh on Leigh) This isn’t about the actor taking singing lessons to perform a role, it is more that the director extracts from the performer a quality they already possess and the filmmaker utilises. It has nothing to do with the virtuoso performance (Emmanuelle Beart learning to play the violin for Un Coeur en Hiver, De Niro mastering the sax in New York, New York), but to do with an already given existential reality to be drawn out of the actor.

We needn’t predicate one approach over the other, but we might distinguish a distinct difference. Directors like Loach and Leigh want to work with the actors’ past to find literally hidden talents. In Loach on Loach, the director says he allowed Tomlinson to make up a lot of his own dialogue on Riff Raff. This was because the actor was a builder, but also perhaps because after imprisonment he worked as a stand-up comedian, and Loach accesses Tomlinson’s capacity for humour, just as Leigh utilises Sheen’s ability to sing. Other directors will be more inclined to use an actor’s willpower to create a skill the actor previously didn’t possess. Beart and De Niro find the character as if through mastering a musical craft anew, while Sheen accesses a gift that would have generally lain dormant, It is as if in De Niro and Beart’s case they offer a performance based on the external nature of the role and then dig into it, finding something of their own preoccupations. In Leigh and Loach the process is more fundamentally excavatory.

Of course sometimes the willpower we see in De Niro and Beart’s efforts applies not to some external object one masters, but one’s own body – De Niro’s middle-weight championship physique on the one hand and weight gain on the other in Raging Bull remains a particularly extreme example of transformation, no matter if ‘De Niro’ always remains present in the final film. Taking into account our earlier comments about accessing and performing, Sheen and Tomlinson access their roles in All or Nothing and Riff Raff, Beart and De Niro perform their parts in Un Couer en Hiver and New York, New York. De Niro, especially, will be doing a lot more of course. None of De Niro’s great performances aren’t also accessed – possessed of ‘inner conviction’. This is where we have, as the great theorist of the Method, Stanislavski says, “an inner and outer plane in every role inter-laced.” He adds, “a common objective makes them akin to one another and strengthens their bonds.” (An Actor Prepares) Obviously in numerous more recent De Niro parts that inner conviction seems missing and the roles are casually performed. If the performance is richly researched, we can say that the role is intensely performed. But it is still merely performed unless one senses “the creation of the human soul in the part.” (An Actor Prepares)

Stanislavski is talking about theatre, and perhaps an aspect of the inner conviction he talks about becomes, in the cinema, a dimension of the fact of the actor’s existence. The inner conviction is an existential given, not a thespian imposition. When Julia Roberts plays the role of a working class American woman trying to take on corrupt drug corporations in the US, in Erin Brockovich, we might still too easily see the gap between the struggling woman she portrays, and the star actress she happens to be. When Gilberto Perez quotes the actress saying she doesn’t do nudity because she doesn’t do documentary (London Review of Books), it is as though she is acknowledging that her purpose isn’t to access her existential self, but to perform a role. Nudity, for Roberts, is giving something of herself that belongs to her and not to cinema, and perhaps one reason why few see her as anywhere near as interesting actress as, say, Julianne Moore (who does do nudity) is because she cannot quite countenance herself as this embodied fact on the screen, and thus the inner conviction of the role never quite seems accessed. She might play up her image occasionally (as in Notting Hill), but this is hardly the creation of the human soul in the part.

Lister might believe what matters is the final performance; can we pretend, though, that there isn’t a process that leads to this, and to what degree would we be willing to accept that the only thing of consequence is the resultant thespian display? Imagine Christian Bale as Malcom X, Daniel Day-Lewis as Nelson Mandela, Robert De Niro as Steven Biko. It isn’t even as if Lister doesn’t have half a point: in the early eighties Ben Kingsley and Alec Guinness ‘darkened up’ to play Indians in Gandhi and A Passage to India, with Kingsley’s performance generally well-received and Guinness’s less so because people saw Kingsley immersing himself as Gandhi, and Guinness offering a caricature in the latter film. When Peter Sellers played an Indian in The Partywe didn’t expect anything more than caricature and the performance served its purpose: this wasn’t about a ‘real’ Indian but a Peter Sellers impersonation. Nevertheless, few would be likely to say that Day-Lewis as Mandela would be unproblematic casting, and do we accept Kingsley in the role as Gandhi partly because of the actor’s Indian heritage: his father was of Gujrati Indian descent?

We could argue the degree to which this is political correctness or a question of verisimilitude. When in Elizabethan theatre all the roles were played by men, patriarchy met performativity: the suspension of disbelief was of a rather different order. This is evident in adaptations of Shakespeare plays like Much Ado About Nothing where the man pretends to be a woman: when there are women in the film a man pretending to be a woman doesn’t work so well because we haven’t been asked to believe from the offset that everyone of the same gender will be playing people of two genders. Equally, can we culturally suspend our disbelief to accept that if Day-Lewis plays Mandela brilliantly that will be enough? The notion of suspension of disbelief is culturally codified: it is the performance not only conceived but perceived also. When for example Hollywood gives Charlize Theron the Oscar for playing a serial killer in Monster, she doesn’t look especially like the actual murderer in Nick Broomfield’s documentaries Aileen Wournos, The Selling of a Serial Killer and Aileen, Life and Death of a Serial Killer, but she looks far enough away from Charlize Theron for us to see a performance at work. Hollywood still often functions from a suspension that remains within the performative over the accessed. In other words, what matters isn’t the soul of the character found, but the distance from the actor’s self that is travelled.

Indeed partly what makes a great American actor versus a weak one might lie in the degree to which the actor retreats from themselves and finds the soul of the part, or retreats only far enough to hide themselves in the role. Joaquin Phoenix is still clearly the same man in Two LoversThe Master and Her, but in each he finds the inner soul of the part, where Julia Roberts wears her roles lightly, as if an understudy pushed on the stage determined simply to get her lines right. Indeed, when we compare the roles De Niro and Nicholson played in the seventies to much of their work recently it indicates this key difference. It as if in the seventies Nicholson and De Niro were drawing upon the sort of ‘emotion memory’ Stanislavski discusses: “that type of memory, which makes you relive the sensation you once felt when seeing Moskvin act, or when your friend died, is what we call emotion memory.” In these brilliant actors’ more recent work it feels like an act of self-consciousness not as emotion memory but as self-reflexivity: they are drawing on their past films and tapping not into the self but merely into a persona.

When we look at such performances are we just watching the part being played, or are we at the same time asking certain questions of selfhood and how film captures it? And equally when we look at films are we not looking to see how society is captured also? If Taxi Driver remains an astonishing work it lies partly in the film exploring New York through the mind of a cabbie and through showing us Manhattan at a particular moment in time: the mid-seventies. De Niro researched the role by taking a job driving a cab: Patrick Again says “for two weeks he cruised and worked through the streets of the city, checking out his fares for any available insight into his part.” (Robert De Niro) In turn Scorsese films the city as if knowing this is a moment in time that will pass, and part of film’s purpose, even fiction film’s purpose, is to capture it. This is not filmmaking that plays up the actor’s persona (as in Meet the Parents), it is a film that is lucky enough to have in its leading role a masterful actor, one who at the time was still capable of enough anonymity to watch others rather than others watching him. It isn’t the famous star travelling through New York in a stretched limo, but the actor in the driving seat looking at others through the rear view mirror.

Perhaps we have moved very far away from our initial query, and it is now time to return to it. Lister seems to believe that the background of an actor matters little, while O’Hagan, Cox, Walters and others think differently. If we’re inclined to agree with the latter over the former this isn’t just a question of fairness, of insisting that the acting profession should have people from a broad range of social backgrounds. This is really Michael Boyd’s point in another Independent piece. Interviewed by Jessica Barrett he says, “I think it is harder now for people without either an independent income or the connections that a private education brings to survive those first five years of working in the arts.” But he also adds, “the arts will effectively become smaller in their spiritual, moral and cultural presence.” Lister might not care where someone comes from, but at a certain point if the emphasis is so obviously on wealth and comfort, on Jane Austen adaptations and upstairs/downstairs dramas, surely a question needs to be asked that doesn’t only concern what is up there on the stage or screen. Reading through An Autobiography of British Cinema, where Brian McFarlane interviews numerous actors, directors etc. who contributed to British film for much of the twentieth century, we notice that perhaps British cinema has always been class-oriented and well-to-do. There are a few working-class voices available, critiquing the British thespian norm. Albert Finney says “usually in the theatre and the cinema you get a middle-class style of acting, which means that when people are playing a working-class character they send it up, they don’t act it.” Tom Courtenay, interviewed in 1961, reckons, “take all this thing now about working-class actors and writers: it’s simply a release of certain talents from that class.” Yet, looking through An Autobiography of British Cinema,  we see that many more have been released from wealthier backgrounds.

Perhaps we needn’t look back nostalgically at halcyon days of working class possibility in film evident when Finney and Courtenay became fine film actors, but at the very least we should note that things are getting worse rather than better. When Cox, Walters and others talk of their earlier years, we shouldn’t assume that this was an especially golden age, just a moment that seemed progressive where today it seems retrogressive. After all, when we think of numerous actresses of the sixties and seventies, from Charlotte Rampling to Jacqueline Bisset, from Julie Christie to Susannah York, they were, like Emily Blunt and Rosamund Pike, Kiera Knightley and Emma Watson, very middle-class. Glenda Jackson was the exception, not the rule, as critics often linked her acerbic screen personality with her social background. Alexander Walker, for example, remarked that  “she did a stint in Boots the chemists’ chain stores, and maybe her down-to-earth manner goes back to those shop-counter days of dishing out aspirin and laxative to the public.” (National Heroes) There were so many actresses then, as now, coming from a similar wealthy background that it wouldn’t pass for much of an observation to say that Bisset or Blunt’s acting sounds like that of a prefect in a private school politely telling off those in the years below. It would be a general observation covering numerous actresses, rather than a singular perception: it would indicate the lack of variety amongst leading ladies.

Surely what we want from film is representative range over role model expectation. Perhaps more young women would prefer to be Blunt than blunt: would prefer to offer the polished vowels of Emily over the rougher vowel sounds of Glenda. However cinema is surely at its most interesting when it is explorational rather than aspirational, when it searches out range rather than insists on social limitation, however high class. With the latter we have apparent meritocracy as you can hope to be whatever you want to be, but can’t see where you have come from. Instead of everyone seeing themselves up there on screen, they merely see a figure they can aspire to instead. In The Long Revolution, Raymond Williams interestingly observes the British accent, and quotes a couple of historians of language insisting that a certain class produces the best pronunciation. H. C. Wyld believes, Williams says, “that the long ‘a’ in Received Standard path and last is more ‘beautiful’ and ‘sonorous’ than its alternatives (this is a natural affection but quite arbitrary), or that to ‘insert’ the ‘r’-sound in bird would lose the quality and length of the vowel (but to me, with different speech habits, the sounding of ‘r’ is beautiful and sonorous.” R. W. Chapman reckons in “a class which though not arrogantly exclusive is necessarily limited in numbers…its traditions are maintained not primarily by the universities, but by the public schools”, and assumes that there is nothing wrong with this at all.

What Walters, Cox, McGann and other actors are fighting for isn’t only their place in the sun (the opportunity for working class actors like themselves to make it in the world of film, television and theatre), but also to remain part of the wider world too. They are well aware that, to produce a flattened out milieu where actors come from a narrow social demographic, they might end up playing within that social range (playing comfortably off people who have nothing to do with their own roots), or at best occasionally playing the lower orders, but in a way consistent with Finney’s claims: “they don’t act it, they send it up.” There is a fear amongst Walters and others that cinema and TV soon won’t allow, it seems, for the acting integrity Loach and Leigh access, which contains within it a socio-political commitment that marks them out as filmmakers of the Left and clear beneficiaries of the post-war welfare state.  Instead all we might have is a pseudo-egalitarianism where the odd working class actor makes it, but as an escape from their environment  – rather than serving as an exemplification of it. It thus allows, quite worryingly, the wealthy to possess not only the means of production, but to dictate the modes of representation also. This might not bother Lister, but it seems an abdication of both social and aesthetic responsibility for those who see art and life as meaningfully intertwined.

© Tony McKibbin

Tony McKibbin Tony McKibbin

Class Acts

The Politics of Thespian Representation

In The Independent, David Lister proposes that he doesn't care where an actor comes from. Whether they've been privately educated or comprehensively schooled, what matters is the performance. "If I look at the greatest actors, from Laurence Olivier to Simon Russell Beale, Mark Rylance and Judi Dench, I have not the slightest idea where any of them went to school, and it has never occurred to me to wonder about their family backgrounds. All that counts is the quality of the acting." This seems like a variation of Lawrence's too often quoted trust the tale and not the teller. Yet quite a few articles have taken a different view from Lister's, as if wondering whether Tory toffs in government have been matched by actors, musicians etc. coming from similar backgrounds, and musing over what this says about diversity in the UK. A piece by Sean O'Hagan in the Guardian asks whether certain social changes lead to a very different aesthetic demographic. What he sees, he says, "contends that popular culture is becoming increasingly gentrified, not just in the elitism that still holds sway in so-called highbrow forms like opera and classical music, but in the drift of society at large towards privilege and exclusion." Julie Walters in an interview in the same paper insisted that the films being made today were far more middle-class in their casting and representation. "The lack of opportunity is not simply limiting the people coming into the acting profession," she says, "it's restricting what's being written." "Working-class kids aren't represented. Working-class life is not referred to. It's really sad. I think it means we're going to get loads more middle-class drama. It will be middle-class people playing working-class people, like it used to be." (Guardian)

Lister's response seems naive on both aesthetic and sociological grounds, while O'Hagan's argument, though hardly aesthetic, does usefully comment on various artists who benefited in the post-war years from student grants and dole money. He at least looks at how this transformed the representation in aesthetics, and how it is changing again. "The world of pop culture has changed dramatically since then, becoming more fractured, atomised and less culturally important" O'Hagan says. "If pop music is characterised by anything today it is a curious lack of meaning. "When I formed a rock group back in my teens," says Primal Scream vocalist Bobby Gillespie, 'it really was all or nothing. It was literally my one chance to express myself or to resign myself to a life of drudgery in a factory. I'd heard The Sex Pistols and recognised immediately that their music was born of essentially working-class anger and frustration, and that in itself was empowering. When was the last time you heard music like that, music that said something so strongly with so much genuine and justified rage?'" (Guardian) Equally, when Walters mentions how many roles there were for working class actors when she started out, and how the writers are no longer creating them, she pointedly if perhaps accidentally does hit on aesthetic questions, ones picked up on in another recent Guardian article on writer Jimmy McGovern. "Speaking to the Radio Times about his new series Banished, which explores the lives of early British settlers in Australia, McGovern said that the lack of working-class actors was affecting "the kind of British drama that gets made."

Yet the reason we are especially inclined to find Lister's comments irritating is because they are couched aesthetically but are also hopelessly unthought through. Unlike writing, directing and making art, the actor is more obviously than most a product of their background and their breeding: we mean here no more than they exist as existential facts as philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre would define them (and more on this later). Though Albert Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus could see in the actor a certain freedom absent from the rest of us, that freedom lay not in a comparison between an artist, like a painter, director or writer, and the actor, but between the actor and the self: the absurd freedom available in playing a part. "The actor has three hours to be Iago or Alceste, Phedre or Gloucester. In that short space of time he makes them come to life and die on fifty square yards of board." The actor can play many parts while generally in life most humans only get to play one: themselves. But if Camus compares the actor with people, if we compare the performer with, say, a writer, the actor can seem much more 'limited', because while the writer can create characters who are six foot five or five foot three, who have any background the writer cares to give them, and can show characters with hair or without, with whatever eye colour they wish, the actor is surely more limited by virtue of the body they happen to be working with.

They exist as bodily facts however adventurous the roles they play may be. Jack Nicholson has played detectives, TV reporters, struggling writers, disaffected lawyers and disillusioned musicians, but we have no problem extricating Nicholson from all those roles. The notion that an actor becomes unrecognisable through the roles they play is rare indeed: John Hurt in The Elephant Man is an extreme case, and all we have to go on in the film is Hurt's voice hiding inside the grotesque prosthetic. Even De Niro with a false nose and sixty pounds of extra flab is still easily recognized in Raging Bull. It isn't that a couple of the actors recently name-checked in this debate (Harrow educated Benedict Cumberbatch; Eton's Eddie Redmayne) can't play a broad range of roles, it is partly that what we want from actors is not an especially wide repertoire but a capacity for singularity. We want not only an actor brilliantly portraying Jake La Motta; we also want the specific sensibility of the actor playing the role. We easily see La Motta as a De Niro part, finding many similarities with the actors' work in The Last Tycoon, Taxi Driver, The Deer Hunter and The King of Comedy. The roles are far from interchangeable, but they are all decidedly De Niro-esque.

Cumberbatch and Redmayne might be able to 'do' a range of accents beyond their public school standard, but why have an actor put on an accent when there would be, in a world of greater social justice meeting the world of greater aesthetic choice, plenty actors who have the accent already? De Niro for all his so-called range as an actor has often played in his key films characters struggling to find the right words, wary of the presence of others, and projecting his unkempt feelings onto women who might prefer that he didn't. Of course De Niro rarely played characters who were from money, and even Monroe Stahr, the Hollywood producer in The Last Tycoon, came from poverty. De Niro's own background was an artistic one: his parents were both painters who exhibited with Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, according to Patrick Agan. (Robert De Niro). But it was also not easy. "In the battle of art versus survival", Virginia, De Niro's mother, "chose the latter." She started "a typing and offset-printing service to support them" after her marriage broke down. De Niro attended a public school in the Village, but wasn't seen as much of a student, preferring to check "out the small and seedy poolhalls and bowling alleys." It is the latter aspect we find in De Niro's performance much more than the former. How many would be surprised to hear that De Niro's parents exhibited with Pollock and Rothko; how many that he liked hanging out at poollhalls?

Generally we find it rare that an actor's persona is completely divorced from the life, and even when it might appear to be (who could easily see Cary Grant as Archibald Leach, Bristol born son of Elias, who pressed suits in a garment factory?), perhaps it gives the performer a certain evasiveness, as if the actor is living up to the audience's expectation placed upon them, rather than playing out the subtle transformations where life is turned into art. If David Thomson can see in De Niro an actor "who reminds you how genteel American moves are", an actor who counters films that fail to give "us the coarse, monotonous, and unpredictable undergrowth existence of life" (Biographical Dictionary of Film), Grant is the opposite. While De Niro is "threatening and ungraspable", he sees that Grant is someone whose "strength as a screen actor is in giving us a sense of the doubt and dismay that lies in being 'Cary Grant'. (Movies of the Fifties) While De Niro sets out to shatter our cinematic illusions, Grant was always someone who wanted to confirm them, but usually with a hint that an illusion is taking place. The poor boy made good sits behind many of Grant's performances: there is a gracious charm that seems to suggests he can't believe his own luck,

Now of course some would insist this isn't acting at all: that the more De Niro played dangerous and demanding; the more Grant played darkly hued and carefully honed, the less acting was getting done. Shouldn't an actor be able to change his accent according to the demands of the part, alter his gait, disappear into the role? Perhaps theoretically this might be so, but the reality of screen acting lies in the facticity of an actor's existential presence. It would be possible to have Clint Eastwood play a little guy: you just cast around him actors like Richard Kiel, Peter Mayhew and other seven-plus foot performers to make him look small, and enlarge all the objects with which he interacts. There Eastwood's character would be, intimidated by the world he is in, and the actor would be defiantly playing against type. But this would seem less an instance of great acting; more an interesting play with perspective. Surely better to cast Dustin Hoffman or Billy Crystal. Finally and pragmatically actors usually play close to their social and existential reality. Unless the film works from the idea of a big man literally made small, it would seem like a very elaborate waste of money.

Now let us imagine however a role that needs someone who plays, within the one film, a variety of parts, from underclass to upperclass, from someone who is utterly disenfranchised from society, to someone who occupies its upper echelons. The role could plausibly be played by anyone from the social spectrum who can incorporate within their acting repertoire various social classes. It wouldn't really matter whether it was Daniel Day-Lewis, Eddie Redmayne or Benedict Cumberbatch at the upper end of the social ladder, or Robert Carlyle, David Thewliss or Jack O'Connell coming from less well-off backgrounds. But if the role simply requires the portrayal of a working-class character living in a poverty-stricken milieu, then doesn't it makes more sense to cast an actor from that environment who will understand the world, rather than deploy an actor who must learn much more radically to transform his body language and accent for the part?

This doesn't mean the actor from the working class milieu hasn't moved into another one that might make the performance far from automatic, but it is still likely that the body language and accent will be accessible rather than performed. We can't pretend that an actor who achieves fame will be inclined to remain within the milieu of the class he came from, but he or she will still be a lot closer to that world than an actor whose background was upper middle-class and where he was given a private education. The point Walters, O'Hagan, McGovern and others seem to be making, and that Lister chooses to ignore, is that there is an interaction between aesthetics and the social, between parts written because there are plenty of working class actors around, and writers creating roles for them: that in film, TV and theatre the actor is not just a thespian factotum who turns their hand and the rest of their body to whatever is demanded of him or her. The actor is an existential fact that writers and directors draw upon. This is a point Walters makes when she invokes writers like Willy Russell and Alan Bleasdale, and both Stephen McGann and Brian Cox make in the O'Hagan piece. Cox says, "I feel awful that young people don't have the opportunities that I had. It's like we've excluded a root element from cultural life, and I think that's very dangerous. McGann says "opportunities are closing down." (Guardian)

McGann and Cox are talking chiefly about the social options: "what counted for me and my brothers", McGann says "- and for mates of ours like David Morrissey and Ian Hart, all growing up in Dingle and Toxteth - was the real change in education." While we don't want to underestimate this aspect of the problem, our chief interest here is one of aesthetics, with the representation of life in film form. Daniel Day-Lewis once expressed his admiration for Ken Loach. "My hero [is] Ken Loach, who can do no wrong as far as I am concerned." (Independent) Perhaps one day there will be a role in a Loach film that would work for Day-Lewis. Yet our first response shouldn't be why Day-Lewis gets to play the part when there would be dozens of people (professional or non-professional actors) who could offer it up without the sort of research that would have Day-Lewis hanging around a housing estate for six weeks soaking up the atmosphere. No, it should be instead that Ken Loach's best work requires from the actor something that is close to non-acting: a sort of behavioural register where agency is limited, frustration often more evident than progress. Now when Day-Lewis played working class in Jim Sheridan's work (in My Left Foot, in In The Name of the Father and The Boxer), Sheridan wanted a hyperbolized aesthetic that could turn each film into a genre work: whether it is the triumph over adversity film, the prison movie or the western, these were the genres Sheridan sought to invoke. This was very explicitly so in The Boxer's case, where the typical western duel was turned into a clash of Protestants and Catholics, Irish and English exchanges.

Loach has never shown such interest in broad-stroke mythmaking and generic incorporation, and his films have gained little from their application. When the albeit entertaining The Angel's Share becomes a comedic heist film, we yearn for Bill Forsyth's subtler hand: we wish for the presence of a comic director, and perhaps even comic actors. The film feels caught between its need to explore a lower working class Glasgow milieu, and the desire to fashion a story around a whisky heist, with the young characters off up to the Highlands to snaffle some of Scotland's finest. The acting remains rooted and edgy, but the performances seem to go against the grain, so to speak, of the film's comedic throughline. This of course isn't to say non-professionals can't do comedy (Forsyth's early work shows they very much can), but that Loach doesn't do genre: the acting gets caught between Forsyth's wry sensibility and Loach's nervy demotic. As with many a leading part in Loach's films, however, the strength resides on milieu realism over generic execution, and this is partly why he is very specific in his casting, and where most of the interest in his work lies. It is also why Day-Lewis would not seem suitable casting in a Loach film.

When Graham Fuller asks the director about how many of the cast on Riff-Raff had actual building site experience, Loach replied: "Pretty much all of them. Robert Carlyle had been a painter and decorator for five years before he became an actor...Ricky Tomlinson had been a plasterer and was one of the 'Shrewsbury Three', who were building workers imprisoned for organizing a strike in the early seventies." (Loach on Loach) For Family Life Loach went along to the Conservative Association of Walthamstow, meeting with the ladies' committee. There he found Grace Cave who plays the formidable and authoritarian mother in the film. Loach doesn't especially look for professional or non-professional actors; what he insists upon is finding for the role an aspect of that facticity we briefly mentioned at the beginning of the article. When the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre says "the for-itself is in the manner of an event, in the sense that it has not chosen, as Peter is a French bourgeois in 1942, as Schmitt was a Berlin worker in 1870..." (Being and Nothingness) this factive dimension to the self fascinates directors like Loach and also Mike Leigh. When casting the upper working class film Life is Sweet, set in and around London, the heads at British Screen wondered whether Leigh had "thought about Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep." Leigh replied "They're really good, they're character actors, and they're bright, but that's not the point." (Leigh on Leigh)

It is this notion of the point that is paramount for directors like Loach and Leigh, and also what concerns Walters, Cox and others. Hoffman and Streep are great actors, but how much facticity can they bring to the role; could they carry the type of being Loach and Leigh looks for in their bodies? They might offer a fine performance a posteriori, but not a priori. In other words they might work really hard to get the accents right and make their body language plausible, but this wouldn't be because of an aspect of their own lives, but for a thespian display. When Loach says, "the energy comes from working with people like Ricky Tomlinson and Bobby Carlyle..." this is partly due to the reality they bring to their roles, not only the thespian ability that comes from playing a part. Thus Leigh can say: "something I love...is when an actor performs a skill of which they are very capable. Ruth Sheen is actually a rather good singer. So when [In All or Nothing] she gets to sing you think it's going to be awful, but actually it's rather gorgeous." (Leigh on Leigh) This isn't about the actor taking singing lessons to perform a role, it is more that the director extracts from the performer a quality they already possess and the filmmaker utilises. It has nothing to do with the virtuoso performance (Emmanuelle Beart learning to play the violin for Un Coeur en Hiver, De Niro mastering the sax in New York, New York), but to do with an already given existential reality to be drawn out of the actor.

We needn't predicate one approach over the other, but we might distinguish a distinct difference. Directors like Loach and Leigh want to work with the actors' past to find literally hidden talents. In Loach on Loach, the director says he allowed Tomlinson to make up a lot of his own dialogue on Riff Raff. This was because the actor was a builder, but also perhaps because after imprisonment he worked as a stand-up comedian, and Loach accesses Tomlinson's capacity for humour, just as Leigh utilises Sheen's ability to sing. Other directors will be more inclined to use an actor's willpower to create a skill the actor previously didn't possess. Beart and De Niro find the character as if through mastering a musical craft anew, while Sheen accesses a gift that would have generally lain dormant, It is as if in De Niro and Beart's case they offer a performance based on the external nature of the role and then dig into it, finding something of their own preoccupations. In Leigh and Loach the process is more fundamentally excavatory.

Of course sometimes the willpower we see in De Niro and Beart's efforts applies not to some external object one masters, but one's own body - De Niro's middle-weight championship physique on the one hand and weight gain on the other in Raging Bull remains a particularly extreme example of transformation, no matter if 'De Niro' always remains present in the final film. Taking into account our earlier comments about accessing and performing, Sheen and Tomlinson access their roles in All or Nothing and Riff Raff, Beart and De Niro perform their parts in Un Couer en Hiver and New York, New York. De Niro, especially, will be doing a lot more of course. None of De Niro's great performances aren't also accessed - possessed of 'inner conviction'. This is where we have, as the great theorist of the Method, Stanislavski says, "an inner and outer plane in every role inter-laced." He adds, "a common objective makes them akin to one another and strengthens their bonds." (An Actor Prepares) Obviously in numerous more recent De Niro parts that inner conviction seems missing and the roles are casually performed. If the performance is richly researched, we can say that the role is intensely performed. But it is still merely performed unless one senses "the creation of the human soul in the part." (An Actor Prepares)

Stanislavski is talking about theatre, and perhaps an aspect of the inner conviction he talks about becomes, in the cinema, a dimension of the fact of the actor's existence. The inner conviction is an existential given, not a thespian imposition. When Julia Roberts plays the role of a working class American woman trying to take on corrupt drug corporations in the US, in Erin Brockovich, we might still too easily see the gap between the struggling woman she portrays, and the star actress she happens to be. When Gilberto Perez quotes the actress saying she doesn't do nudity because she doesn't do documentary (London Review of Books), it is as though she is acknowledging that her purpose isn't to access her existential self, but to perform a role. Nudity, for Roberts, is giving something of herself that belongs to her and not to cinema, and perhaps one reason why few see her as anywhere near as interesting actress as, say, Julianne Moore (who does do nudity) is because she cannot quite countenance herself as this embodied fact on the screen, and thus the inner conviction of the role never quite seems accessed. She might play up her image occasionally (as in Notting Hill), but this is hardly the creation of the human soul in the part.

Lister might believe what matters is the final performance; can we pretend, though, that there isn't a process that leads to this, and to what degree would we be willing to accept that the only thing of consequence is the resultant thespian display? Imagine Christian Bale as Malcom X, Daniel Day-Lewis as Nelson Mandela, Robert De Niro as Steven Biko. It isn't even as if Lister doesn't have half a point: in the early eighties Ben Kingsley and Alec Guinness 'darkened up' to play Indians in Gandhi and A Passage to India, with Kingsley's performance generally well-received and Guinness's less so because people saw Kingsley immersing himself as Gandhi, and Guinness offering a caricature in the latter film. When Peter Sellers played an Indian in The Party, we didn't expect anything more than caricature and the performance served its purpose: this wasn't about a 'real' Indian but a Peter Sellers impersonation. Nevertheless, few would be likely to say that Day-Lewis as Mandela would be unproblematic casting, and do we accept Kingsley in the role as Gandhi partly because of the actor's Indian heritage: his father was of Gujrati Indian descent?

We could argue the degree to which this is political correctness or a question of verisimilitude. When in Elizabethan theatre all the roles were played by men, patriarchy met performativity: the suspension of disbelief was of a rather different order. This is evident in adaptations of Shakespeare plays like Much Ado About Nothing where the man pretends to be a woman: when there are women in the film a man pretending to be a woman doesn't work so well because we haven't been asked to believe from the offset that everyone of the same gender will be playing people of two genders. Equally, can we culturally suspend our disbelief to accept that if Day-Lewis plays Mandela brilliantly that will be enough? The notion of suspension of disbelief is culturally codified: it is the performance not only conceived but perceived also. When for example Hollywood gives Charlize Theron the Oscar for playing a serial killer in Monster, she doesn't look especially like the actual murderer in Nick Broomfield's documentaries Aileen Wournos, The Selling of a Serial Killer and Aileen, Life and Death of a Serial Killer, but she looks far enough away from Charlize Theron for us to see a performance at work. Hollywood still often functions from a suspension that remains within the performative over the accessed. In other words, what matters isn't the soul of the character found, but the distance from the actor's self that is travelled.

Indeed partly what makes a great American actor versus a weak one might lie in the degree to which the actor retreats from themselves and finds the soul of the part, or retreats only far enough to hide themselves in the role. Joaquin Phoenix is still clearly the same man in Two Lovers, The Master and Her, but in each he finds the inner soul of the part, where Julia Roberts wears her roles lightly, as if an understudy pushed on the stage determined simply to get her lines right. Indeed, when we compare the roles De Niro and Nicholson played in the seventies to much of their work recently it indicates this key difference. It as if in the seventies Nicholson and De Niro were drawing upon the sort of 'emotion memory' Stanislavski discusses: "that type of memory, which makes you relive the sensation you once felt when seeing Moskvin act, or when your friend died, is what we call emotion memory." In these brilliant actors' more recent work it feels like an act of self-consciousness not as emotion memory but as self-reflexivity: they are drawing on their past films and tapping not into the self but merely into a persona.

When we look at such performances are we just watching the part being played, or are we at the same time asking certain questions of selfhood and how film captures it? And equally when we look at films are we not looking to see how society is captured also? If Taxi Driver remains an astonishing work it lies partly in the film exploring New York through the mind of a cabbie and through showing us Manhattan at a particular moment in time: the mid-seventies. De Niro researched the role by taking a job driving a cab: Patrick Again says "for two weeks he cruised and worked through the streets of the city, checking out his fares for any available insight into his part." (Robert De Niro) In turn Scorsese films the city as if knowing this is a moment in time that will pass, and part of film's purpose, even fiction film's purpose, is to capture it. This is not filmmaking that plays up the actor's persona (as in Meet the Parents), it is a film that is lucky enough to have in its leading role a masterful actor, one who at the time was still capable of enough anonymity to watch others rather than others watching him. It isn't the famous star travelling through New York in a stretched limo, but the actor in the driving seat looking at others through the rear view mirror.

Perhaps we have moved very far away from our initial query, and it is now time to return to it. Lister seems to believe that the background of an actor matters little, while O'Hagan, Cox, Walters and others think differently. If we're inclined to agree with the latter over the former this isn't just a question of fairness, of insisting that the acting profession should have people from a broad range of social backgrounds. This is really Michael Boyd's point in another Independent piece. Interviewed by Jessica Barrett he says, "I think it is harder now for people without either an independent income or the connections that a private education brings to survive those first five years of working in the arts." But he also adds, "the arts will effectively become smaller in their spiritual, moral and cultural presence." Lister might not care where someone comes from, but at a certain point if the emphasis is so obviously on wealth and comfort, on Jane Austen adaptations and upstairs/downstairs dramas, surely a question needs to be asked that doesn't only concern what is up there on the stage or screen. Reading through An Autobiography of British Cinema, where Brian McFarlane interviews numerous actors, directors etc. who contributed to British film for much of the twentieth century, we notice that perhaps British cinema has always been class-oriented and well-to-do. There are a few working-class voices available, critiquing the British thespian norm. Albert Finney says "usually in the theatre and the cinema you get a middle-class style of acting, which means that when people are playing a working-class character they send it up, they don't act it." Tom Courtenay, interviewed in 1961, reckons, "take all this thing now about working-class actors and writers: it's simply a release of certain talents from that class." Yet, looking through An Autobiography of British Cinema, we see that many more have been released from wealthier backgrounds.

Perhaps we needn't look back nostalgically at halcyon days of working class possibility in film evident when Finney and Courtenay became fine film actors, but at the very least we should note that things are getting worse rather than better. When Cox, Walters and others talk of their earlier years, we shouldn't assume that this was an especially golden age, just a moment that seemed progressive where today it seems retrogressive. After all, when we think of numerous actresses of the sixties and seventies, from Charlotte Rampling to Jacqueline Bisset, from Julie Christie to Susannah York, they were, like Emily Blunt and Rosamund Pike, Kiera Knightley and Emma Watson, very middle-class. Glenda Jackson was the exception, not the rule, as critics often linked her acerbic screen personality with her social background. Alexander Walker, for example, remarked that "she did a stint in Boots the chemists' chain stores, and maybe her down-to-earth manner goes back to those shop-counter days of dishing out aspirin and laxative to the public." (National Heroes) There were so many actresses then, as now, coming from a similar wealthy background that it wouldn't pass for much of an observation to say that Bisset or Blunt's acting sounds like that of a prefect in a private school politely telling off those in the years below. It would be a general observation covering numerous actresses, rather than a singular perception: it would indicate the lack of variety amongst leading ladies.

Surely what we want from film is representative range over role model expectation. Perhaps more young women would prefer to be Blunt than blunt: would prefer to offer the polished vowels of Emily over the rougher vowel sounds of Glenda. However cinema is surely at its most interesting when it is explorational rather than aspirational, when it searches out range rather than insists on social limitation, however high class. With the latter we have apparent meritocracy as you can hope to be whatever you want to be, but can't see where you have come from. Instead of everyone seeing themselves up there on screen, they merely see a figure they can aspire to instead. In The Long Revolution, Raymond Williams interestingly observes the British accent, and quotes a couple of historians of language insisting that a certain class produces the best pronunciation. H. C. Wyld believes, Williams says, "that the long 'a' in Received Standard path and last is more 'beautiful' and 'sonorous' than its alternatives (this is a natural affection but quite arbitrary), or that to 'insert' the 'r'-sound in bird would lose the quality and length of the vowel (but to me, with different speech habits, the sounding of 'r' is beautiful and sonorous." R. W. Chapman reckons in "a class which though not arrogantly exclusive is necessarily limited in numbers...its traditions are maintained not primarily by the universities, but by the public schools", and assumes that there is nothing wrong with this at all.

What Walters, Cox, McGann and other actors are fighting for isn't only their place in the sun (the opportunity for working class actors like themselves to make it in the world of film, television and theatre), but also to remain part of the wider world too. They are well aware that, to produce a flattened out milieu where actors come from a narrow social demographic, they might end up playing within that social range (playing comfortably off people who have nothing to do with their own roots), or at best occasionally playing the lower orders, but in a way consistent with Finney's claims: "they don't act it, they send it up." There is a fear amongst Walters and others that cinema and TV soon won't allow, it seems, for the acting integrity Loach and Leigh access, which contains within it a socio-political commitment that marks them out as filmmakers of the Left and clear beneficiaries of the post-war welfare state. Instead all we might have is a pseudo-egalitarianism where the odd working class actor makes it, but as an escape from their environment - rather than serving as an exemplification of it. It thus allows, quite worryingly, the wealthy to possess not only the means of production, but to dictate the modes of representation also. This might not bother Lister, but it seems an abdication of both social and aesthetic responsibility for those who see art and life as meaningfully intertwined.


© Tony McKibbin