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Putting working class actors centre stage

Impact case study for REF 2021: Music, Drama, Dance, Performing Arts, Film and Screen Studies (UoA 33)

Award-winning documentary The Acting Class spotlights the class divide in the creative industries, focusing on the barriers for young working-class actors.

It features big-name actors like Christopher Eccleston, Maxine Peake, Julie Hesmondhalgh and Samuel West alongside struggling young actor Tom Stocks. The film spells out how the odds are stacked against people from poorer backgrounds wanting to break into the elitist performing arts. Most acting jobs are based in London, where living and accommodation cost more than the rest of the country. Most of the work is gig-based, forcing actors to work several jobs at once to get by. And if a dream role does come along, they then have to quit the job that may be hard to replace when the role ends. This, along with audition and drama school fees, makes it much harder for working-class people to gain a foothold in the business. But it also limits the richness of the storytelling, characters and lives portrayed and variety of people and communities represented.

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Made by Brunel University London's Professor Michael Wayne and Dr Deirdre O'Neill, the 2017 feature-length documentary won best UK Feature at the London Labour Film Festival. It was sold on DVD, had more than 40 public screenings along with talks, and was backed by a lobbying campaign in collaboration with The Equality Trust and Just Fair, which raised awareness of the inequities in the profession among MPs. The film-makers also worked closely with the actor’s union Equity, which held screenings and talks across its local branch network, helping push the question of class up the union’s agenda. And in 2019, it set up a new ‘Class network’ to campaign on to help everyone get a fair chance in arts and entertainment.

The Acting Class made socio-economic inequity in the profession a talking point across several spheres. Its well-known Brit actor cast boosted its impact on audiences and the media. Julie Hesmondhalgh mentioned the film on Radio 4’s Thinking Aloud, and the directors were interviewed about the film on BBC Radio Leicester before a full-house screening at the Leicester Phoenix when the British Film Institute (BFI) launched its ‘Workforce Diversity in the UK Screen Sector’ report. It also screened at the BFI Southbank as part of the BFI’s ‘Working Class Heroes’ weekend event.

Of course, the issues The Acting Class raises reach far beyond acting, the performing arts and creative industries. The class divide, or socio-economic inequity, is part of a wider and ongoing debate about how unequal opportunities scar British society from top to bottom. As Maxine Peake says in the film, Britain is ‘rotten to the core’ with it.

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Meet the Principal Investigator(s) for the project

Professor Michael Wayne
Professor Michael Wayne - Michael has been an academic most of his working life. In part this is because studying film at the North London Polytechnic in the mid-1980s was a revelation to him in so far as it simultaneously provided not just an education in film but a political framework with which to understand the world around him. That connection between the study of a medium as a medium through which to learn about the world, remains central to his work as a teacher and researcher. 

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Project last modified 22/11/2023