What should people do if they find a successful UK industry with rather good results? Easy: complain about class and diversity, and demand greatly increased bullying by government and its quangos. Witness last Thursday’s glossy Labour Party report (entitled "Acting Up") on the UK performing arts, fronted by ex-model Gloria de Piero and one-time Coronation Street worthy Tracy Brabin, both now semi-celebrity northern Labour MPs. It’s a tedious document, complete with references to left-wing academic journal articles talking about well-known phenomena such as “recycling familiar stereotypes which are embedded in racialised and classed systems of value and oppression”, not to mention “how the practices and structures of cultural production inform and direct how difference is represented and thus consumed and understood by audiences and ‘publics’” (you couldn’t make it up). The whole thing is well-adapted to make our television and theatre sink gently into a bubbling slough of PC, box-ticking boringness.
Performing arts participants must, we learn, “look like the country”. This means – you got it – a representative congeries of workers’ children, blacks, northerners, the disabled and those of all sexualities and gender identities. You see, if people from working class backgrounds, people with disabilities, or LGBT people can’t see themselves on screen or stage, they won’t aspire to be there. Really? Some TCW readers might naively think a good performer embraced his character, rather than signalling to the audience that he personally was gay, gender-fluid, or working-class, so that someone similar in the audience could see this, note it down, and promptly become stage-struck. But the personalities who wrote this report clearly know better.
Drama schools get it in the neck. Students are admitted, someone complains, on subjective perceptions of artistic talent (I’m not sure how else you should admit them, but I bow to superior knowledge). Once in, they are – horror! – sometimes asked to play stereotyped parts, or, even worse, to suppress regional accents. It’s not clear what we should make of this. Unless Labour thinks all stereotyped dramatic characters must be suppressed in some Corbynite purge, somebody has to play them: and if there’s a part for a cheerful Cockney barmaid, what’s wrong with asking a cheerful Cockney, who probably moonlights in a bar anyway, to take it? As for regional accents, suppression of your natural modes of speech is a necessary trick of the trade. Maybe it’s just me, but I’d rather not have a 1930s upper-class Londoner played by someone sounding like a hairdresser from Bootle (or, for that matter, vice versa).
The solution? It’s vague on the details, but it seems to be regulation (as with Ofcom and the BBC – see here), with targets for diversity front and back stage. Drama school staff need training in unconscious bias avoidance. It should be illegal to discriminate directly or indirectly on the basis of socio-economic backgrounds. We need compulsory data collection by all drama schools, public and private on race, age, sexuality, etc. And of course, I forgot: we need more diversity in all drama school staff – presumably on the usual patronising basis that black or LGBT staff are more likely to admit black or LBGT students, and that the latter are so stupid that they’ll accept a comment from the former which they wouldn’t take from an upper-class white.
What about the audience? We don’t hear much about them or their wants, even though they’re the people who have to be persuaded to watch the output of the performing arts industry and pay whatever the State can’t be persuaded to cough up by way of subsidy to keep the whole thing going. But there is a bit. Reminiscent of Bertolt Brecht’s quip “Wouldn't it be simpler if the government dissolved the people and elected another?” there is a suggestion that theatre audiences are too middle-class and must be made more representative:“standing tickets at the Globe and the tables in music halls,” we are told, “were packed with people from ordinary backgrounds.”
Whether these proposals will reproduce this populism of old is unknown. Lots of stuff about ordinary working-class folk in Midlands housing estates might bring workers in Midlands housing estates flocking. On the other hand they might actually prefer the enjoyable escapism of Emmerdale or Downton Abbey, or the thoroughly demotic amusement of TV game-shows: something less attractive to these representatives of precious leftish luvviedom.
In any case there’s another optimistic suggestion about audience power. Remember #OscarsSoWhite in the Twittersphere? Once information on diversity in entertainment is public, New Model Audiences will, it is earnestly suggested, rise up and spontaneously demand representative, diversity-equipped theatre, TV and film. Now there’s an idea for an Islington conversation. “We’re giving King Lear at the RSC a miss: we looked up the RSC figure for LGBT+ actors and it’s awful. We’re just off to this fantastic new celebration of Venezuelan gender-fluid urban culture in Peckham Rye. Share a taxi, darling?”
(Image: Julian Stallabrass)