Where are the working class voices?

According to an article in the Guardian today. working-class people continue to be hugely under-represented in the arts, and the people at the top – mostly well-paid, middle-class white men – are least likely to see it.

This conclusion was reached in a new report published today, billed as the first sociological study on social mobility in the cultural industries. The study used data from interviews with 237 people who work in the creative industries to shine light on a problem that the report’s authors said is a longstanding one.

“The percentage of people working in publishing with working-class origins was given as 12.6%. In film, TV and radio it was 12.4%, and in music, performing and visual arts, 18.2%. Aside from crafts, no creative occupation comes close to having a third of its workforce from working-class origins, which is the average for the population as a whole.

The research shows that the people most attached to the idea of the arts being a meritocracy – that the best jobs go to those with the most talent – were white middle-class men who occupied the highest-paid jobs and who were most able to bring about change.”

My roots are firmly working class, but I grew up in an era when elocution lessons were the norm. Speaking properly was expected, slang was frowned on and grammatical and pronunciation errors were firmly ironed out even in primary school and certainly when I went to drama school at the tail end of the sixties, the remaining traces of my northern roots were definitely and firmly discouraged. Fortunately, they remain in my aural memory and are a useful and much used tool in my work and I am very often asked to use my accented voice rather than my RP one.

Actress Maxine Peak has spoken openly about the prejudice she has found in the industry and the pressure she faced, particularly during the first series of ‘Silks’ to reduce her decidedly northern British accent with its flat vowels. 

“There is only one class in the north, and that’s working class, and if you’re a woman you will be slightly brassy and a bit blowzy; if you’re a man you’re either aggressive or you’re angsty and poetic. That is the entire north in a nutshell.”
Maxine Peak – Actress

Does the same prejudice exist in audio work? I suspect it does to some degree – but we are only the voices and unless we’re creating our own content, we can only read what other people write . 

There has been a tradition of working class heroes in fiction, from Dickens to Arnold Bennett to DH Lawrence to Catherine Cookson – but looking back, I think the working class hero is being increasingly neglected. There was a brave new working class world in the sixties with the works of Alan Sillitoe, David Storey, and Stan Barstow changing the face of popular contemporary fiction – and there were still some glimmerings a generation later in the works of Jeaneatte Winterson, and Melvyn Bragg; but since then, it seems to me there is a real lack of quality fiction with a working class setting. There are people working in television and film who are creating ng working class characters in their works: Ken Loach, Sally Wainwright and Jimmy McGovern to name a few, but though there are lots of novels with a historical setting that are firmly working class, in contemporary literature there seems to be a definite decline. 

So, come on writers … give us some grit to get our teeth into!