There’s no need to fear prolonged exposure to the Blunts, Cumberbatches and Redmaynes of the world writes Sam Leith
I’ve been thinking about ‘access to the arts’. Diversity, class war and that. You’ll remember, I’m sure, the magnificent recent exchange between the singer James Blunt and the shadow culture minister Chris Bryant after the latter — in trying to make a crowd-pleasing point — dragged the former’s good name into things.
‘I am delighted that Eddie Redmayne won [a Golden Globe],’ Bryant said, ‘but we can’t just have a culture dominated by Eddie Redmayne and James Blunt and their ilk. Where are the Albert Finneys and the Glenda Jacksons? They came through a meritocratic system.’
Blunt — who in addition to having sung You’re Beautiful served in the actual army so has a squaddie’s mouth on him when he needs to — took umbrage. The first words of his open letter to Bryant were ‘Dear Chris Bryant MP, You classist gimp’, and the last were ‘Up yours, James Cucking Funt’.
The rights and wrongs of the exchange aren’t wholly clear. Mr Blunt regards his own success as meritocratic, and who are we to disagree? De gustibus non est disputandum, which is Latin for ‘Someone has to listen to Magic FM’. Mr Bryant would like to see some more authentic working-class folk minting it in Hollywood, or belting out John Osborne plays at the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn, or something. Again: why not?
But the story hasn’t gone away and there’s an anxiety that the arts in general are a bit posh. The days in which Stephen Fry and Hughs Laurie and Grant looked like outliers are gone. Eighty per cent of all films now contain Eddie Redmayne doing that acting thing with his mouth, and the other 20 per cent have Benedict Cumberbatch playing Alan Turing in them. Old Cumberbatch is a one-man menace to diversity. Leave alone that he sounds like the sort of sandwich you get in the cafe at Fortnum’s: working-class actors can’t now get a team selfie at the Oscars without the fear of being photobombed by eight feet of arm-waggling Bertichump Cumbernauld.
Nevertheless, I think we can be semi-sanguine, at least taking the longer view. ‘Access to the arts’ sounds like a straightforward notion, but it isn’t. We could make a distinction to start with (sorry to sound a bit Marxist) between control of the means of production and access to the finished product. The two are separate things — or if connected, complicatedly connected. Does diversity mean getting working-class people on stage, or into the stalls? Are we talking a ghastly little man from Stratford performing for Queen Elizabeth I? Or Sid Bonkers eating an Iceland ready-meal in front of Downton?
On the consumption side, one example. Students (who thanks to tuition fees are mostly posh, but not always) can get Royal Opera House tickets for between £1 and £25 — which is a positive steal. By and large, though, you could say, lots of non-posh people already funnel subsidies to the whole shebang through their taxes, which makes the existence of full-price tickets and singing fat ladies viable in the first place.
On the production side, the well-off are more likely to be able to spend years working on their first novels, or writing songs, or making ‘art’. If you live off mum and dad, in this post-dole world, the years of failure are easier to absorb. But the proportion varies from one area of the culture to another. Football, for instance, is a form of entertainment in which working-class people, performing for an audience of mostly working-class people, get very rich — and in the process make Rupert Murdoch and Sepp Blatter unimaginably rich.
In pop music, things are a bit more dynamic: every few years the fashion switches. Mods were proles. Hippies were posh. Punks were proles. Progs were posh. When — in a dramatic anomaly — Britpop contained both proles and poshos at the same time (Oasis and Blur) it all threatened to turn into an actual fight, but didn’t because everyone lost interest.
In the acting world, though, it really is complicated. Yes: lots of posh people on stage and screen; lots of working-class people in the stalls. Time was, though, when the upper classes were ruthlessly excluded from acting: in Mansfield Park, even a spot of am-dram causes a major scandal. Any time much before the 20th century, if you brought an actress home to meet the family you could expect your mother to faint dead away. And in Shakespeare’s day, actors were the scum of the earth.
So think of the current explosion of Redmaynes not as an unbreakable hegemony of the rich and well-born, but as a weird little blip in theatrical history. Across the arts, if we take the long view, we can say: tempus fugit, mutatis mutandis, et cetera. Which is Latin for ‘James Blunt won’t be on Magic FM for ever’.