Hollywood prizes won on the playing-fields of Eton

Lee Elliot Major asks whether the acting profession could do more to develop talent from all backgrounds

Daniel Day-Lewis’s unprecedented third Oscar for Best Actor topped a successful night for Brits at the 85th Academy Awards this week. Day-Lewis famously holds dual British and Irish citizenship. But his background is that of the quintessential English actor.

Day-Lewis attended two prestigious private schools, Sevenoaks and Bedales, before going on to study at theatre school. These beginnings may contrast starkly with those of the self educated Abraham Lincoln, the American President he portrayed so brilliantly. But Day-Lewis is the latest in a long line of privately educated Englishmen and women to conquer Hollywood. Damian Lewis and Hugh Laurie, both old Etonians, are recent Golden globe winners, also acclaimed for their glittering success on the other side of the Pond.

And so they should be. But it is little wonder that many Americans are shocked to find that private schools make up only 7% of schools in England. Believe it or not, the vast majority of us are not educated in Hogwarts style boarding schools!

That so few achieve so much prompts an uncomfortable question this side of the Atlantic: are we doing enough in Britain to develop the artistic talents of children unlucky enough to come from the 93% of the population unable to access a privileged fee-paying education?

I live in North London which often feels like the very epicentre of the Luvvie classes. A casting director recently bemoaned to me that the talent pool of young aspiring thespians has become noticeably posher. She put this down to a range of factors: from increasing financial hardship to plain nepotism in the industry.

This trend could well be true. Recent research from the Sutton Trust into the country’s professional elites found that 44% of leading actors attended private schools. But this figure rose to 49% for those aged 45 and under.

The conversation reminded me of the report on the education backgrounds of news journalists I wrote for the Sutton Trust a few years back. This warned that there was an increasing bias in the media industry that favoured journalists from privileged backgrounds. There were a number of reasons for this: low pay and insecurity at junior levels; the high costs of living in London; the increasing costs of postgraduate courses; a bias towards those with family or personal connections within the industry amid a largely informal but highly competitive recruitment process; and finally the stronger skills and attributes attributed at an earlier age by those from private schools.

In a world of increasing inequalities – both in and outside school, the opportunity gap between the haves and have nots is ever widening.

As with journalism, the acting profession appears to be the perfect breeding ground for social immobility. Reforms under Labour to provide financial support for drama students were welcome. But perhaps something also needs to be done now to help nurture and support talent in state schools and young actors during their early career.

We may celebrate Hollywood prizes won on the playing-fields of Eton and other leading private schools. But it is high time the industry gave something back to those talents less fortunate. That is something President Lincoln would surely have appreciated.

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