Could another Rickman or Bowie emerge in modern society?


Both Alan Rickman and David Bowie died recently, taken from us by cancer, both aged 69: but that was not the only thing they had in common. Both came from humble origins – they were both from working-class families, grew up on council estates and rose to the top of their respective fields, adored by both colleagues and fans around the world.

They were the recipients of a generation that benefited from the breaking up of social hierarchies in the 1960s and 70s, where arts funding was available to talented youngsters from working class backgrounds. The arts were seen as a necessity rather than a luxury: the latter which they are fast becoming in the age of brutal austerity and an increasing gap between the rich and the poor.

The arts in state education have suffered a number of blows in recent years. With a focus by the government on academic subjects, “soft” subjects like drama, music and art have been vastly overlooked and criminally under encouraged. The lack of a creative outlet, and way of expressing themselves seems likely to be a contributing factor in reports that stress and pressure levels among students seem to be at all-time highs, and further increasing.

Working-class applicants are being sidelined by the UK’s leading firms as personal style, accent and middle-class mannerisms are frequently used to judge “talent”, a social mobility report has found. – The Huffington Post

With cuts to the public sector and local council budgets, authorities are left struggling to balance the books – inevitably arts funding is the first to be given the chop, and outreach and educational work is often reduced first when part funded companies are required to make savings. We seriously risk the arts becoming a plaything for the wealthy, and inaccessible to those from less privileged backgrounds.

In tribute to both Rickman and Bowie, musician Billy Bragg said “Is it still possible for working class kids to realise their potential in such a way? The art schools are almost gone, those that survive now charge a fortune. The social mobility that Rickman and Bowie experienced is increasingly stifled.”

Panic! What Happened to Social Mobility in the Arts?, compiled by Goldsmiths university and published by the Guardian, asks questions about a number of areas including financial background, ethnicity, disability status and pay.

In the face of heavy arts cuts, and the recent removal of maintenance grants for students from less privileged backgrounds, David Cameron and George Osborne’s tributes Rickman and Bowie could, and probably should, be met with a great deal of cynicism – their actions potentially prevent such talents, from humble beginnings, from having the opportunity to share their creative talent and passion with the world.

Many industry names, including Judi Dench and Julie Walters, among others, have expressed their concern about the lack of working class actors breaking through into the industry.  Last year it was reported by The Stage that only 10% of actors are working class. The industry is now filled with Benedict Cumberbatch’s and Eddie Redmayne’s (talented as they are, to take nothing away from them) from privileged, public schooled backgrounds. They are the ones who can afford the training, are able to afford to live in London, to take opportunities that are low-paid, or not even paid at all, to gain the experience and contacts required.

“People like me wouldn’t have been able to go to (arts) college today. I could because I got a full grant. I don’t know how you get into it now” – Julie Walters

It is time the government realise that the arts are a necessity, and a part of our cultural heritage that should be celebrated and encouraged. Creativity doesn’t just have benefits for us socially, but it also benefits our economy – if you want a “strong economy” as the Tories claim, then the arts are surely a quintessential part of this: unless of course you only judge of the strength of the economy on the banking sector.

Imagine a world in which Rickman and Bowie had not made the grade, because of lack of funding or opportunity: all those memorable moments that have shaped our lives and touched our hearts, lost forever. That could be the scale of talent and the body artistic work we are losing presently, and into the future.

We seriously risk the arts becoming a plaything for the wealthy, and inaccessible to those from less privileged backgrounds.

In mourning the loss of two undoubted greats, we should also mourn the loss of a creative generation who are disappearing – and who will continue to disappear until we take action. For every Cumberbatch and Redmayne, there is certainly a working class equivalent who is unable to sustain a career in the arts, and unable to gain the opportunities to hone their talents. There are exceptions, like working class James McAvoy: but it certainly seems harder for his ilk to break through make a career than it ever was.

We need such role models for ourselves and our children. If they can rise to the top despite their circumstances and against all the odds of an increasingly brutal society, then so can we. With the deaths of Bowie and Rickman, one such beacon of hope has faded – we cannot leave it to fate to hope others emerge, we must ensure the conditions are right so all our talented youngsters can have their chance to fulfil their potential, and maybe even change the world.