New research has claimed there is a “class ceiling” in British performing arts which deters working-class actors and means they are paid less than their middle-class contemporaries.
It also estimates people from middle-class backgrounds make up nearly three quarters of all actors, even though only 29% of people in Britain are middle-class.
Researchers from the London School of Economics and Goldsmiths College analysed responses by 402 actors to the Great British Class Survey – which they described as “the largest database on actors in Britain”. They also interviewed a further 47 actors themselves.
According to the survey data, the average household income for middle-class actors – those with parents in professional or managerial careers – was £46,100 a year.
However the same figure for working-class actors, whose parents did “intermediate, routine or semi-routine work”, was £9,100 lower, at £37,000 a year.
When comparing people of the same age, ethnicity and gender more closely, researchers found a larger gap of £11,000 a year.
Just 27% of actors surveyed were from working-class backgrounds, with the remaining 73% all middle-class. Government statistics put the proportion of middle-class people in the UK at 29%.
Of the 47 performers interviewed – 19 from middle-class backgrounds – just five working-class actors had attended a major London drama school or Oxbridge universities, compared with 15 of those who were middle-class.
Analysing their findings, the three researchers said the consistently lower average incomes of working-class actors pointed “towards the kind of class ceiling found previously in Britain’s high-status occupations”.
They suggested the British acting profession is “heavily skewed towards the privileged”, and said the fact middle-class actors can ask their families for financial help was one major reason they were getting ahead.
“The ability to call upon familial wealth shaped the experience of these actors in myriad ways. It provided insulation from much of the precariousness of the labour market, particularly the need to seek alternative work to support oneself between acting roles,” they wrote.
The research paper, Like Skydiving Without a Parachute: How Class Origin Shapes Occupational Trajectories in British Acting, was published in the Sociology journal.
Last year, actor Christopher Eccleston told the Telegraph that, in order to be a successful actor on the London stage, “you need to be white, you need to be male, and you need to be middle-class”.
Discussing this claim, researchers Sam Friedman, David O’Brien and Daniel Laurison wrote in the paper:
“Provocative, perhaps, but Eccleston is only the latest in a long line of high-profile British actors to express concern about inequalities within the acting profession.”
They also cited similar concerns raised by David Morrissey and Julie Walters, the latter of whom warned in 2012: “The way things are now, there aren't going to be any working-class actors [left]”.