CAST SYSTEM

Britain’s ancient class war, as applied to the world of acting

In the 1960s, Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, wanted Cary Grant to play the role of the suave British spy in the films of his books. Instead, he got a Scottish, tattooed former bodybuilder. “What was it he called me, or told somebody? That I was an over-developed stunt man,” Sean Connery reminisced. “When I did eventually meet him he was very interesting, erudite and a snob—a real snob.”

Having a working-class Scotsman play an Etonian secret agent worked out pretty well, and as other great actors from humble backgrounds (such as Michael Caine) broke through over the years, there seemed to be enough space in the world for British actors of all types. But recently, the posh crowd seems to have grabbed a hold of popular culture.

Eddie Redmayne and Benedict Cumberbatch are Britain’s hopes for the best actor Oscar this year. Redmayne went to Eton, where he was a peer of Prince William, and Cumberbatch went to Harrow, another elite English private school. Other famous actors to go to Eton include Homeland‘s Damian Lewis and Thor‘s Tom Hiddleston, as well as Dominic West, a contemporary of the current British prime minister who made his name playing a working-class Baltimorean on The Wire.

Not everyone is happy about this trend. One British politician started a row by saying:

We can’t just have a culture dominated by Eddie Redmayne and [posh singer] James Blunt and their ilk… we can’t just have Downton programming ad infinitum and think that just because we’ve got some people in the servants’ hall, somehow or other we’ve done our duty by gritty drama.

Many working actors also feel that this is Downton Abby come to life. Judi Dench is regularly asked by aspiring actors for help unable to pay London’s pricey rents and drama school fees, as is Julie Walters, who is shocked “that flow of talent has just stopped.”

“Nobody has got anything against an actor who is posh and is doing really well,” James McAvoy has said in response to this. “But we are real worried about a society that doesn’t give opportunities to everybody from every walk of life to be able to get into the arts, and that is happening.”

Part of this is tied up in the British class system, whereby poorer actors take the posh accents they are taught at drama school into real life, and part is driven by the cuts to funding of the arts, which means there are fewer chances for young actors from humbler parts of the UK to make it to the rarefied air of Hollywood movies.

A silver lining on the horizon for meritocracy may again fall to James Bond. The next incarnation of the quintessentially British icon could be Idris Elba—a working-class kid from rough East London, and black to boot. What, one wonders, would Ian Fleming have made of that?

home our picks popular latest obsessions search