A National Theater revival of Emlyn Williams’ autobiographical play The Corn is Green this year was a stirring reminder of a bright boy from a Welsh mining village who rose, thanks to an inspired teacher, to become one of the pre-eminent writers and actors of his generation. This paean to social mobility was first performed in 1938, in the decade before the introduction of grammar schools and the raising of the school leaving age to 15 – measures that were both intended to sweep many more from the sooty streets of manual labor to the emerald fields of a creative life.
The resonance of the play today is double-edged, firstly because there are no more deep coalmines in Wales, so the working class from which Williams came has been profoundly altered. Secondly because, as new research based on Office for National Statistics data reveals, the grass was never greener in the creative industries for any but a few from disadvantaged backgrounds. This was the case even in the 1960s and 1970s, those rock’n’roll decades to which many now look back as a golden age.
While the research, published in the journal Sociology, appears to show an alarming drop in the percentage of creative workers with a working-class background – from 16.4% for those born between 1953 and 1962 to just 7.9% for those born four decades later – those figures in fact mirror a similar decline in the proportion of the population in what are historically characterized as working-class jobs, from 37% in 1981 to 21% in 2011. In other words, while the proportion of people belonging to the traditional working class has almost halved, the proportion of those born into such backgrounds who have become artists, actors or musicians has hardly altered at all. One result, say the researchers, is that those who have found a way into these creative lines of work from disadvantaged backgrounds feel more conspicuously outnumbered, giving them the sense that things were better in the good old days.
This is no cause for complacency: quite the reverse. It is appalling that people who grew up in professional families are still four times more likely to be in creative work than those who did not. Geography, ethnicity and gender add to the disadvantage of those who may not describe themselves as working class but who come from a precariat that is becoming more precarious by the day. They include modern-day versions of the schoolteacher in The Corn is Green.
This isn’t just an issue of employment but of representation. The Bolton-born actor Maxine Peake recalls being urged to sound posher in the first series of the BBC One barrister drama Silk. One effect of such stereotypical thinking played out in the recent BBC Two documentary series The Class Ceiling, in which a working-class woman from Nottingham blamed her origins for her repeated failure to get a pupillage after being called to the bar. Keeping a tally of the class gap in organizations makes a difference, with Arts Council England among those that now require data on the socioeconomic background of employees in its client companies. It’s a start, but much more needs to be done.