Acting has been ‘hijacked’ by people from ‘exceptionally privileged backgrounds’, a historian claims.
Author Lipika Pelham says today’s younger generation of A-listers is ‘typically represented’ by ‘Eddie Redmayne, who was at Eton with Prince William’, and ‘Benedict Cumberbatch, a distant cousin of Richard III’.
‘In the 21st century, acting opportunities appear to have been hijacked by actors from exceptionally privileged backgrounds,’ she writes in her book Passing: An Alternative History Of Identity.
‘There are still exceptions, but the trend is remarkable and remarked upon by those ever-rarer exceptions,’ she adds. ‘One of the few professions that has always, for centuries, been open to people from disadvantaged backgrounds is today becoming less and less diverse.’
She says actors from previous generations such as Anthony Hopkins and Julie Walters ‘had distinctly working-class upbringings’, and those ‘from slightly better-off families’ like Judi Dench and Ian McKellen ‘were still from modest, truly middle-class origins’.
Acting has been ‘hijacked’ by people from ‘exceptionally privileged backgrounds’, historian and author, Lipika Pelham claims. Pictured is Eddie Redmayne and Benedict Cumberbatch in 2008, both of whom went to Eton school like Prince William
‘While queer and non-white representation is now, very slowly, getting better, the trend seems to be the reverse when it comes to socio-economic representation,’ she says, adding: ‘Now there is no longer any social stigma attached to the acting profession, the upper-classes have sought and managed to reclaim the industry from the underprivileged.’
At a talk about her book at the Chalke Valley History Festival, sponsored by the Daily Mail, Miss Pelham highlighted Helena Bonham Carter as a further example.
She pointed to how the actress ‘appears as whatever character she wants to appear as’, including as ‘cockney-accented barber’s wife’ Mrs Lovett in the film Sweeney Todd ‘even though she comes from an upper-class background’, and as upper-class in The King’s Speech, in which she played Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother.
Miss Pelham, who is also a filmmaker, said Miss Bonham Carter’s acting in Sweeney Todd was ‘brilliant’, but she questioned why Sir Michael Caine, who comes from a working-class background, ‘didn’t get to act upper-class roles very often’.
She said she could not ‘remember any film where he’s actually passed up [portrayed himself as someone from a higher class]’.
The term ‘passing’ was first used in 19th-century America to refer to light-skinned slaves who had fled to freedom by claiming a white identity.
While Caine is best known for working-class roles in films such as Alfie and The Italian Job, another of his most notable roles was in Zulu as Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead, who speaks with a clipped accent.
Asked about her comments after the talk, Ms Pelham told the Mail the ‘class thing now is a big problem’. She added: ‘Casting should be according to the cultural, historical or social background of the actors otherwise it gets problematic. You have to equalise the balance of power.
‘You can ask, “Why should an Indian woman get away wearing Western clothes and not the other way round?” It’s because there’s no power dynamic at play.’