A new word has crept into cultural criticism in recent years. “Posh.” It never used to be a matter of the slightest relevance in the arts, and I don’t recall it being bandied about as a term of abuse to hurl at artists until recently. But now one can’t read about our Oscar nominees Benedict Cumberbatch and Eddie Redmayne without being reminded that they went to Harrow and Eton respectively. And, talking of Harrow, there is, of course, poor old James Blunt.
Ok, not so poor. For, the singer, who has long since ceased to wear his boater and tails, was picked out for criticism by Labour’s new arts spokesman, Chris Bryant. Mr Bryant said in an interview: “We can’t have a culture dominated by Eddie Redmayne and James Blunt and their ilk.”
Not the politest word, ‘ilk’. Pop stars normally suffer in silence, but Mr Blunt, perhaps remembering skills he learned in the Harrow debating society, hit back. In an open letter to Mr Bryant, he called the MP a “classist gimp” and pointed out, with some justification, that in the music business his accent and background had actually been a hindrance rather than a help.
Ok, Mr Bryant was trying to make a rather more complex point, namely that there is a need for more diversity in the arts, and working class wannabes can be deterred from drama schools because they can’t afford the fees. And yes, Bryant himself is a former public school boy at Cheltenham College, but presumably feels that is ideologically more sound as he was only a day boy. He refers to his family as “the cheap end of posh.”
Actually, Bryant is a highly estimable politician and a welcome addition to Labour’s culture team. But on this one he is wrong. It’s not just that, while there are problems with high fees for drama schools, there are also, at Rada and across the board, many bursary schemes to help disadvantaged applicants; it’s more that class is such an irrelevance in discussing performance. If I look at some of the greatest actors from Laurence Olivier to Simon Russell Beale, Mark Rylance and Judi Dench, I have not the slightest idea where any of them went to school, and it has never occurred to me to wonder about their family backgrounds. All that counts is the quality of the acting.
In the world of pop and rock music, it is well known that these days many rock and pop stars have relatively privileged backgrounds. But does it matter that Radiohead didn’t meet in a working-class tenement building, but at an independent private school? Who cares? Just listen to the brilliant albums, and don’t concern yourself with the termly fees. I’m currently listening to and loving Alt J. I will have to look up their schooling and parents’ income to see if I'm still allowed to like them.
It’s a dangerous game, this defining artists by their class, schooling or income. All that really counts is their ability to move and inspire us. That is down to talent, and talent, thankfully, is classless.
An award to Dame Judi Dench for her theatre-hopping
The theatres lining London’s Shaftesbury Avenue are very close to one another, but I hadn’t realised until now what an opportunity that gives to mischievous actors and actresses. In a piece in The Independent on Sunday, Dame Judi Dench’s friend and fellow star Michael Pennington mentioned that when the esteemed actress was once appearing in All’s Well that Ends Well, she would dash out after one scene, nip into Les Miserables next door, put on a costume and join the chorus line. I wonder whether anyone in the audience was sufficiently eagle-eyed to spot her having a good sing-song at the back of the stage. This theatre-hopping is to be encouraged. Indeed, there should be an award for the performer who manages to be on stage at the greatest number of theatres in one evening.
A Groucho Marx line to treasure
The Marx Brothers season at the British Film Institute has been cause for fond recollections of many of their most famous lines, most of them uttered by Groucho Marx. But my favourite line by Groucho comes not from one of the movies, but from a chat show he was on when he was old and quite frail. The show’s host asked him if he still chased girls. Groucho responded quick as a flash: “Only when they’re running downhill.”