New documentary The Acting Class springboards from the experience of Tom Stocks – a young actor who, after turning down the chance to study at drama school due to the exorbitant fees, has set up a campaign (Actor Awareness) to highlight the issue of class inequality in the acting profession. His story is not unique, though, and the film sets out to illuminate this widespread problem of exclusion within the arts.
Opening the documentary, Stocks narrates, outlining his personal struggle with insurmountable financial constraints to develop his career. However, we move away from this individual focus to a broader spread as the rest of the film is comprised of talking heads: aspiring actors, industry professionals and established stars. Although Stocks’ initial commentary arouses sympathy, it is the rest of the film and its bulk of interviews that really develop a more revealing overview of class inequality in the media.
Most captivating are the comments from actors Maxine Peake, Christopher Eccleston, Julie Hesmondhalgh and Elliot Barnes-Worrell, all of whom identify as being raised in working class homes. Their insights cover topics such as Received Pronunciation, hidden audition fees, drama school tuition, and the importance and insidiousness of networking and nepotism. And most important is the key notion that the film then builds towards: the issue is not simply a pragmatic problem of funding and affordability for tuition fees; rather it is the overarching concept of representation in the media. How can an industry controlled and operated by predominantly white, middle-class men truly claim to reflect the diversity of contemporary society?
The final ten minutes might just border on bashing us over the head with the message. Tom Stocks stands outside Eton watching the elite “toffs” in tails wander from one state-of-the-art school venue to another and Peake and Eccleston’s commentaries on the upper-class-fantasy-TV-porn of Downton Abbey, Poldark and The Crown feel a tad harsh. They’re shedding light on an important political issue, though, and their passion may be necessary to incite real change.
The documentary’s close returns to Tom Stocks’ thoughts and activism, and although his charity has value, it feels like these bookends get a little in the way of the “real film”. The big names featured are much more of a draw, and their opinions on racial and class stereotyping and industry-incest provoke us to question the value of storytelling in media: who’s telling the stories and whose stories are they really telling?
The Acting Class premiers at a free screening at North Edinburgh Arts on Thursday 21st June, 7pm.