How the working class was frozen out of telly

A medium designed for the masses has been colonised by middle-class Tristrams.

Gareth Roberts

Topics Culture Politics

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Strike a light! New research published this week from the Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre has exposed that in film, TV and radio, just over eight per cent of ‘creatives’ are from working-class backgrounds – the lowest percentage in a decade. This does not surprise me in the slightest, though it is always nice to have some juicy stats to confirm what one already suspected.

When I started working in TV about 30 years ago, I was surprised, and rather delighted, by the backgrounds of the people I was working for and with (I had come from publishing, which was a different story). One of my first TV jobs was at Granada Studios in Manchester. I was a storyliner on Coronation Street, then one of the UK’s most-watched and most-popular shows. Working-class backgrounds were by far in the majority. The creative team included an ex-bus driver, an ex-paratrooper and a smattering of former local journalists and shop workers. Yes, Coronation Street is obviously a series about (mostly) working-class people but, as I later discovered elsewhere, that doesn’t necessarily mean those behind the scenes will share that background.

It seems funny now, but I used to worry back then that TV people were maybe a little too ‘normie’. I would scoff at AA Gill’s Sunday Times reviews where he talked about TV being run by middle-class ‘Tristrams’. Maybe there was an element of that at the high end of the industry. But, in my experience, it was rare to encounter anybody who hadn’t been state educated. In popular TV at least, there was a strong awareness of what viewers appreciated. We wouldn’t dare be preachy or talk down to them.

The history of TV – which only really kicked off properly after the Second World War – shows that this had long been the case, in the most part. Let’s look at a few renowned TV creatives from the misty past, going back to the supposedly unenlightened decades before my own entry into the fray. Jack Rosenthal, a prolific Corrie writer, was the son of a factory worker. Dennis Potter, BBC drama supremo, was the son of a coal miner. Hancock’s Half Hour and Steptoe and Son writers Ray Galton and Alan Simpson had extremely ordinary London backgrounds. As for children’s TV, you had Dennis Spooner, who left school at 14, or ex-policeman Robert Holmes. Both worked as script editors on Doctor Who.

This was not exceptional. We could be here all day talking about such people who started their careers in the 20th century – Tony Jordan, Paul Abbott, Sally Wainwright, etc.

So what happened? Until the 1990s, the BBC and ITV mostly created their own shows, in-house. There were contracted producers and directors on staff, staff crew and even staff writers. These places were like factories. This offered a much more secure career path, one that wouldn’t leave you high and dry at the end of a job. The Coronation Street producer made sure that newbies like me had an above-decent wage – which felt like hitting the jackpot then, and would be unthinkable today.

Then TV moved to a model where independent companies vied and competed for commissions. Freelancing soon became the norm. At first, the class mix still held up pretty well. The effects were gradual. But as time went by, I noticed TV getting posher and posher.

Aspiring writers are now often expected to work for nothing. The industry was always heavily weighted in London and big cities, but the UK’s general economic malaise has made such places a lot harder to exist in with little cash. The glacial time-scale of modern TV – projects may take years to be commissioned, and will likely not come off at all – also depends on middle-class solvency. You have to be able to sustain a living on an erratic schedule.

Talent and competence are the best metrics of merit in TV, as in any other enterprise. The replacement of these with spurious identity quotas has been a disaster. Besides, why would working-class people apply themselves to the modern creative sector, whose output drips with contempt for them, especially if they have the ‘wrong’ opinions?

Perhaps the biggest shift here is that TV, and working in TV, has become fashionable – something it never was in its days as an unashamed mass medium. Big-hitting mainstream shows have all but curled up and died. Death in Paradise or Mrs Brown’s Boys ought to be the rule, not exceptions. People actually want to watch such shows, as ratings continually demonstrate, but nobody in the increasingly posh TV industry wants to make them. Serving the audience no longer seems to matter.

The working class has been frozen out of TV – and TV is all the poorer for it.

Gareth Roberts is a screenwriter and novelist, best known for his work on Doctor Who.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Culture Politics


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