A plummy accent and good connections are among essential attributes for moving ahead in Britain’s film and TV industry, according to a new report by two British academics. The production sector is “dominated by the middle classes who hoard opportunities to work on the best contracts,” say professor Irena Grugulis of Durham University and Dr Dimitrinka Stoyanova of the University of St Andrews. After a period of observation and dozens of interviews with industry folk, the pair found that the working class, women and those from ethnic minorities were either under-represented or held low or medium quality positions – or a mixture of the two. The academics cited issues like neoptism and “social capital” (ie a network of powerful friends) as factors in the findings. Samantha Horley, whose London-based Salt Company has a progressive policy towards hiring, concurs. “I still think the British industry is extremely classist,” she tells me, noting that in the international sales sector, “people for the most part want sales people who speak like Hugh Grant.” The study also found that the working class was discriminated against because they don’t have the “right accents, hairstyles, clothes or backgrounds.” Maxine Peake, of Channel 4’s Shameless, recently noted the lack of high-profile working class actresses in Britain saying there’s “loads” of working class actors but only one woman: Samantha Morton. Still, Horley, who admits that her own privileged background was probably a leg-up when she started in the business, doesn’t feel that discrimination extends to the creative sector. “You do notice that there’s a lot of posh producers looking after their grungy directors,” she says. The full press release regarding the academic findings follows:
The UK’s film and TV production industry is dominated by the middle classes who “hoard” opportunities to work on the best contracts, the British Sociological Association’s annual conference in Leeds heard today. [Wednesday 11 April]
Working-class people are discriminated against because they don’t have the “right accents, hairstyles, clothes or backgrounds”, and this excludes them from jobs which are gained through friends of friends, new research says.
Professor Irena Grugulis, of Durham University, and Dr Dimitrinka Stoyanova, of the University of St Andrews, spent three months observing in an independent film and TV company in the north of England. They interviewed 77 people working in the industry, including producers, directors, camera operators, location managers, researchers, make-up artists and PAs.
Of those interviewed, 64 were middle-class, and 58 of these were engaged in high-quality work, defined by the researchers as feature films and terrestrial or satellite TV productions.
Of the 13 working-class interviewees, six were working on low or medium quality work, defined by the researchers as pop promos, corporate videos or community TV.
Women and people from ethnic minorities were also under-represented. Of the 77 people interviewed, only 29 (38%) were women, though all except two were involved in high quality work. Although people from ethnic minorities were well represented among the 77, with 11 interviewed, four of these were involved in low or medium quality work.
The researchers say that the abolition of the closed shop in the industry and the regulatory requirement that broadcasters use independent firms for much of their output meant that freelancing on short-term contracts has come to dominate the profession.
Without a formal system for assessing skills, the profession turned to word-of-mouth and personal knowledge when hiring staff. “Most jobs were gained through friends and friends of friends,” the researchers say. “Openings were rarely advertised and producers and directors tended to rely on the grapevine.”
Many of the staff inherit contacts in the industry, the researchers say, noting that “a surprising number of informants were married to others in the industry”. In one case the mother of one producer-director “had produced a prestigious BBC series so it was ‘natural progression’ for him to enter the industry through her network.”
“Others obtained work through indirect contacts. One researcher got her first post because her father, a fire safety inspector, knew a fire safety inspector in TV, who in turn knew a sympathetic unit manager. A production manager broke through a cycle of no replies from cold-calling CVs when she realised a distant relative was related in their turn to the managing director of a major independent production company.”
There was also what the researchers call “prejudicial” reasoning against working-class staff. One producer-director interviewed said of a woman who wanted to be a researcher rather than work in production: “She is blonde, very made up and the way she dresses – when I see her, my initial reaction is: ‘production co-ordinator’…it is part of also where she comes from, her background is very present.”
Women could face what the researchers call discrimination with a “social aspect”. One woman producer-director, who had begun as a camera assistant, said: “when I was a camera assistant I used to get quite a lot of, ‘Oh, no, it is a girl!’ – and it was really rare to have a girl as a camera assistant. Electricians or sparks or gaffers and grips will just play practical jokes on you and wind you up. Like builders’ mentality, and they will just do it just to see what your reaction is. It is boring but you have to do it, you have to go through the whole dance and then they will go, ‘Oh, she is alright then’.”
One writer and editor of Asian ethnic origin, who won a national competition for his work, thought that the reason he found getting work difficult “had less to do with my skills and more to do with the colour of my skin.”
The researchers say that social capital – having a strong network of powerful friends in the business – is vital for success.
“It is rare to find areas of the economy where social capital is as significant as it is in film and TV. The inevitable corollary of this was discrimination and exclusion. Significantly, it was the quality of the networks, rather than their strength or size, that secured advantage.”
Working class people, women and those from ethnic minorities formed networks but they weren’t as powerful and were “discriminated against because they were not trusted insiders. They did not have the right accents, hairstyles, clothes or backgrounds to join the best networks.”